Despite a 35-year heads-up that “Terms of Endearment” is a masterful tearjerker, a starry charity reading of the Oscar-winning screenplay ended in sobs on Monday in Los Angeles.
Actors Calista Flockhart, Constance Wu, Kumail Nanjiani, Alfred Molina, Melissa Benoist, and “Grey’s Anatomy” star Kate Burton all shed tears while performing the script — some in the context of their scenes, but mostly in observing their co-stars perform the 1983 James L. Brooks drama (which originally starred Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, and Jack Nicholson).
“I was so embarrassed, I tried to hold it in so much. I was ducking down in my chair,” Wu told Variety, crediting the “story and writing of this caliber, it’s almost impossible not to. The words do that to you.”
The reading benefited the Hollywood-backed Stand Up 2 Cancer Foundation, as well as the event’s host venue the Geffen Playhouse Theater in L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood. It was produced by TV mogul Greg Berlanti’s eponymous company and writer-producer Jessica Queller, and generated over $100,000 for cancer research from ticket sales.
The idea for the evening was sparked by “Supergirl” stars Benoist and Chris Wood, an off-set couple who told Berlanti they often spend their weekends reading plays to one another. Berlanti got them to agree to stage it, and recruit their “Supergirl” co-star Flockhart to join for a good cause.
“It was pretty much unanimously going to be ‘Terms of Endearment,’ because we wanted something with great roles for the three of them. Unfortunately there’s not a great litany of movies in the last 40 years with these kind of female roles, and that’s why we want more of them. We knew they’d be electric in this,” he said.
Queller pointed out how the property was “resonant for a cancer charity,” given that the film follows a mother and daughter with conflicting generational ideals loving and fighting each other in a suburb of Houston. One of them succumbs to terminal illness and their family circle absorbs the shock.
Benoist took Winger’s role of the daughter, Emma, and Flockhart played MacLaine’s role of lovable narcissist matriarch Aurora. On stage at the Geffen, as the two women read the final few scenes set in an intensive care hospital ward, none on-stage or in the house could hold it together. Nanjiani (who took a role originated by John Lithgow) and Molina (in Nicholson’s part) dotted tears away as the scene raged on.
Wu played Emma’s debutante best friend Patsy (played by Lisa Hart Carroll and, in a later sequel, by Miranda Richardson), and openly cried, swatting her face with a travel pack of tissues.
That was a luxury afforded to everyone, by the way. The Geffen came prepared and handed out a pack-per-person at the top of the aisles before curtain.