James L. Brooks received a special gift at the end of production, to congratulate him for completing his first movie. This was a book of "Life in Hell" cartoons, drawn by Matt Groening. Brooks was so impressed with the comics that he asked Groening to create cartoon shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show (1987). This gave rise to The Simpsons (1989).
The character of Garrett Breedlove does not appear in the novel and was written specifically with Burt Reynolds in mind by writer-director James L. Brooks. Reynolds loved the script but was already committed to star in Stroker Ace (1983). Paul Newman and Harrison Ford turned down the role before Jack Nicholson signed on. Nicholson talked with a number of real astronauts while in Houston in preparation.
Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger were both nominated for 1983's Best Actress Oscar, which went to MacLaine. On her way to the podium, she reportedly whispered to Winger, "Half of this belongs to you," to which Winger reportedly replied, "I'll take half."
While shooting the movie in Nebraska, Debra Winger began dating the Governor Bob Kerrey; who told reporters, "She swept me off my foot," alluding to the fact that the lower part of one of his legs was amputated due to injuries sustained in his Medal of Honor action in Vietnam.
Although not specifically stated, the bulk of the story takes place over a span of several years during the late 1970s (a 1979 wall calendar is visible midway through the movie). Interestingly, as the character Garrett is an astronaut, this particular time period was exactly when his services would be least needed by NASA. The final Apollo mission was in 1975 and there would not be another manned spaceflight until the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981.
Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito previously appeared together in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). That film also won awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. Nicholson himself won an award for each film as well, but won Best Actor for the previous film, and Best Supporting Actor for this one.
The MPAA originally gave this film an "R" rating due to strong language. It was reduced to "PG" on an appeal (the PG-13 rating did not exist at the time), an achievement often repeated by writer-director-producer James L. Brooks on his later films.
Jennifer Jones originally owned the book rights and wanted to play the part of Aurora. Sissy Spacek was originally scheduled to play the Debra Winger role. Jones and her husband, millionaire Norton Simon, originally commissioned the screenplay from Brooks as a comeback film. The writer subsequently decided that the character of Aurora should not have to be tailored to suit a particular actress and persuaded Paramount to purchase the rights from the Simons. On accepting the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, Brooks especially thanked Jennifer Jones Simon.
The Auguste Renoir painting given to Aurora by her mother is referenced throughout the movie, first when Aurora tells Emma she considered (but decided against) giving it to her as a wedding gift, again when Emma calls Aurora asking to borrow money, and once more when Aurora uses it as an excuse to invite Garrett to her bedroom. The exact value of a Renoir original portrait is difficult to pinpoint for a specific point in time due to the infrequency of transactions. However, it's safe to say that had Aurora sold the painting through a reputable auction house around 1980, it would have sold for well over $100,000 and possibly close to $1 million.
The character Garrett Breedlove didn't exist in the novel. The character was meant to be a foil/love interest for Aurora, and was first designed for Burt Reynolds, and then custom made for Jack Nicholson, who was basically playing himself.
This is supposed to take place in the 70s; except we see Aurora walking by a video game arcade at one point (right after the "Give my daughter the shot!" scene) and one of the games on display is Pac-Man. Pac-Man wasn't around until the early eighties.
The character of Sam kind of just gets dropped about two thirds of the way through. We don't know how Emma resolves her love triangle with him and flap; or what she says to Sam to break things off. (And he doesn't show up for the funeral at the ending; even after telling Emma what an important person she was in his life. Emma doesn't bother to tell him about her cancer either, which makes you wonder how important he was to her in the first place!) Sam simply vanishes about the same time Emma finds out she has cancer, never to be seen again. She never even tells Flap about him!
This is the second Best Picture Oscar winner that Jack Nicholson has starred in. The first one was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; for which he also won the Best Actor in a leading role award. It's also the second time he co-starred with Danny Devito; the two of them co-starred in Cuckoo's Nest as well. This is the second time Shirley Maclaine has starred in the Best Picture Oscar as well. She starred with David Niven in 1957's Best Picture Oscar Winner Around the World in 80 Days. Nicholson would star in another Best Picture Oscar winner after this as well; Martin Scorsese's The Departed.
This book the movie is based on is divided into 2 parts. One part takes place in 1962; the rest of it is supposed to take place from 1971-1976. But we see Aurora walk past a PacMan machine at one point. (Pac-Man wasn't around until 1981).
A big chunk of the book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", which follows the rise and fall of the auteur movement and the Baby Boom generation in Hollywood in the 1970s, is about Jack Nicholson and his legendary exploits during that period. Nicholson bragged to an interviewer at one point that he put cocaine on his private parts during sex to heighten his own sexual arousal and sensitivity.
Sachi Parker, Shirley Maclaine's daughter, recently slammed her mother in a scathing, Mommie Dearest type memoir called Lucky Me: Life With-and Without-Shirley Maclaine, in which she claims she was abused, bullied and neglected by her narcissistic mother. Shirley has said she's devastated by her daughter's dishonest autobiography.
The Production Designer on this movie was Polly Platt. She was Peter Bogdonovich's wife; her love triangle situation with Bogdonovich and Cybill Shepherd during this whole period was described in detail in the book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", and also fictionalized in a movie that came out just a year later called "Irreconcilable Differences" with Shelley Long, Drew Barrymore, Ryan O'Neal and Sharon Stone.
In interviews Shirley Maclaine has said James L Brooks played weird head games with the cast; and liked to keep everyone terrorized and on edge, in a state of chaos. She said it got so bad that she drove to the airport while the movie was in production to quit at one point.