So here’s an intriguing story that’s been working its way through the blogosphere: a pair of UC Berkley researchers have determined that the final scene of Franco Zeffirelli’s The Champ , in which Jon Voight’s washed-up boxer dies in front of his son (played by nine-year-old Ricky Schroeder), is the saddest movie scene of all time — that is, it has been scientifically proven to be the film clip most likely to make people cry. Don’t argue, it’s science.
The details of the research are compelling, and its conclusions were certainly not arrived at hastily. And yet… there’s just something about this story that rubs your author the wrong way. The “cry-ability” of a movie doesn’t seem all that measurable — like laughter or fear, crying at a movie seems such a singularly personal and subjective experience that it hardly seems quantifiable. Which begs the question: what makes you cry at the movies?
The shedding of tears, as prompted by outside stimuli, is so personal that it hardly seems possible that any work of art could be expected to provoke the same response from multiple audiences. That kind of intense emotional expression is tied so specifically to one’s own unique emotional buttons that what wrecks me might leave you positively dry-eyed.
For example, (allow me to lay down on the couch for a moment) I have a complicated and not-entirely-demonstrative relationship with my father, which is better explained over a beer than on the internet. But, as a result, father-and-son stuff in movies just destroys me. Remember the Tom Hanks/Jackie Gleason picture Nothing in Common , in which a distant father and son are suddenly forced to acknowledge and repair their strained relationship due to a long-overdue divorce and the father’s near-fatal case of diabetes? No? Then you don’t know what it is to crumble at the line “You’re the last person I ever thought would come through for me.” How’s about that scene in It’s A Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart looks his dad square in the eye and tells him, “Pop, you want a shock? I think you’re a great guy”? And then, of course, there is the definitive “male weepie,” Field of Dreams , which doesn’t mist me up because it’s about baseball, but because it’s about that little choke in Kevin Costner’s voice when he asks, “You wanna have a catch?”
As someone with a father/son soft spot, you’d think that I’d be a sucker for the scene in The Champ that makes everyone cry. But I’ve watched it (and you can too, here), having seen the movie in its entirety as a kid, and I just don’t see how it has achieved this vaunted status. Not because it isn’t sad, or because Ricky Schroeder isn’t acting his little nine-year-old ass off, because it is, and he is. But the more movies you see, the more you build up a resistance to the maudlin; there is no easier way to coax tears out of an audience than to do a tragic and drawn-out on-screen death, except perhaps to have that death experienced by a sweet, innocent child. It’s a sad scene, but so patently manipulative as to put this moviegoer on the defensive.
As a general rule, at least at this point in my moviegoing life, my emotional responses tend to have less to do with characters dying on-screen than they do with characters who are, simply speaking, just good people doing the right thing. Good Will Hunting is a film that is (I contend, unfairly) mocked for its unabashed sentimentality, but there is something so heartbreaking and true about the way that Affleck’s Chuckie tells Damon’s Will about the best part of his day (“For about ten seconds, from when I pull up to the curb and when I get to your door, ’cause I think, maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there”), a confession of selfless loyalty and plain-spoken, I-know-what’s-best-for-you love that is only topped by the look on Chuckie’s face when his wish finally comes true.
The older I get, the more I lose it at the end of the aforementioned It’s A Wonderful Life; just typing Clarence’s inscription in George’s book (“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends”) or Harry’s toast (“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town” — on first viewing, a throwaway joke, but with each passing year, an increasingly poignant mediation on the incalculable value of personal relationships) gets me misty. The power and sheer emotional potency of Red’s closing lines in The Shawshank Redemption (“I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope”) are as bottomless as they were the first time I heard them, and, if nothing, more likely to wet my cheeks.
But those are just me — which is the point. I’ve got very specific pressure points that turn on my cinematic water works. What about you? What movies make you cry? More than that — what are your cinematic soft spots?