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Reviews | Hollywood needs to bring back the four-handkerchief tear

Reviews |  Hollywood needs to bring back the four-handkerchief tear


Tears are sacred. They express sadness, communicate joy, signal need and relieve stress. The simple act of crying offers us more than just release; it can offer us clarity.

Yet we live in a time where public crying is not only underestimated, but actively mocked. Collective expressions of sadness are considered meaningless posturing, and emotional breakdowns instantly turn into memes. The alienation and isolation of life online has made expressing shared sadness almost impossible.

This is why we need to bring back the heartbreaking.

Do you remember the tears? An entire category of films dedicated to recruiting Hollywood's best talent in an effort to make you shamelessly bawl? You might know them better as weepers or weepers, and as a genre they offered a beloved and widely adopted means of communal emotional catharsis, in the theater, in the dark.

Tears have existed throughout Hollywood history. make the audience cry before they could even produce a sound, but as a prestige genre they reached their peak in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating with Terms of Endearment in 1983, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Anyone going to see this film hoping for a slight comic diversion would do well to bring at least four tissues for the hospital scenes, wrote Janet Maslin in The Times.) The film featured several emotionally devastating moments, including the one mentioned by Ms. Maslin, in which a mother dying of cancer, played by Debra Winger, his last conversation with her school-age sons.

The heyday of prestige crying gave rise to such crifests as Kramer vs. Kramer, a heartbreaking story of divorcing parents fighting for their son; Ordinary People, about a family's emotional collapse following tragedy; Field of Dreams, the ultimate daddy cry about baseball and the judgment of middle-aged people; and of course Beaches, a heartbreak about the death of a lifelong friend, accompanied by a chart-topping anthem. Even blockbuster films of this era, such as ET and Top Gun, dutifully included an obligatory gut punch moment connecting a pale ET to a heart monitor; kill Goose designed to make the audience sob at just the right moment. And we did it.

After a decade of decline in which summer blockbusters and franchise sequels crowded out adult-oriented whiners, the golden age of the prestige tearjerker ended in 1997 with the genre's biggest hit: Titanic . This film was an Academy Award-winning, over three-hour thrill ride with lavish production value and groundbreaking special effects. However, we remember it better for just one scene in which Rose, played by Kate Winslet, says goodbye to Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as she sails away into the wreckage of the ill-fated ship. The sobs caused an entire generation of moviegoers to cry into their shirtsleeves (or onto the shoulders of the people sitting next to them in the theater). It also helped propel Titanic to become the biggest box office hit of the time.

In retrospect, the tearjerkers can seem a bit manipulative, even caricatured. Here is a dying woman saying goodbye to her young sons! Here is a father running through the streets of New York carrying his injured child to the hospital! Here's Bette Midler singing. Did you already know that you are my hero? to her terminally ill best friend! But prestige tears served an essential cultural purpose: they were a valuable ritual of catharsis in which audiences could participate together. If you've seen any of these films, you might feel emotional just remembering them, which is proof of their lasting power.

Sobbing together is something we have forgotten how to do and absolutely need to rediscover. We need more opportunities to show our humanity to each other in public. We must learn to reassure each other that we are all sentient beings who may feel more than we can tolerate. We could all use a good shout out right now, together, in real life, in real time.

As a genre, the tearjerker prestige film seems to be a victim of both changing tastes and changing technologies. Hollywood has become much more sensitive to the blockbuster experience, in a way we can also blame Titanic for this. Producers focused on films that would appeal to all four quadrants: male and female viewers, young and old. Too often, heartbreaking films have been dismissed as female-focused and unappealing to the coveted demographic of 12-year-old boys, even though many of the genre's most famous examples have won awards and achieved significant success.

Now the tears happen mostly on the sidelines, on Hallmark holiday specials, streaming teen movies, and maudlin movies of the week. When contemporary prestige films explore personal tragedy, they tend toward understated melancholy, not melodrama. Films like last year's The Holdovers and Past Lives, or Manchester by the Sea and Call Me by Your Name, may elicit sniffles, but they are sober tales of quiet heartbreak, not overblown operatic tragedies. The contemporary version of heartbreaking is one in which the heroine cautiously decides not to return to a past love, not one in which she watches her one true love sink lifeless into an icy sea.

It's easy to understand why audiences are reluctant to come to a communal space to watch slow-moving, tragic stories about human suffering. Real sadness is everywhere, and we now digest it alone, alone, with our phones, in silence.

Perhaps this is the real reason why the prestige tearjerkers have disappeared: we are confronted with despair so quickly and so constantly now that we have learned to dismiss sadness, to put it out of sight and to ridicule it in the others, however sincere it may be. We have forgotten how to collectively feel anything other than outrage. Look no further than the Covid-19 pandemic: more than a million Americans have died in an experience that has affected us all, and yet there is still no permanent national Covid memorial. There is little recognition of the need for closure, let alone a desire to achieve it.

Tears in our eyes provided a shared space where we had permission to feel these emotions together. Since the days of ancient Greece, dramatic tragedies have offered us a necessary means of emotional purgation, and Aristotle argued that this catharsis served to transform spectators into more attentive, more appreciative, and more ethical citizens. Sigmund Freud considered unexpressed emotions a threat to mental health, and modern research supports his view, indicating that repressing emotions increases stress while crying releases oxytocin and endorphins. In her book Seeing Through Tears, Judith Kay Nelson argues that just as babies' tears are a crucial way to communicate with their caregivers, adults' tears invite support and strengthen bonds. Human beings need behaviors that bring us together and keep us there, writes Dr. Nelson. Crying is one of the most powerful and essential of these behaviors.

Seeing others cry reminds us that we ourselves deserve compassion. When Dustin Hoffman's character in Kramer vs. Kramer rediscover his own humanity while anxiously waiting in the emergency room for news of his injured son's stitches, we also rediscover our humanity. Tears offered us that kind of space.

There is a scene in Terms of Endearment where Shirley MacLaine's character berates the nurses in the cancer ward, shouting that her daughter is in pain and that someone needs to do something immediately. If this were a clip shared today on social media, it would be considered a nightmare. Yet that's what works so well: We watch someone who is normally the picture of perfectionism and restraint get pushed so far beyond her limits that she can barely contain herself. It is not only an incitement to cry, but also a testimony to the fact that we have never been completely in control of ourselves. Not only is this type of control not possible, it is not even desirable.

Resuscitate the tearful. Give us a reason to cry on other people's shoulders in public again. Feeling the full force of our sadness is a prerequisite for feeling the full force of our humanity: our compassion, our joy, our joy.

This is what it feels like to be fully alive. We must remember this. We must remember this.




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