James L. Brooks remembers the moment he won his first Oscar. "It was as orgasmic as moments could be," he says now, 40 years after the fact. At the time, he thought to himself, "I won the Oscar. I won an Oscar. I won an Oscar!" And then he won another one! And then another one!
"It was nuts. And you physically get them, so they're on the floor at your seat!" he tells A.frame. "Then when I got the third one, I was overwhelmed. I was truly overwhelmed. I remember I was up at the microphone, and I was just brushing stuff off [the statue]. My mind had been blown. I was like an empty rented suit."
Even more impressive, Brooks won his three Oscars for his directorial debut, 1983's Terms of Endearment. An instant classic upon its release, the adaptation of Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel of the same name centers on the relationship between a widow, Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her adult daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), as they navigate a terminal diagnosis. Jack Nicholson plays Garrett Breedlove, a retired astronaut who lives next door and becomes a love interest for Aurora.
"In the script, he breaks her heart, and it was so vivid, that when it happened, I looked at him and I said, 'You son of a b***h,'" Brooks laughs. "It was so palpable!"
At the 56th Oscars, Brooks won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, while MacLaine and Nicholson won Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively. The secret to the film's success? "I was lucky enough to have the greatest actors of my lifetime in front of the camera for me!" says Brooks.
Beloved as Terms of Endearment remains four decades later, the filmmaker doesn't often revisit it. "I don't go back," Brooks says. "Sometimes if I'm channel-surfing, I'll hang in there for four or five minutes." It did, however, forever change the trajectory of his career.
Brooks received additional Oscar nominations for writing and producing 1987's Broadcast News and 1997's As Good as It Gets. (He also received a nomination for producing 1996's Jerry Maguire.) Nicholson, who became a regular collaborator of Brooks and was in both Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets, won another Oscar for his performance as Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets, this time for Best Actor in a Leading Role. "Debra Winger got him for me, because they were friends," Brooks says of how he first cast Nicholson in Terms of Endearment.
"He was great, and he was great to work with. He was so loose about it," he adds. "I was a newbie with my first film, and he'd come up to me and say, 'Want to know the worst direction you gave today?' But then he'd also come to say, 'Want to know the best direction you gave today?' and it lightened things!"
In recent years, the TV and film legend has focused on producing — including this year's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. — but will begin filming his first directorial effort in more than a decade at the beginning of 2024. (His last feature was 2010's How Do You Know, which also co-starred Nicholson.) The film is Ella McCay, a drama about an idealistic young political played by Emma Mackey, who co-starred in this year's smash hit Barbie. The cast also includes Ayo Edebiri, Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson, Albert Brooks and Kumail Nanjiani, and Oscar winner Jamie Lee Curtis.
"It's a script I've worked on for a long time," Brooks shares. "I feel great about the people I'll be working with. The thing that can be bad or good about being a writer-director is that you've seen a movie that you should go get, but it's never the movie that it ends up being. It shouldn't be the movie you end up with. Because it's a team sport, and that chemistry has to happen for it to really start to kick. But I'm glad to be doing it, and I'm lucky to be doing it, too."