Recently, a report in The Smithsonian noted that the 1979 movie The Champ has been used by psychologists in studies of depression and sadness. Apparently, the ending, in which (SPOILER AHEAD!) a young Rick Schroder tearfully exhorts his dead father, boxer Jon Voight, to get up, is highly effective in making people cry. I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve seen clips of the scene, and out of context it seems so patently manipulative and treacly that it’s more likely to make me laugh than cry.
Still, I do cry easily at movies, and so I’ve been interested in the discussions the story has generated. EW has had a couple of pieces and a poll which listed ten movies that respondents considered the saddest. Schindler’s List won the poll, with 20% of the vote. It’s interesting to me because when I first saw the story about sad movies, Schindler’s List immediately came to mind. But it almost seemed inappropriate to mention it in the same breath with Titanic (which came in third), even though Titanic is a guaranteed tear-jerker for me. Or Old Yeller, which came in second – I’ve never seen it, but isn’t it about a dog dying? Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs, but it’s hard for me to compare the Holocaust with a dog dying. Maybe I’m taking the whole thing too literally, though.
A lot of the movies mentioned are sad because they deal with an individual dying. For example: Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias, Million Dollar Baby, Beaches, Love Story, and, of course, The Champ. While such movies are effective in making viewers cry, to me they aren’t really “sad” the way the Holocaust (and thus Schindler’s List) is sad. Or even sad the way Brokeback Mountain is sad; the death of one of the characters is really only a part of what makes the last 20 minutes of that movie heart-wrenchingly sad. I found Brokeback Mountain so sad when I saw it in theaters that I kind of didn’t like it. I was one of the few viewers happy that Crash beat it in the Oscars for Best Picture that year. In retrospect, I can appreciate that Brokeback Mountain is the better movie, but man, is it sad. Not sad in a cathartic way like the list of terminal-illness-movies at the beginning of this paragraph – those movies are “good cry” movies to an extent, I think. Viewers (especially women, if I may stereotype) get to vicariously experience the drama of tragedy, but they know it’s not real. Those movies may stay with viewers, but it’s hard for me to think they really hurt on a visceral level to think about the way that Brokeback Mountain does. Perhaps if you as the viewer can relate to the loss of a child, say, Terms of Endearment would have extra meaning for you. But otherwise the sadness they instill is superficial compared to the sadness of a Schindler’s List (or even a Titanic, where at least you might be compelled to think of all those hundreds of people who died so unnecessarily and tragically).
I do think sometimes a good fatal illness movie can be given extra dimension by other factors. For example, Bang the Drum Slowly, the 1970s film with Robert DeNiro as a dim-witted baseball player who becomes terminally ill. The pathos of DeNiro’s character is already established before he becomes sick – he’s a figure of fun to other players who enjoy ragging on him. Michael Moriarty plays his teammate, who comes to be DeNiro’s biggest supporter and defender. The entire story is so, so sad and moving; the inclusion of the song Streets of Laredo only makes it sadder. (Streets of Laredo is one of the few songs with the power to make me cry spontaneously, partly because of the movie, partly because of the lyrics, and partly because just the melody itself is sad and mournful. Another song that inspires tears: Danny Boy. Sniff.)
So, what about you? What movies move you to tears? Do you think there’s a difference between superficial “good cry” movies and movies that are genuinely sad and depressing? Do you like movies that make you cry?