“Irreconcilable Differences, 1984”

“This Civil War ain’t gonna get me down. I’m taking my act to a brand new town. This belle rings in old Atlanta. I’m gonna find myself a brand new Santa!”

Irreconcilable Differences, 1984 (Drew Barrymore), Warner Bros.

At the end of a particularly biting monologue delivered by Drew Barrymore to her befuddled, self-absorbed parents (Ryan O’ Neal, Shelley Long), she tells them they have “irreconcilable differences.” My mother jumps up, points at the screen and shouts, “What a little bitch!” I’m like, “Why?” I don’t think she gave me an answer, except to say Drew should have respect for her parents. In her world, parents were always right. Children were meant to be seen and not heard. Shut up, Drew! I don’t agree, and I am a parent. She has a valid point to make. When a child commits an atrocity; something we read about in the morning papers, my first question is always, “Where were the parents?” This must be the disconnect between the baby-boomer generation and their generation X offspring. They were too busy living second childhoods to care. Drew, essentially, takes her parents to court so that she can emancipate herself or, at the very least, get the Hell away from them.

Generation X-types aren’t completely innocent in the exchange either. They tend to spend way too much time playing video games, brandishing new tattoos, and reading comic books when they should be perfecting basic skills like combing their hair and shaving their neck-beards, but I kid! I didn’t mean for this to become a speech, but I always mean for my tone to be sarcastic. Little Casey Brodsky (Drew) hates her parents, or maybe she tires of their antics. Dad Albert is an up-and-coming filmmaker. His wife, Lucy, assists him to the point of rewriting his scripts (while not receiving credit). It must irk her to see their success attributed only to her husband. After a couple of hits, Albert is the toast of the town. He hires aspiring actress, Blake (Sharon Stone, in an early role) for his next film, and when it becomes obvious to Lucy he has subscribed to the Peter Bogdanovich playbook, she divorces him.

Bogdanovich (for those of you who don’t know) famously courted the beautiful Cybill Shepherd despite being married to production designer Polly Platt. The affair destroyed several relationships and killed Bogdanovich’s career after the failure of his bizarre musical, At Long Last Love. Married (at the time) writing couple, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer parody this opus with Atlanta, a musical version of Gone With The Wind. I was never a fan of Gone With The Wind (I think it’s a terrible movie), but I think I would’ve been interested in seeing Atlanta. This misstep also kills Albert’s career and Blake dumps him. As the meteor of his success collides with Earth, Lucy’s star rises. She writes a tell-all memoir of her time with Albert, hilariously (and subversively) titled, He Said It Was Going To Be Forever, which becomes an enormous hit. There’s a nice bit of visual symmetry with all of Albert’s belongings being shuffled out of his mansion in a U-Haul as Lucy moves her stuff in.

What charms me about the movie is that Albert and Lucy still love each other, and they do love their daughter, even if they don’t know how to show it. They seem to use Casey as ammunition in their feud. Albert suffers what appears to be a heart-attack. Lucy rushes to his side at the hospital. She leaves in a huff after learning it was an anxiety attack. Albert seduces Lucy into a one-night-stand so that he can get the option to direct her memoir, which infuriates her. This is enough material for the court to determine that their housekeeper, Maria, should be given guardian status of Casey. My mother’s instinctive reaction to the material is not an isolated story. Irreconcilable Differences divides audiences along age (and gender) boundaries, and if you examine the film closely, you’ll see that whenever Ryan or Shelley are on the screen together (or even separately), Drew is shunted off to the side, filling the background of the scene.

Meyers and Shyer craft an interesting take on the dissolution of a marriage, drawing on inspiration from old Hollywood fables and the break-up of writers Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein in Ephron’s languid memoir, Heartburn, but told from the point-of-view of a child. As an adult, it is difficult to understand Drew’s predicament. She wants for nothing. She’s obviously given adequate shelter and safety, and we must always remember that children tend to be preoccupied (to a pathological level) with their creature comforts, yet I don’t agree with the “little bitch” assessment. She’s more precocious than anything else. She’s wonderful to watch in the movie, though she has a tendency to mumble and not seem to understand much of what she says, but she was nine years old at the time of shooting, so I can’t fault her. She is, at her core, genuine.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Trading Places

“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro.”

Trading Places, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Paramount Pictures

Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine lives on his wits. He masquerades as a homeless amputee Vietnam vet. He owes money all over town, and he boasts of limousines, “bitches”, and an unsurpassed knowledge of Karate. He proves to be the perfect, unknowing subject of a dual experiment initiated by the evil multi-millionaire Duke Brothers, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche). The Duke Brothers want to know if a man’s success, personal and financial, is largely dependent on his upbringing or the lifestyle he enjoys – in other words, heredity or environment. They (with the help of unscrupulous security specialist Clarence Beeks), destroy top employee, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), his reputation, and his finances, and put him on the street. They give Valentine Winthorpe’s life, his job, and his luxurious Philadelphia townhouse.

Aykroyd is arrested for possession of PCP (planted on him by corrupt cop Frank Oz!), his credit cards are confiscated and his assets repossessed by the bank.  He is taken in by kindly hooker, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), who helps get him back on his feet provided he reimburses her.  Meanwhile, Valentine thrives in his new position at the Duke Brothers’ financial firm.  He becomes the toast of the business world, while Aykroyd has to fend for himself for the first time in his life.  He sells his expensive Roche Vouceau watch to a pawnbroker for $50, buys a gun and, in a drunken stupor, tries to frame Valentine.

For his part, Valentine stumbles onto the Dukes’ “science experiment” and the modest wager (one fucking dollar!) between the brothers.  Lost in all of this is the ultimate outcome.  Valentine proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that a man can succeed in the right climate if he has business acumen.  Winthorpe can survive in an alien environment when he learns the acquired wisdom of compromise.  Putting their heads together, Aykroyd and Murphy concoct a scheme to supply a false crop report to the Dukes, who have retained the continued service of Beeks (an appropriately evil Paul Gleason) for a little bit of their own insider knowledge as they plan to corner the market in frozen orange juice futures.

Director John Landis’ best-reviewed film, from a clever (probably too clever for it’s own good) script by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; some 33 years on, it still hits hard, but with a positive message – the people at the top will never understand the problems of the poor or disenfranchised, but if they care, there might just be a little hope on the horizon.  Note Eddie Murphy’s disposition throughout the movie.  He seems happy-go-lucky, but always suspicious – a character-beat prevalent in the movies of Preston Sturges, the godfather of the screwball comedy.  Dan Aykroyd’s character, once blissfully ignorant, has to live on the charity of decent, kind-hearted people; people he would never acknowledge in his former life as a master of the universe.  He discovers the downtrodden; particularly the exceptional Ophelia, can also have a head for business in addition to navigating their lives with very few resources.

Trading Places was a rare (for the time) literate comedy that became a box-office hit.  By telling the story from both sides of the financial (and cultural) divide, we are privy to the trappings of screwball comedy as viewed from a modern sensibility with fresh eyes.  Landis makes good use of distinctive Philadelphia locales.  The audience develops a working knowledge of how the Stock Market works and what brokers do (which seems more depressing to me than anything else), and how that system can be easily manipulated.  It’s quite frightening actually.  So frightening, in fact, that “The Eddie Murphy Rule” came to pass in 2010 when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission approved a ban of “misappropriated government information to trade in commodity markets.”  Wow.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: A Christmas Story

“Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl.”

A Christmas Story, 1983 (Peter Billingsley), MGM/UA

It used to be that you would unknowingly discover a film, and with such an innocuous title as A Christmas Story, you’d likely flip to the next channel. Very little money was spent on marketing movies already past their prime release dates in theaters. Cable television channels would advertise movies making their broadcast premieres. You might find occasional print advertisements in TV Guide, but more often than not, movies would disappear down a hole, until they were discovered many years later. It would take years to see a movie released to videotape, so word-of-mouth was often all a filmmaker could depend on to get his or her movie seen.

A Christmas Story was not a critical and only a marginal box-office success upon initial release, grossing $19 million against a $3 million budget, but it was purchased by Ted Turner when he acquired MGM/UA’s back-catalog and holdings in 1985. Revisionist film critics now consider it a modern-day classic, and marathon showings of the movie dominate basic cable to this day. Watching the movie non-stop last Christmas, I was struck by how hypnotic the whole enterprise can be. The movie is a string of episodes and those episodes are in constant rotation. It’s like watching the old “yule log” presentations on Channel 11 – it just keeps going … and going … and going. Thanks to digital archivists like Rolando Pujol, that yule log has thankfully returned to channel 11.

So it’s the 8th of September and we’re in the middle of another heatwave here in New York, and I am sweating, but I try to conjure up images of snow and bitter cold and Flick’s tongue frozen to a pole and I’m almost there. I like Christmas. My daughter was born on Christmas Day, and while it may be a drag for her, it’s easy for her mother and me to put together a mega-birthday celebration complete with a tree and some lights, a cake, and a mountain of gifts. We all take a day off from being jerks, mostly because we’ve got a nice big meal and presents waiting for us when we get home. Humanity sucks in general, but for one day out of the year, we don’t suck as much.

Based on a collection of stories and anecdotes by Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story introduces Ralphie (a brilliant Peter Billingsley), a nine-year-old with a simple request.  All he wants is a Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the the stock, and a sundial).  He gets the easy, infuriating brush-off: “you’ll shoot your eye out” over and over from everybody he makes this request to, including a mean-spirited department store Santa Claus.  The “episodes” or anecdotes in the movie include a hideous yet indescribably beautiful lamp shaped like a leg Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) wins in a contest, the hillbilly Bumpus dogs that terrorize McGavin every chance they get, the bullies Farkus (with his maniacal laugh) and Dill (the toadie), the triple-dog-dare, the bunny suit (the pink nightmare), the furnace, the curse word, and the aforementioned adventure with a frozen pole.  In the end, Ralphie gets what he wants.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can still guess what happens.

It’s interesting to me that family movies were not as big in those days as they are today.  I only remember a few of them.  In fact, family movies are all Hollywood has to depend on to put keesters in the seats.  Movies based on toys, video games, and cartoon products are the movies that make the big bucks, because they are made (seemingly) for the whole family.  In 1983, it was a different story.  Most of the money was being made from sex comedies and horror movies.  “Family”-oriented movies were relegated to made-for-television status.  Disney had suffered major financial overhauls due to their creation of a cable television channel, and they were not making many animated features.

Jean Shepherd’s narration is quaint. He sounds like he is describing the peculiar activities and rituals of the human race to aliens from other planets. Of course, the characters (especially those from Ralphie’s family) are quite familiar to us. His dad is well-meaning, somewhat temperamental, and often wrong. His mother (played by adorable Melinda Dillon) is the voice of reason, and a good sport to put up with her husband’s antics. His little brother, Randy, is an idiot and an anorexic in potentia. The bullies are monsters. I never understood why two kids (one of them a half-pint) could scare four moderately-sized kids so much they had to run in opposite directions.

So leave it to Bob Clark, of all people, to craft a sweet and wonderful holiday movie for children and adults to enjoy. He had just finished Porky’s 2: The Next Day and did a complete about-face with A Christmas Story. I’ve always been impressed with directors who try to broaden their horizons by working in multiple genres. In addition to the Porky’s movies, Bob Clark made horror movies (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things), thrillers (Murder By Decree), and social commentary (Turk 182). He also made some stinkers, but his body of work more than made up for it. He died in 2007.

I’ve had several conversations with some very interesting people over the last few weeks with regard to their respective roles in the concept (not the holiday with religious implications) of Christmas.  I came to the conclusion that Santa, that Christmas is for everybody.  It’s mainly for children.  Christmas is a child’s holiday.  It’s about presents and trees, and ornaments, and decorations.  It’s about a delicious meal.  It’s about tipping your hat on a cold night to a stranger.  Christmas is for everyone.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“It is Better to be Feared Than Loved”

[Editor’s note –  Do women have to be beautiful and sweet? Is that required?]

I have heard many theories about how men and women relate to each other. It goes back to grade school. See, if you were a girl, and there was a particular young man who liked you, he would treat you very badly. Basically, it’s the masculine push-pull dynamic, wherein the male of the species behaves as though he finds the female unappealing so that he would never risk the observations and judgements of others that he has feelings, a heart, a soul, and a pair of decent lungs. With girls, I have no clue. When I was a kid, girls never showed interest, or maybe it wasn’t such a biological priority that they cared.

I didn’t intend to go off on a tangent about gender-based behavioral concepts. I was just thinking about how much I hate Amy Schumer, and I think it’s safe to assume I’m not hiding an undeniable attraction to her. I seriously find her repulsive. There’s absolutely nothing about her I would consider attractive in any sense of the word. In fact, I feel I am being punished with her presence on my television, the most recent manifestation being a terrible and disturbing Old Navy commercial making the rounds. You can view that son-of-a-bitch right here. I’ve included some screencaps to “highlight” her brand of antic levity.

The predator marks her prey.

It must be laundry day because our favorite comedienne is in sweats. She runs into her ex-boyfriend at a copy store.  She rushes up to him, hugs him and then smells him. Really, Amy? Ex-boyfriend Luke has gotten over her, taken a beautiful wife, and had two gorgeous children, all dressed impeccably (as Amy notes). They seem like the perfect family. Luke’s comely wife advises Amy to shop at Old Navy (a low-end Monty Ward knock-off that gained prominence in the late ’90s selling inferior-quality clothing at high prices) for all the best prices, yadda-yadda-yadda – why is Amy here? Does she haunt copy stores so she can get into uncomfortable conversations with ex-boyfriends and their wives (or husbands, for that matter – I can imagine a few of them jumping to the other team)?

The predator smells her prey.

As Luke’s fetching wife espouses the virtues of Old Navy’s inexplicable appeal, Amy glares at her with the burning psychotic hatred of a thousand suns. It’s obvious to me this commercial is really about Amy’s maladroit manner, her ease at creepy gazing, and her willful obsession with making other people incredibly uncomfortable. Her bipolar changes of mood (are they bipolar?) are not enough for clueless ex-boyfriend Luke to quietly move his good-looking family away from her. Maybe Luke will think about it later and clutch his wife in tearful, fearful embrace. We’ll never know. This commercial is not about Luke or his family. It’s about Amy. It has to be about Amy. Everything has to be about Amy. or else we’re all fired. Got it? Good. [Editor’s note: Shouldn’t it be about selling Old Navy?]

If I understand the idea put forth by the advertisement, it’s that we’re all beautiful and twisted little monsters (not Lady Gaga fans, but the real thing) who were spurned for much more beautiful, slightly less frightening examples of modern humanity. Our ex-boyfriends (and girlfriends) all found better mates to run their lives, perhaps take them shopping and wear cute scarves and hats, I don’t know. I’m just grasping at straws here, but if it came down to Amy Schumer or my wife, I’d still pick my wife in a cold minute. She can glare psychotically with the best of them (I call it the “Linda Blair”) but she doesn’t make me want to wet myself, or even regret my life choices.

The prey wets his pants.

Unfortunately, we have to discuss the superficialities. Luke is an obvious and easy “10”. Amy? Not so much. She’s a “2” on a bad day and a “3” with makeup and proper dress. There’s nothing beautiful or sweet about her face, her demeanor, or her personality. The sweats make her look fat, which is probably the look she and the producers of this piece were shooting for, though they would never admit it (this is not the kind of person you want selling your clothes). My condensed point? How did Amy ever wind up in the same universe as “dreamy” Luke?  Did she get him really drunk one night? Again, we’ll never know.  I like to subscribe to the Gregory House theory of coupling: tens marry tens, twos marry twos; there might be a little wiggle room if money or kids are involved.

As I also begin to understand it, we’re examining the cutting-edge borders of humor, an undeserved sense of antipathy (and apathy) in modern celebrity, and Amy Schumer’s shtick of mean-spirited, alpha-feminist psychosis. It’s even more disturbing that Schumer and/or her cohorts find these exchanges and doctrine funny. Schumer knows no need to express herself in such an unattractive (and unconvincing) manner. The more she tries to construct herself in the mold of modern feminism, the more she separates herself from the women who truly struggle in this world without the constant need for self-empowerment, bold pronouncement, or the harsh judgmental rhetoric (from their peers) of their personal life choices.

Vintage Cable Box: Scarface, 1983

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“I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”

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Scarface, 1983 (Al Pacino), MCA/Universal

Let’s get the history out of the way first. Between April and October of 1980, 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the United States. Not knowing whether these Cubans represented their nation’s best and brightest, or if they were common criminals discarded by Castro’s regime, our government housed them in prison-like Little Havana communities, while they awaited vetting, processing, and eventual naturalization. Fictitious Tony Montana (electrifying Al Pacino) is one of these detainees. He and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) are given green cards after executing a former high-ranking Cuban politician. Tony lectures his friend about the “American dream”, which boils down to money, power, and respect.

Scarface’s narrative is fairly straight-forward from there. Tony rises to power as a drug kingpin. Unlike his cronies, he possesses a sense of honor. He refuses to bow to notions of mindless revenge. He will not kill innocent people (i.e. women and children). He is fiercely protective of (as well as harboring incestuous desires for) his young sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). When his friend, Angel, is killed in a drug burn, he suspects his employers, sleazy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham) and Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Suarez is killed by cocaine supplier Sosa, and when Tony starts making deals without Lopez’s approval, Lopez tries to kill him. Tony kills Lopez, marries Lopez’s girl, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), and takes over the business.

From there (and with the help of montage), Tony Montana becomes the go-to-guy for cocaine. Growing increasingly paranoid from his own cocaine usage, he builds a custom state-of-the-art counter-surveillance system, and his mansion is built like a fortress. He alienates his friend, Manny, and berates his wife for her own burgeoning cocaine addiction. Don’t get high on your own supply, Elvira. When Tony is threatened with jail time for money laundering and tax evasion, Sosa steps in to offer him a solution, if only he will have an influential journalist killed. Tony refuses when he sees he is required to kill the man’s wife and children. Sosa retaliates, sending hit squads to his mansion.

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Scarface was unfairly marginalized during it’s initial release. Critics believed the film to be a glorification of excessive violence, while advocacy groups protested the film’s depiction of Cubans (prompting a hastily-added disclaimer at the end of the picture). The MPAA certified Scarface for an X rating three times before cuts were made to the infamous chainsaw scene, although to hear director Brian De Palma tell the story, he made very few edits to the scene, which was played and photographed more for tone than explicit violence. Over the years, Scarface has attained an enormous cult following. Pacino’s Montana character struck a chord with disenfranchised hispanic and black youth, as well as becoming a huge influence on most crime-drama films being made today.

Coming out at a time when it did, Scarface was not quite a transitional piece for De Palma. A year later, he would make Body Double, still absorbed in “Hitchcockian” motifs and themes while retaining his talent for individuality as a filmmaker. His “Hitchcockian” period had started in 1973 with Sisters, as well as directing occasional studio projects such as Carrie and The Fury. Watching Scarface, one can sense the bending (if not breaking) of the chains of style. De Palma utilizes shots and cinematography evoking Hitchcock (the use of cranes and back projection), bold primary colors and fascinating fashion choices meant to make his characters stand out in eloquent composition. Watching the movie (for the umpteenth time) with my wife, I was instantly reminded of scenes from Frenzy and Torn Curtain.

Scarface originally premiered on The Movie Channel in 1984 as part of a Brian De Palma retrospective, which included Carrie, Home Movies (a personal favorite), Get To Know Your Rabbit, Phantom of the Paradise, and Dressed to Kill. A few of these films will pop up in Vintage Cable Box. In addition, The Movie Channel ran the original 1932 Scarface with Paul Muni for comparison.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Terms of Endearment, 1983

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“I don’t know what it is about you, but … you do bring out the devil in me.”

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Terms of Endearment, 1983 (Shirley MacLaine), Paramount Pictures

Aurora is constantly worried about her baby, Emma. When Emma doesn’t cry (in the pre-credit sequence), Aurora charges in and starts shaking her. Emma starts crying. Relieved, Aurora mutters, “that’s better” and then leaves the room. As long as Emma is crying, Aurora will know she is okay. Years after my daughter was born, I would go in and check on her. Okay, so I still do it. I just like to know that she’s breathing. That’s what parents do. We worry constantly, and if there’s only one element of Terms of Endearment that remains beautifully true, it is Shirley MacLaine’s awe-inspiring performance as Aurora Greenway. MacLaine is truly a mother in this movie. She is a mother in real life. In fact, it was her relationship with her own daughter that inspired friend William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist.

The movie starts with the death of Aurora’s husband and her newfound single status, raising Emma to young adulthood.  Emma grows up to inhabit her mother’s values even if she has less-than-stunning taste in men.  She marries ne’er–do–well teacher Flap Horton (an infuriating Jeff Daniels), who knocks her up with three kids (while her best friend lives a happy and fulfilling life in the big city), keeping her trapped in a marriage she realizes is running on fumes at this point.  They have no money, and Aurora has to loan them money to survive, even though he has a full professor’s position at an Iowa college.  Aurora’s dislike for Flap extends to her not even attending Emma’s wedding, and then she completely flips out at the dinner table when Emma tells her she’s pregnant.  She protests that she’s not ready to be a grandmother, and to prove it, she courts next-door neighbor, astronaut and womanizer Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).

While Aurora is trying to enjoy her life, she suffers in silence at her presumed betrayal of her husband, and Garrett bristles at the emotional responsibility of maintaining a monogamous relationship.  Emma conducts her own affair with a timid banker (John Lithgow) when she discovers Flap has been letting it flap around a little too much.  It seems he really enjoys his students, and not in that good, educational, inspiring way.  Asshole!  Eveything Emma has done for him!  Every compromise!  Every child!  This is what she gets?  On top of this, she gets fucking cancer!  I know, right?  This is fucked up!  What was supposed to be a routine flu shot turns into fucking cancer because the doctor notices some suspicious lumps.  He orders a biopsy, and that’s it – she’s got fucking cancer.  I remember this whole bit making me incredibly angry and sad watching it for the first time on cable television.  I knew I was in for an emotional rollercoaster ride, but I didn’t know we would jump the tracks and wind up in a ditch.

Emma puts all her ducks in a row.  She travels to New York City with her best friend, Patti, lives it up, meets new people.  She tries to bond with her children, sweet Teddy and incorrigible bastard Tommy.  She tries to make peace with Flap, but I think (in Emma’s defense) she always knew that Flap was a hopeless idiot.  A devoted (if not faithful) husband and father he may be, Aurora correctly sums him up as being careless and inconsiderate.  He agrees with her assessment, but he also holds her to task for never welcoming him into the family.  Emma returns home to die.  She spends her last days in the hospital.  One particular scene that always causes me to lose it is Aurora pleading, begging, and ultimately shouting at a nurse to give her daughter a shot for her pain (which she almost seems to preternaturally feel).  It is chilling and heartbreaking.  When Emma finally dies, Aurora is devastated and she clutches at Flap, almost unable to surrender to an embrace with a man she detests, but she has no choice now, as Flap is and always will be family.  That’s what we learn from Terms of Endearment.  We may hate them, and they may irritate the Hell out of us, but they are family.

This is such a damned good piece of filmmaking; pandering and manipulative, but also hysterically funny, with performances so good I almost forget the actors and actresses involved.  While I have stated this is MacLaine’s absolute showcase (for which she won a well-deserved Academy Award), ancillary performances from Debra Winger (as Emma), Daniels, Nicholson, Lithgow, and Danny DeVito (as one of Aurora’s early prospective suitors) are top-notch.  Nicholson is interesting to watch in this film.  As part of The Movie Channel’s premiere of this movie in 1984, there was also a Jack Nicholson retrospective which included Easy Rider, Carnal Knowledge, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Chinatown.  Terms of Endearment is the odd-movie-out for him; a sentimental, sometimes cloying family melodrama with colorful bursts of humor, Nicholson seems out of place.  Emma’s funeral scene at the end perfectly illustrates this point as he hangs back while the immediate family mourns, uncomfortably rocking back and forth with his hands in his pockets.

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James L. Brooks directs the movie with an incredibly sure hand, a love for offbeat humor and romance, but with such sophistication, it’s easy to forget he got his start in 60s and 70s sitcoms, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, and Room 222.  He would follow up Terms of Endearment with Broadcast News, and Nicholson’s own showcase, As Good As It Gets.  Terms of Endearment would inadvertently kick-start a subgenre of movies in ’80s and ’90s known as the “chick-flick”.  Movies such as Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, and Fried Green Tomatoes were directly influenced by this movie.  Usually the formula goes that you have a clutch of female friends, who like to dance and share secrets about love and romance, and then one of them dies of fucking cancer.  Terms of Endearment is a movie like The Big Chill, wherein I have a difficult time understanding the character’s motivation primarily because of a perceived age or generation gap, but Terms of Endearment is still a stunning example of modern melodrama.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.