Michael Koresky’s Films of Endearment

The Daily — May 17, 2021
Huckleberry Fox and Debra Winger in James L. Brooks’s Terms of Endearment (1983)

Tomorrow evening, Mark Harris (Mike Nichols: A Life) will talk with Michael Koresky about his new book, Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us, at a virtual launch hosted by Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore. As Sheila O’Malley points out at RogerEbert.com, where we also find an excerpt from Films of Endearment, Koresky’s second book, a follow-up to his 2014 critical study Terence Davies, is a unique blend of memoir and biography, critical analysis and film history.

Over the course of ten chapters, Koresky and his mother, Leslie, rewatch one film from each year of the 1980s that she introduced him to when he was growing up in their home in Chelmsford, a Massachusetts town about twenty-four miles northwest of Boston. “What emerges from this deftly nested assemblage of anecdotes, observations, confessions, and tender inside jokes is a warmth that anyone who’s ever really, truly shared a movie with someone they love will recognize and bathe in gratefully,” writes Adam Nayman in the Film Comment Letter. “Films of Endearment understands that as much as cinema is theorized as our escape hatch from reality, sometimes it feels like coming home.”

For Richard Scott Larson at Slant, the book makes “clear that during Koresky’s childhood as a closeted queer boy growing up in a small town, the cinema functioned as a bridge between mother and son, a ‘private language’ that constituted a shared world when so much had to be left unsaid.” The movies Koresky chooses to revisit with his mother include Colin Higgins’s office comedy 9 to 5 (1980), with Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin; Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple (1985), with Whoopi Goldberg; and James Cameron’s sci-fi action sequel Aliens (1986), with Sigourney Weaver. “When considering the 1980s, many would likely conjure pictures of John Hughes teen comedies or perhaps the muscular actioners that became so central to this most testosterone-fueled era of moviemaking,” writes Koresky in the introduction to Films of Endearment.

But besides Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis, stars such as Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sally Field were also selling tickets. “The names go on to include stars who built upon the inroads they had made in the 1970s to remain top-billed actors throughout the 1980s, like Diane Keaton, Jodie Foster, and Susan Sarandon,” adds Koresky. “Most of them were in their thirties and forties without being forced to succumb to matronly, desexualized roles, choosing parts that were full, rich, complex, and frequently politically engaged.”

Writing for WBUR, Sean Burns notes that in 1983, James L. Brooks’s Terms of Endearment with Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine fared better at the box office than either of that year’s James Bond movies, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again, and better than Clint Eastwood’s fourth outing as Dirty Harry in Sudden Impact. “Within critical circles,” writes Burns, the 1980s are “often dismissed as a lull between the 1970s New Hollywood renaissance and the indie revolution of the ’90s, but Koresky’s book suggests the time might be ripe for a reevaluation, particularly with regard to those bountiful ‘women’s pictures.’”

In an excerpt from Films of Endearment at Slate, Koresky notes that of the more than ninety films to win an Oscar for best picture, Terms is “one of the very, very few that one could ever call a ‘women’s picture,’ and the only one in the history of the awards that centers almost exclusively on the relationship between a mother and a daughter—stories of dads, sons, and godfathers are more the speed of traditionally masculinist Hollywood cinema.” Leslie seems almost reluctant to revisit Terms, which she remembers as “a challenge, even radical in what she perceived as a betrayal of the audience’s trust.” For the first ninety minutes or so, Terms is genuinely funny, but then a cancer diagnosis hits like a punch to the gut. In its own “very par­ticular, American way,” writes Koresky, “in how it swings for the fences as both broad comedy and intense tear-jerker, nothing else before it comes close.”

Koresky has more to say about Terms in his conversation with Molly Haskell and Nicolas Rapold on Rapold’s podcast, The Last Thing I Saw, where they also discuss Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981). Here in the Current, Durga Chew-Bose gets Koresky talking about Sissy Spacek, Jane Fonda, Sally Field, and Cher. And Jordan Cronk has Koresky looking back on his years working in the editorial departments at Film Comment and Criterion, the evolution of Reverse Shot from a paper zine to a vital online publication, and his current position as editorial director of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

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