Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment

Friday, January 27, 2006

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

David Denby

“The two stars turn in major performances … Shirley Maclaine … gives us one of the wittiest and most psyhologically acute portraits of the ego-stiffening process of middle age that we've ever seen in American movies…. Whatever the issue, Aurora thinks that she is simply right, and she's amazed that the rest of the world can't see it….

“Emma is completely different, not just because she is young but because she's grown up rebelling against her mother's evasions and gentilities. Aurora doesn't know that she has an unconscious; idly vicious remarks drop out of her mouth almost by accident. Emma, on the other hand, has such easy access to her instincts, desires, and fears that her reactions to everything seem utterly true.

“Actors who hit emotions dead center are generally less interesting than the performers who come at things from the side, or with a touch of irony. But Debra Winger makes sincerity mesmerizing. She drives right down the middle of whatever her characters are feeling, and she's so fluid, so electric--laughter, tears, rage rising to the surface without any apparent effort--that we stop noticing that she is acting at all. In Terms of Endearment, she's playing a woman who is daughter, mother, wife, as well as lover, and so she's lost some of that sweaty erotic ravenousness that was so exciting in Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman. She's still sexy, with a heat behind the eyes that makes one's blood jump, but this time she's more rounded emotionally, and she's got other things on her mind. Her Emma has a way of registering her own amusement at what's going on with a roll of her eyes or a lip curled merrily, while giving all the rest of herself to the person she's talking to. She's complete, and we feel very close to her.”

David Denby
New York, December 3, 1983

David Ansen

“…. The last stretch of the story is extraordinarily moving and astonishingly adroit at avoiding the merely mawkish. The movie never loses its wit, but continues to reach deeper into its surprising, all-too-human characters….

“…. [I]t's never locked in the grip of a thesis. Its characters--happily--don't represent a Social Problem, only themselves.

“Brooks could not have pulled it off without his remarkable cast….

“Winger's role may be less flashy [than MacLaine's]--Emma's a more earthbound, less glamorous figure--but she's the mortar that holds all the parts together. Once again, Winger reaffirms her uncanny capacity for total immersion in a part. There's something fearlessly direct about her acting; she seems to put up no barriers between herself and the camera. There's great control in her work, but you never see it: she's just Emma, not a sophisticated woman but a smart, instinctive one, the kind of woman whose power comes from being infallibly in touch with her feelings.”

David Ansen
Newsweek, date?
[need to review his piece on Winger]

Andrew Sarris

In 2002, Andrew Sarris published a revision of his initial opinion of Debra Winger; although the revision was evident as early as his review of Betrayed in 1988. These revisions appear below, after his initial review of Terms.

“…. A whole movie could take off from just one of the exquisitely loving glances exchanged between [Jennifer] Josey [as young Emma] and MacLaine as mother and daughter.

“Unfortunately, Jennifer Josey grows up to become Debra Winger, and that is when I begin having big trouble with the movie. Debra Winger's Emma Horton makes her entrance, sprawled on the front lawn, her skirt provocatively askew so as to give a free show to the grinning moving men, unloading the terrestrial belongings of an ex-astronaut aptly named Garrett Breedlove (and played with consummate brilliance by Jack Nicholson).

“As far as I am concerned, Debra Winger's most entrancing movie moment came atop the mechanical bull she straddled with an insinuating ease in Urban Cowboy. In her scenes with other human beings, however, she has always emitted the static of an incongruously unresponsive intensity, which is to say that she acts at other people rather than with them. The built-in wrangle to her personality makes her scenes of disagreement even more disagreeable than they should be….

“There is real talent at work in Terms of Endearment, notably that of Nicholson, Lithgow, and Bishop, even more than that of MacLaine and Winger. Yet it is curious that in this year of unueually activist heroines on the screen, most spectacularly Meryl Streep (in Silkwood, whom I would vote for right now as best actress, Bonnie Bedelia in Heart Like a Wheel, Joanna Cassidy in Under Fire, and even Barbra Streisand in Yentl, there should be a concerted effort to stampede everyone to Shirley MacLaine and possibly Debra Winger in two roles in which emoting is the only activity. When you think about it, Streep's Sophie last year was more acceptable in this context of anti-feminist backlash than her Silkwood this year. To win an Oscar, actresses must be suffering and submissive creatures with excessively messy lives. This is both the message and the mechanism of Terms of Endearment as the most widely admired tearjerker of the year. Its expertise makes it nonetheless the cabbage patch doll of Christmas movies.”

Andrew Sarris
Village Voice, December 13, 1983

“One does not have to "buy" the message of Betrayed to be stirred by some of the conflicting emotions it arouses, and most of these can be attributed to the devastating performance of Debra Winger … Throughout her career, Winger has combined a volcanic sexuality … with a nurturing warmth that has made millions of people cry over such otherwise manipulative entertainments as An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment….”

Village Voice, date? 1988, review of Betrayed

“….How in tarnation could I have missed her blazing eyes and uninhibited sexuality in Urban Cowboy (1980), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Terms of Endearment (1982), and Black Widow (1987)?….”

New York Observer, March 4, 2002
(review of Big, Bad Love)

Hal Hinson

“Other actors combine a sense of emotional depth and realism with the charismatic appeal of a star. Debra Winger must be the most expressive romantic actress in American movies since Garbo. [Is this last comment appropriate for Terms, or just for Officer?] Winger creates her characters on the screen out of pure, raw emotion. Her style is simple and unaffected; there are no actorish flourishes. Winger opens herself up competely to the camera, and there's an uncanny vibrancy and conviction in her work. Her style is naturalistic, but not in the usual sense. She doesn't make herself over in each new film; the women she's played in ehr films so far are different only in small, subtle ways, in little details. But each character seems uniquely real simply because she comes to life so completely within the world of the film. In An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment, Winger's performances are so passionate and believable that, in each case, we almost forget the movie-fed artificiality of the films themselves. Her characterizations are the key element in both films; she gives them heart….

“Winger's style fits into an older Hollywood tradition of popular screen acting. She's accessible in a way that makes an audience feel they know her, the way earlier audiences grew to know Jimmy Stewart or Carole Lombard over the course of their careers. [This isn't necessarily what I enjoy about film acting.] Winger's rapport with her audience is more dirct and personal than that of actors like Streep and Hurt who make contact only through their characters. [Making contact through characters can make a more powerful film experience than constantly being reminded of the actor's "personality," in much the same way some critics don't like to be reminded of Streep's technique while watching her.] Winger makes us recognize ourselves in her. Her approach takes into account an audience's need for emotional satisfaction from a popular Hollywood movie, and the larger-than-life heroines that popular movies can accommodate. She transforms romantic tinsel into flesh and blood. [Again, appropriate for Terms?]

“Winger probably doesn't have the range or technical facility to work on the stage, and she may not be any better in her future films than she has been already. But she's so good, so alive on screen that she lifts star acting to a level far beyond the reach of mere technique. Winger communicates sexual longing to an audience more vividly than any other modern actress.”

Hal Hinson
“The Naked and the Bred",
Boston Phoenix, October 2, 1984

Molly Haskell

“…. [S]o uncertain is first-time Brooks' directorial hand that when the good parts do come, you're more likely to give credit to the subject (cancer: surefire) and the acting than to the director….

“The mother-daughter knot: the most complicated, most ambivalent, and most fascinating relationship of all, and the one least often treated in the movies. How sad that what should have been the heart and soul of the film affects us so little. Debra Winger, the poor man's successor to those unforgettable throaty-voiced smiling-through-their-tears heroines of Margaret Sullavan and Dorothy McGuire, plays another voraciously needy and unfocused character. Her Emma is meant, I think, to suggest the classic dilemma of the homely, scraggly daughter who is (or feels herself to be) a constant disappointment to the socially ambitious mother. But the one thing Shirley MacLaine never suggests, in her wildly careening performance, is refinement…. Aurora comes closer to the archetypally tacky Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas.

“And what alternative does Winger represent? She's vaguely presented as the "good mother," as opposed to MacLaine and--in the film's worst scene--to a gaggle of New York career women. But is she good by choice ore default? Her wants are as mysterious as Aurora's.

“Would Brooks have been more at ease with a father-son relationship? Probably, but I suspect the habits of working in the television series format are more to blame. He is used to operating with a narrow set of givens, social types rather than fully developed characters, in established settings and situations. A great deal of artistry and energy has been expended on makeup, period, dress, and decor, but we never know quite where we are. The characters inhabit a vacuum, enacting a series of confrontations without a social context. Most of the power of the mother-daughter scenes comes from emotions we supply from similar chapters in our own lives….

“The most memorable performance of all is almost wordless: that of Troy Bishop as Winger's oldest child…. Ironically, it is these subordinate performances that capture the resonance of McMurtry's creations, extending beyond the movie frame into past and future, and making Terms of Endearment mandatory viewing.”

Molly Haskell
Vogue, January 1984

Stanley Kauffmann

“Nicholson is not at the precise center of the story: MacLaine is. So is her daughter, acted in true terms of endearment by Debra Winger, who is witty, shrewd, warm….

“…. [may have left out too much] It's the characters themselves, rather than the author, who seem to be avoiding banality. They seem conscious of the fact that most real-life dialogue in most real-life situations has been chewed over and over in print and on screen so often that it's difficult for an intelligent person to speak without hearing echoes of performance. In love or in hate, these people don't want to sound corny.”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, Dec. 26, 1983

David Thomson

“I met Debra Winger in the early eighties, to write a profile for California magazine. She had so much going for her then: she was articulate, unruly, raucous, funny, but very smart; she had something of the young Stanwyck; and she was young enough for her evident insecurities to seem natural--she was not yet thirty…. [I]n Urban Cowboy… she had stolen a big picture with her bravura tough prettiness, her through-and-through snappines, and one sequence on a mechanical bull. In An Officer and a Gentleman…, she had seemed hot, urgent, and gritty… Just ahead lay Terms of Endearment… in which her portrait of a young woman dying of cancer was free from sentimentality or easy pathos… [S]he seemed capable of a large career.”

David Thomson
A Biographical Dictionary of Film
Third Edition (1994), p.

[In review of Peggy Sue Got Married, Thomson called Winger “the best young film actress around”, California Magazine, November 1986.]

Pauline Kael

“…. It's exactly the kind of bogus picture that will have people saying, "I saw myself in those characters." Of course they'll see themselves in Terms of Endearment. James L. Brooks … guides the actors with both eyes on the audience….

“All this retro-forties virtue piled on the cartoon underpinnings of TV comedy might seem utterly nuts if it weren't for Debra Winger. The movie is a Freudian story of role reversals between mother and daughter, told in a slaphappy style…. I didn't feel much love or any other connection between MacLaine's brittle Aurora and Winger's fluid Emma. They don't have the uncanny similarities--the vocal tricks, the syntax, the fleeting expressions--of real mothers and daughters. I'm not sure what Brooks meant to show us, but what comes across is Aurora as a parody of an anti-life monster and Emma as a natural woman--a life force. The two actresses might be playing in two different movies. Debra Winger--as she did in Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman--gives you the feeling that she's completely realized on the screen. There's a capacity for delight that is always near the surface of her characters (and she never loses track of what turns them on). The adolescent Emma (in braces) has a husky, raucous voice and a lowdown snorting laugh; this is not a standard ingénue. Winger heats up her traditional-woman role and makes it modern by her abandon. She floods the character. When Emma's two little sons give her a bad time and she fights with them, she's direct and all-out; she's totally invoved in this power struggle with her kids, and they know it…. Emma thrives on the semi-controlled chaos of family life; she accepts messes--life is messes. All this is in Debra Winger's performance; she's incredibly vivid, and she has fresh details in her scenes--details like spotting a zit on her husband's shoulder while she's lying in bed next to him, talking to her mother on the phone. But Emma has been made too heartbreakingly wonderful. She's an earth mother, of course, with some sort of supernal understanding of Aurora, and when she has her third child she gives birth to her mother--her little girl is a tiny ringer for Aurora. The way that Emma is presented she's a glorified ordinary woman--a slob angel.

“…. [M]ost of the time Brooks' TV-trained intuitions are more than adequate to what he's doing here--extending half-hour gag comedy to feature length by the use of superlative actors who can entertain us even when the material is arch and hopped-up….”

Pauline Kael
The New Yorker, Dec. 12, 1983
State of the Art, pp 93-96

Stephen Schiff

“The acting is full of delicacy and gusto--rather too much gusto on the part of MacLaine . . . Even so, this is the finest performance she has given since the 60's . . . And Debra Winger, with her great goose honk of a voice, gives a lithe, sweet-spirited comic performance--but as what? Her character never coalesces because something vital is missing from the storytelling….”

Stephen Schiff
Vanity Fair, ?