A 1983 movie that chronicles the often stormy relationship between an emotionally stunted mother Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her passionate daughter Emma (Debra Winger) over the span of several decades. Though often sentimental, the film is also powerful and well-acted and garnered a slew of Academy Award nominations. The story is conventional but rendered more interesting by being presented in a series of vignettes which often hint at emotions and events without presenting them explicitly - except at the end, which is mawkish. Don't say I didn't warn you.
The story begins when Emma is just a girl, returning with Aurora from her father's funeral. The maid Rosie grabs Emma and weeps, but Aurora just admonishes her to get in the house. This scene cuts, briefly, to black, then we are back with teenage Emma sprawled on the front lawn, hoping for a glimpse of the famous astronaut who is moving in next door, while her mother is occupied bitching at one of the worshipping men she has begun to collect - they gaze at her adoringly from afar, but are lucky to be permitted to brush her cheek with their lips.
MacLaine's feminine southern belle ruffled dresses are belied by her pursed lips and stern demeanour, while Winger's luminous eyes and delicate features contrast wonderfully with her barking laugh and purposeful masculine stride; both received best actress nominations for their performances in this movie.
The next scene finds Emma and her best friend sharing a cigarette in Emma's bedroom on the night before she marries Flap (Jeff Daniels), a struggling graduate student who Aurora believes will amount to nothing. Naturally Aurora insists on telling Emma - once again, and on her wedding night - that she's making a terrible mistake marrying Flap, and gilds the lily by attempting, awkwardly, to tell her about the birds and the bees, causing Emma to run away, laughing hysterically.
Flap and Emma have a good-enough marriage: they are blessed, eventually, with three children, but struggle to make ends meet on his meagre teacher's salary. They do fight: Flap pressures her to ask Aurora for money, which she refuses to do - for her mother has lots, but hates to part with it; when she finally does ask, Aurora hesitates so maddeningly long that Emma slams down the phone in disgust. Then too there are intimations of infidelity: one day Flap shows up in the morning claiming to have fallen asleep on the sofa in the library (again!); another day Emma confronts him with her suspicions, which he denies by claimign that she always gets this way at this point of the pregnancy.
Eventually she takes a lover, a banker (played with charming earnestness by John Lithgow, who got a best supporting actor nomination for this) whose wife has back problems and refuses to have sex. Finally Emma catches Flap flirting with one of his graduate students, and drives home with her three kids to her mother's house.
Aurora, meanwhile, has become involved with the astronaut, played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson too got a best supporting actor nomination for this role, though it seems a familiar enough role for him: a charming rogue with an eye for young women and a fear of commitment. Still, he provides levity in this otherwise intense drama. He seems almost as surprised as we are that he's drawn to his stuffy lonely neighbour, but he gamely woos and wins her, only to run away, as we all knew he would, when he begins to feel tied down.
Before Aurora had taken off with the kids Flap had told her that he wanted to take a new job in a new state. She hadn't wanted to move, but in her absence he takes the job, so she returns, resentful but resigned, and they move. But then Emma spots the same graduate student in this new university, confronts her, and finds all her suspicions confirmed: Flap is having an affair with this woman. He loves someone else.
And then everything gets turned on its head.
Getting a flu shot, her doctor discovers lumps under her arm and wants to do a biopsy very soon: the urgency presages disaster, and disaster it is: cancer. The rest of the movie is taken up with everyone trying to cope with what, it soon becomes clear, is a terminal disease. Aurora dedicates her life to her daughter, spending every minute with her, with only a brief interlude where the astronaut shows up to tell her he misses her. Emma starts off filled with hope - "I could get better; people do!" - but, when she realizes that she's not getting better, strives to tie up the loose ends of her life. That involves working out with Flap what will happen to the children, and seeing the two eldest one last time. Her youngest son weeps hopelessly, while oldest feigns indifference; she calls him on it, warning him that after she is gone he will remember all the loving things she did and be sorry he didn't tell her that he loved her when he had the chance. Finally the movie ends, as it began, in the aftermath of a funeral.
Pretty maudlin stuff, but affecting for all that, especially for those who, like me, lost a mother to cancer. Especially for those who, like me, were stiff with resentment when she was still around, and regretful, later, that we didn't tell her to her face how much we loved her. I've always been a bit devastated by stories with dying mothers, and this one is no exception.
Jeff L. Brooks won Oscars for direction, best picture, and best screenplay for his adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel, while Shirley MacLaine walked off with a golden boy for best actress in a leading role.