‘Terms of Endearment’ Is the Perfect ’80s Time Capsule

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, 1983
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Honestly, I’d never even heard of Terms of Endearment before and had no idea what it would be about. Turns out, it’s a great film. The slow-but-moving drama about relationships and parenting in the late 1970s and early ’80s, which follows a mother (Oscar winner Shirley Maclaine) and daughter (Debra Winger) over the span of several decades and won 5 Oscars, has aged very well over the last 40 years. It makes me nostalgic for 1983 and I wasn’t even born yet!

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, 1983.

Everett Collection


So many! The dialogue is great, due in much part to the honesty and openness of its characters. It doesn’t hurt that the film was based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lonesome Dove, which was adapted into a mini-series starring Tommy Lee Jones, and Brokeback Mountain.

Shirley Maclaine’s character, Aurora, an overbearing and anxious widow who criticizes her happy-go-lucky daughter so much she becomes immune to it (a trait I am very familiar with), has the best lines. “He can’t even do the simple things, like fail locally,” Aurora says about her daughter’s new husband, Flap, played by Jeff Daniels, when they have to move to Iowa for his new job. Men are all screwups in this film, but they are also constantly fawning over Aurora and being rejected by her in humorous ways, which adds some levity to the film. “Don’t worship me until I’ve earned it,” she tells Danny DeVito‘s character at the dinner table. (The cast of this movie is also pretty remarkable.)

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Jeff Daniels, Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Danny De Vito, 1983

Courtesy of Everett Collection

Once again, I am in love with 1980s house decor. Aurora has the exact same ceramic wall tiles in her bathroom as I do in my kitchen, and the curtain choices are stellar. Her daughter, Emma (the best character for sure, which is of course why they had to have her get sick), chooses such a great wedding dress that I would definitely want to own in current times. Actually, I’d wear her entire wardrobe. Can the ’80s come back into fashion yet? Or can I get a time machine and just go live there? Seems like a fun time to be an adult. Other than Flap, who is an overworked English professor that seems to spend more time chasing young grad students than working, no one seems to have jobs. Supposedly Jack Nicholson‘s character was at one point an astronaut, but he also spends all his time chasing younger women or getting day drunk and swimming. Everyone is constantly having sex or talking about it. They’re not quite so oblivious as in Jaws, when beachgoers would just leave their kids alone in the sand despite constant warnings of shark attacks but seems like adult supervision was very much lacking prior to the 1990s in America.


TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, 1983

Courtesy of Everett Collection

I’m sorry, but I just do not like Jack Nicholson. He plays the part of a philandering lifelong bachelor/arrogant astronaut well, and he won an Oscar for it too, but what does Aurora see in him? I just cannot relate. Also, the ending made me cry, which is not a con in theory, but just not a great way to start my day!


My only question here is why on earth they thought it was a good idea to make a sequel after killing off one of the two main characters? The Evening Star bombed, unlike the original, which was the second-highest grossing film of 1983, but I almost want to watch it to see what it’s about.

Final Thoughts

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, Shirley MacLaine, 1983

Courtesy of Everett Collection

Landlines sure made it harder to cheat, but it definitely didn’t stop anyone!


Overall, this movie is a great time capsule of 1980s family life and even a commentary on generational shifts in culture, as illustrated by Emma’s fish-out-of-water dinner experience in New York City with a group of divorced and childless working women. A housewife raising three young children, she doesn’t understand them, nor do they understand her, and it makes for a very entertaining scene. Also, everyone seems to be having affairs like it’s totally normal and not a big deal?  Must be an ’80s thing.

I’m mainly surprised this was such a big hit with how sad it got at the end. I’m not sure it would go over as well these days, but I really liked it.

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