By People Staff
December 05, 1983 12:00 PM

The year so far has produced films more ambitious (The Right Stuff), more profound (Fanny and Alexander) and more stylish (Zelig), but no ’83 film has better charted the course of the human heart than Terms of Endearment. Based on the 1975 novel by Texas writer Larry McMurtry, it traces the relationship of mother and daughter from the daughter’s birth to her bout with cancer as a 30-year-old mother of two. Give up the idea right now, though, that this is a mawkish weepie out of the Love Story mold. Terms earns the laughter and sobs it provokes, thanks to career-crowning performances from Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger as the mother and daughter. Academy members will simply have to play Solomon and find a way to divide the Best Actress Oscar in two. MacLaine eschews any hint of vanity or showbiz gloss as the fading Texas widow whose love for her daughter is not enough to reconcile their differences. The parent-child relationship has rarely been as wittily examined. Nothing Winger has done previously, including Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman, prepares us for the virtuoso work she exhibits here; she is stunning. The screenplay by James Brooks, the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show and Taxi, is one of the year’s best and, in his directorial debut, Brooks proves himself a master with actors. Jack Nicholson is devilishly funny as MacLaine’s next-door neighbor, a former astronaut she tries to distract from the jailbait nymphets he keeps chasing. Among the excellent supporting cast, Jeff Daniels, from Broadway’s Fifth of July, is first-rate as Winger’s unfaithful teacher husband, and John Lithgow is wonderfully touching as a shy bank officer Winger takes up with in retaliation. But it’s MacLaine and Winger, forging a truce from a lifetime of hostilities, whose performances burn in the memory. Their final exchange of looks—no dialogue—packs an emotional resonance that is shattering. Many movies are called unforgettable. Terms of Endearment is literally that. (R)