Perhaps you remember the wonderful Larry McMurtry novel. Perhaps you saw the incredible and incredibly heartbreaking motion picture, which won a slew of Academy Awards. Directed by James L. Brooks, and starring Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson and Debra Winger, this is one of those rare moments in the popular arts where we find a solid example of what it means to be part of a family. What it means when loss steps in to wrench us away from the ones we love.
In many ways, the story is one we all know. It combines elements of the vanishing west (or what we think of as the west), suburban ennui and the continuing search to find love in a seemingly loveless world. Much of the sledgehammer-like impact of the narrative is due, in no small part, to Mr. McMurtry. He has been writing about the west for years and perhaps knows better than anyone the price we pay for its many blessings.
What makes the story so compelling is, of course, the relationship between the mother (Shirley MacLaine) and the daughter (Debra Winger). As one might suspect, both feel they know best, and as it turns out, they both do, but not in the ways you might imagine. The Winger character is young and impetuous, longing for love. Her longings are fulfilled, but not really as she had hoped. MacLaine presents a more complex character. She has experienced love, knows its costs and comforts and still strives for an interplay of control and affection.
Where we run aground, at least momentarily, in this marvelous story is with the astronaut. Nicholson’s character at first appears to be composed entirely of unrestrained libido. As we progress with this testosterone-infused bravado, we come to see that he has a difficult, if not impossible time expressing emotions not related to coitus. Of course, this is where Ms. MacLaine comes to the rescue in a big way. Each has something the other has not experienced and would like to test drive, or has experienced and would rather use a long wooden stave to keep under control or out of the way. Of course, emotions don’t work that way. In the end, Aurora Greenway and the astronaut do find common ground. If you can survive the digging, you’ve got yourself quite a bountiful harvest!