As my tastes have changed and morphed over the years, my willingness to try different things has increased. I now relish, particularly in the universe of film, diving into something heretofore unknown (e.g. I dabbled in some Czech new wave films a little while ago and then couldn’t wait until that Eclipse set rested in my hands). But in my younger days I simply avoided a lot of movies. None with more conviction than the dreaded family drama – especially the ones that were “critical darlings” or multiple Oscar nominees.
I’m not sure why, but at the time most of them struck me as dull, unlikely to have much visual splendor and probably designed to wrench undeserved emotion from their viewers. In recent years, two such films have moved into my “I’m kinda curious now…” ruminations: Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms Of Endearment, both of which hogged Oscars in their respective years. They’ve been staring balefully at me over the last 30 years constantly reminding me at any opportunity that they remained unwatched like that hole in my fence remains unpatched (I swear I’ll get to it in the Spring). I mention the Oscars mostly to tie back to my young feelings of “it won awards, so it must be boring”, but far more interestingly because each film won almost the exact same 5 statues: Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay plus two acting wins (Kramer won for Best Actor and Supporting Actress, while Terms flipped that to garner Actress and Supporting Actor).
I’m very much enjoying these random additional parallels that creep up while I’m watching these back to back Blind Spots. Another one occurred to me for these two films: it took only mere moments for me to completely dislike and feel unsympathetic towards both films’ main characters. In Kramer’s case, Meryl Streep’s Joanna leaves her husband and young son knowing full well that neither knows much about the other. Her husband Ted doesn’t escape my scorn though – he’s completely focused on his job and has missed out on raising his son while also ignoring his wife. Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora in Terms Of Endearment took even less time to dislike – within seconds of the opening scene of her checking up on her baby daughter, she came fully formed as a completely self-involved individual who could see no point in recognizing other’s happiness or heartbreak. This proves correct later in the film when she can’t even be happy for her own daughter’s first pregnancy and instead focuses on the fact that she may be seen as a grandmother.
Of course, those aren’t slights at either film. The writers and directors accomplished what they set out to do by saying “Here you go audience – deal with these people!”. And so I did…with differing results. One of the films dragged their character through many different and unpredictable scenarios, but didn’t provide a great deal of growth from start to finish. The other gave us that growth and a good deal more sympathy, but did it in a fairly straight line with little variance from where I expected things would go. That latter one is the story of Ted and Joanna’s separation, divorce and custody hearing mixed with Ted’s struggles to juggle work and new parental duties. It’s not overly surprising to see where the story goes next and how it ends, but it did surprise with a reasonably strong emotional component. Granted, I’m a sucker for father/son stories (especially at this stage of my life – with my own Dad recovering from a helluva year and my son diving into the murkiness of middle school), but as Ted and his boy Billy try to deal with the uncertainty of the custody outcome, it’s easy to get caught up in it too.
Though Dustin Hoffman is very good (and Streep even better as his Ex), the secret weapon here is Justin Henry as Billy. I was worried out of the gate as I thought he would be one of those annoyingly cute, smart aleck style kids that Hollywood just loves to encourage (he just had that look about him), but he ended up being pretty much perfect – in particular, during the highly intense or emotional moments (I swear I thought they were actually stitching up his face during the hospital scene). Not that the Oscars mean a whole lot, but Henry deserves to hang on to the title as youngest person ever to receive an Oscar nomination.
I’m not as convinced that MacLaine deserved her nomination. Not that she’s bad, but I couldn’t help but feel every bit of “acting” that took place – the pause here, the curled smile there, the screaming everywhere, etc. That’s probably more at the feet of James Brooks, though, since he both directed MacLaine and created the character of Aurora – a woman who is constantly at odds with just about everyone. Once her daughter (played as an adult by Debra Winger in a performance that most people love, but that didn’t hold together well for me) marries and leaves home, she becomes Aurora’s daily confidante. It’s an odd relationship that does show some understanding arising between the two of them, but it’s still very much one-sided. Aurora initiates the calls, focuses on her own relationship issues with her astronaut neighbour Garrett (Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson in mostly entertaining ways – though fortunately kept to short bursts) and dismisses Emma’s issues with her husband (a young Jeff Daniels). Even towards the end of the film when Emma is struggling through some difficult circumstances, her Mom can’t help but centre the conversation around herself. Again, that’s a Brooks decision (so I suppose MacLaine did a fine job in creating what he wanted on screen) and could be construed as Aurora’s way of handling the circumstances by avoiding dealing with the emotional issues in front of her. However, a truly selfish and mean-spirited decision by her towards the end (when she doesn’t wake Emma’s husband at a critical junction) shows that she hasn’t grown at all throughout the course of the last 40-odd years. I don’t have to like the character on screen, but I couldn’t even really sympathize with Aurora and saw little reason to cheer on any changes she might go through. And with the exception of a brief hopeful moment at the end and a scene at the airport with Garrett (the one really human moment I got from MacLaine’s performance), she showed very little capacity to change at all.
Which is where the two films vastly differ. Where Terms Of Endearment certainly didn’t play to expectations of character, it didn’t involve me as much in their reasons for their behaviour, so when the story shifted and changed, it didn’t mean as much to me. Kramer vs. Kramer provides the expected transition of characters through the dissolution of a marriage, but I couldn’t help feeling, scene to scene, much more engaged in their lives. It’s not a perfect film for me due to the impression that boxes are being checked along the way – early scrambling to balance work and child, emotional breakthrough with child, collapse of work at the same time as custody battle begins, sacrifices made to accommodate, etc. – but it managed to do it in a fashion that still allowed it to flow. One of its surprises was the friendship that evolved between Ted and Joanna’s friend Margaret (played by Jane Alexander who scored an Oscar nomination as well). It never strayed into awkward possibilities of romance or threatened to be a secret ploy from Joanna to get more information – it was simply a friendship between a man and a woman (and how sad is it that I’m surprised by an occurrence like that in a Hollywood film?). I also appreciated that Joanna did not become the stock shrill ex-wife and was far more sympathetic. The film is obviously from a man’s perspective, but I didn’t feel it tried to specifically take a position. It’s really a simple story of two people coming to the realization that they have to focus on what’s best for their child.
So I suppose my bias towards Kramer vs. Kramer can’t be helped in some ways. I did find it odd in the end that I preferred the film with the more straightforward approach, but I couldn’t help enjoying its overall arc for both story and characters. I’m disappointed that I didn’t appreciate the more female-centric angle of Terms Of Endearment, but its characters (including the male ones) never really garnered much interest from me to care about their own arcs. So I guess the “family drama” genre appears to be like any other – you win some, you lose some.