Friday, November 21, 2014

Crying at Movies: What’s Grief Got to Do With It?

The other day, on my gym’s treadmill TV, I tuned in to the climax of Father of the Bride Part II. In case you missed it, that’s the one where Steve Martin’s wife and his daughter are both unexpectedly giving birth at the same hour, in the same hospital. Poor Steve dashes back and forth between the two delivery rooms, trying desperately to remain calm. And then, suddenly, he’s holding two not-small-enough-to-be-newborn bundles in his arms, one wrapped in a pink blanket, one swathed in blue. Watching Steve Martin’s character beam from ear to ear, and hearing him announce to the world that life doesn’t get any better than this, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.

Here’s what made this strange: on the Sunday before I got the weepies watching Father of the Bride, I had buried my ninety-six-year-old mother. The seven days between her funeral and my trip to the gym had mostly been spent greeting well-wishers and making poignant visits to the home in which I grew up. That week -- preceded by long hours of watching at a dying woman’s bedside --was stressful in the extreme. And I had loved and admired my mother very much. But during the solemnities of her burial service and all the condolence visits that followed I remained dry-eyed. So why did I choke up when an on-screen character experienced an improbably happy turn of fate?

It’s partly that I’m a sucker for happy endings. In movies I cry easily, but usually not when life on screen turns sad. Growing up, I loved the cinematic version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. There’s a point in the middle of that musical when a leading character dies, and a kindly neighbor folds the pregnant widow in her arms as she warbles, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s an undeniably heart-wrenching moment. But my tears do not flow until the end of the movie, when Billy Bigelow’s sad and lonely young daughter is finally accepted by her classmates, to a reprise of the same song. At that point, when life becomes sunshine and rainbows, I predictably turn into a regular Niagara. Perhaps it’s because I realize that life’s perfect moments are all too fleeting. When they’re captured on film in all their transient beauty, my tear ducts are wholly beyond my control.

A while back, I read a clever memoir by a writer named John Manderino. It’s called Crying at Movies, and it traces his development from boy to man in terms of his obsession with motion pictures. Often this involves his strong emotional response to oldies like It’s a Wonderful Life, King of Kings,  and Wuthering Heights. In Manderino’s telling, his relationship with the woman who later became his wife nearly died aborning because he was devastated by Brief Encounter, while she condemned it as a sappy story in which Celia Johnson wore a ridiculous hat. 

I can’t explain why Manderino cries at movies, though rarely in other circumstances. He himself has a curious theory, though: “It’s because there’s no theme music in real life. Seriously, I think it’s because there’s no background music.” He cites the long-ago funeral of his father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. The funeral parlor was crowded with weeping friends and family, yet he found himself dry-eyed, and totally ashamed of that fact. “But then the organist started playing ‘Amazing Grace,’ very quietly, very tenderly, and I fell apart.” Why? Who can say? But a word from Noel Coward seems apt here: “Strange how potent cheap music is.”


  1. I agree that a sweeping musical score can push the dry eyed viewer over the edge. I tear up fairly easily at movies - but full on boo-hoo crying is rare. I Am Sam was the last one that really got me going - so much so that this particular movie is known by another title in my house - Cry.

    My condolences in the loss of your mother.

  2. Thanks, Mr. C. I confess that I've never seen I Am Sam, so I'm wondering: do you tear up at sad moments or happy ones? At midpoint or ending?

  3. The tearing up can be at any point, happy or sad. Independence Day - the President's speech is one that sticks in my mind. Titanic - the sad end of Jack is another. I shed no tears watching it - but I found Rise of the Planet of the Apes an incredibly sad movie - John Lithgow's plight, the apes' torture at the hands of jackwagon humans, the relationship between James Franco's scientist and Andy Serkis's chimpanzee and its eventual end.