Filming a sequel to the beloved 1983 Terms of Endearment was always a risky proposition, but the first major obstacle to land in front of the filmmakers of Paramount’s The Evening Star last year was a biggie. That was when they learned that River Oaks — the tony Houston neighborhood used for exteriors in the original — now had too many restrictions on film crews to make shooting there feasible. That news sent writer-director Robert Harling scrambling to find another Houston residence to use as the home of Aurora Greenway — the lusty, headstrong heroine of Terms and the role that gave Shirley MacLaine her only Best Actress Oscar.
”Our needs were specific,” says Harling. Like the house used in the original, the stand-in had to be two-storied, in close proximity to the street, with an imposing tree on the front lawn, and a driveway right next to its neighbor. Finally, while trolling for homes near Rice University, production designer Bruno Rubeo found a reasonable facsimile, though a brick facade would have to be added to it later. Rubeo introduced himself to the lady of the house, Suzette Walker.
She laughed and he tried once again to explain his intentions.
”The reason I’m laughing,” explained Walker, ”is because you filmed the first one at my mother’s house.”
”There are no accidents,” says MacLaine, 62, who took the coincidence as a much-needed favorable omen after more than two years of development hell, which saw several directors and as many drafts of the screenplay. The omen, however, may not have been entirely positive. Less than four months into production, a producer had departed the project and the cast was stricken with personal afflictions of several sorts. Finally the set was shut down by the flu, which felled a number of actors, including MacLaine and Western star Ben Johnson (an Oscar winner for 1971’s The Last Picture Show), 77, who later died of unrelated heart failure on April 8, one month after the production was complete.
Even now, with great buzz and Oscar talk surrounding the picture, MacLaine wonders whether the biggest gamble of her career will pay off. ”I worry that so many people have seen Terms 10 times,” she says, ”and maybe the receptivity to this family is different now.” Fortunately, she says, ”I seem totally unaware of potential humiliation on any level.”
Troubles aside, MacLaine says it was nothing compared with Terms of Endearment.
While filming the original in Houston, MacLaine was kept on edge by writer-director James L. Brooks; for example, he changed her character from a native Texan to a transplanted New Englander the night before shooting began, forcing MacLaine to redo both her wardrobe and her accent within 12 hours. And MacLaine was bothered a great deal by her costar Debra Winger, who played her dying daughter, Emma. Winger once made her feelings toward MacLaine known by breaking wind in her direction, according to MacLaine’s 1995 Hollywood memoir My Lucky Stars. In turn, MacLaine, when accepting her Oscar, thanked Winger for her ”turbulent brilliance.”