No Terms of Endearment: The Story Behind Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine's Hollywood Feud
Thirty-five years after they made a beloved Hollywood classic, the legendary feud between Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine still makes headlines
On Tuesday night, Winger, 63, battled away a question from Bravo host Andy Cohen about her relationship with the 84-year-old MacLaine, who won the Best Actress Oscar for playing her mother in 1983’s Terms of Endearment.
“No! I didn’t write about her. She wrote about me,” Winger corrected Cohen after he said the actress dished about her costar in her 2008 book Undiscovered.
“Let’s try to get something straight. I mean, c’mon,” she said.
Cohen persisted: “There were rumors that you tried to pass gas in her direction, you licked her leg while she was filming a love scene with [Jack] Nicholson. Is any of that true?”
A smiling Winger allowed that there “was something true in there.”
What’s definitely true is that Winger and MacLaine had a fraught relationship while making Terms — one that mirrored the fireworks between their onscreen characters, free-spirited Emma Greenway and her cantankerous mother Aurora.
Both women were nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards but it was MacLaine who took home the statuette, saying, “I deserve this!” during her acceptance speech.
Drama on Set
When MacLaine and Winger met to make the movie based on Larry McMurtry’s sentimental bestseller, they didn’t exactly hit it off. MacLaine was a Hollywood veteran with three Oscar nominations under her belt, while Winger was a fast-rising star after making 1980’s Urban Cowboy.
Other than talent, they had nothing in common.
“Debra Winger? I didn’t know the name,” MacLaine told PEOPLE in a 1984 interview. “I didn’t know who she was.”
When they were first introduced, “we were all nervous,” recalled director-screenwriter James L. Brooks in the same PEOPLE story.
“To see how my character would feel I was wearing all my leftover movie-star fur coats,” MacLaine said. “There was Debra dressed in combat boots and a miniskirt… I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.'”
That set the tone for the pair’s on-set clashes. Winger was rebellious and provocative, while MacLaine was reserved.
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“No one can get a fix on the relationship,” said Brooks. “Not even the participants.”
The result was a bracingly complex mother-daughter bond onscreen, if not a pleasant set.
“We knew what we were doing a lot of the time, sparring back and forth,” Winger said. “It was a very gritty way of working. People at Paramount thought we were crazy.”
MacLaine didn’t appreciate Winger’s method. In her 1995 autobiography, My Lucky Stars, she wrote that her demanding costar yelled at her to “get over here,” when it was time to hit her marks on set.
“‘I heard you,’ I said. ‘I know marks when I see them,'” MacLaine wrote in her book. “‘Good,’ [Winger] said. ‘How’s this for a mark?’ She turned around, walked away from me, lifted her skirt slightly, looked over her shoulder, bent over, and farted in my face.”
“I can’t deny that we fought,” Winger told the New York Times in 1986. “We’re not having lunch together today. We challenged ourselves, and when we got tired of challenging ourselves, we challenged each other. But I think there was always a respect between the two of us.”
A Part of Hollywood Lore
In the decades since, Winger and MacLaine have moved on — but fans such as Cohen have remained fascinated by their behind-the-scenes battling.
Like the epic clashes between greats such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, it’s become movie legend.
“I always thought the movie was great,” Winger told Entertainment Weekly in 2017, adding she didn’t “really care about” the squabbles that powered both women to some of their best work.
Still, she couldn’t deny the feud “made for great ink.”
“I found out so early on that you would say something to one person for one interview and it followed you for the rest of your life,” she said.
When it came to reports about those fights with MacLaine, she took the advice of another legendary Terms costar.
“As Jack Nicholson so richly told me years and years ago,” Winger said. “Don’t deny anything because if you deny one thing the first thing you don’t deny is automatically true.”