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"The End of the Affair"
© Columbia
The Big Guy Cry
Hand us a hankie -- we get misty over our favorite male tearjerkers and weepies

By Richard T. Jameson
Special to MSN Movies

I know all there is to know about the crying game ... or do I? Truth be told, I've never been attracted to programmatic boo-hoo movies. Not that I scorn those who favor them, and if I ever did, I'd have been charmed out of it by Veronica Lake's declaration in Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" that "there's nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open."

Once upon a time, being driven out in the open would have been the last thing male moviegoers wanted, or at least would have admitted to wanting. Hollywood had an unofficial genre, the "women's picture," aka "weepies"; there was no "men's picture," just a vast playground of Westerns, war films, gangster movies, swashbucklers -- action movies. It took the late film critic Raymond Durgnat to point out that many of these were "male weepies" in disguise. Guys, too, needed to cry, and long before anybody called it "getting in touch with your feminine side." The first Academy Award-winning movie, "Wings," concluded with one of its World War I flyboys sobbing because he unknowingly shot down his best friend's plane. Edward G. Robinson's "Little Caesar" lost it because his pal was getting serious about a dame. And sharp directors such as Howard Hawks and Frank Capra knew you could get away with murder, tearfully speaking, if you let the rain do your hero's crying for him.

Sports and sports movies are prime arenas for male bonding and blubbering, though neither hold much appeal for me. But I did get swept up by "Chariots of Fire," less for the Olympic aspirations than the passionate theme of one generation redeeming the lost dreams of the previous one, shattered by the Great War. I've never watched the widely loved athlete-dying-young movie "Brian's Song," but in "Pride of the Yankees" there's no denying the emotional power and legitimacy of Gary Cooper re-enacting Lou Gehrig's farewell address to his fans (" I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth"), complete with mythically resonant feedback from the Yankee Stadium loudspeakers.

Everybody can respond to that scene. And the one in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" when the Chief (Will Sampson) lovingly delivers R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) from his Nurse Ratched-induced death-in-life. And little Joey Starrett (Brandon de Wilde) in "Shane" calling "I love you" after Shane (Alan Ladd) -- as the vanishing gunfighter ascends, mortally wounded, to the high country -- will wring hearts as long as there's a nostalgia for heroes and open spaces. In "Brokeback Mountain," Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) touching the shirt from Jack Twist's boyhood room, and closing the door, is as piercing an index of grief as we could ask for. Nor need we be ashamed of getting as misty as the soundstage-phony airport at the brazenly sentimental finis to "Casablanca," Claude Rains' coy proposal of partnership to Humphrey Bogart's Rick, and Bogart's sardonic "I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

As it happens, what most reliably brings a tear to my eye is, simply, a great film: beauty and power, the spiritual and aesthetic crystallization of some aspect of the human condition within the running time of a motion picture. Few movie lives are more foredoomed or encyclopedically self-destructive than that of Charles Foster Kane ("Citizen Kane"), and we may, with the faceless reporter, "feel kinda sorry for Mr. Kane." Yet weeping would be an unworthy response to such a vital, galvanizing experience as that Orson Welles masterpiece. Exhilaration and awe is more like it.

Still, if weep we must, there are noble cues for passion in many of our finest films. Here are some other moments and movies that, for fervent, heart-stirring emotion, step up to the plate and -- like Lou Gehrig -- knock one out of the park. And you don't have to feel ashamed to look your red-eyed self in the mirror the next morning. You may even see a better person looking back.

"Miller's Crossing" (1990)

Might the definitive guy-cry movie be a film in which the guy absolutely must not cry? Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is a walking mask, the strong right hand of political boss Leo O'Bannion (Albert Finney) in "an Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s." As hard as hard guys get, he uses brains and muscle to bend men, the municipality, and rival mob factions to his and Leo's vision. Tom is Leo s best friend. He is also secretly the lover of the woman his older friend cherishes. The emotions and the psychology are as tortuous as the byzantine plots that snake round one another in the film's scenario -- the Coens' homage to Dashiell Hammett, and an uncredited pastiche of his bleakest novel, "The Glass Key." Neither the film nor Tom will ever "explain" themselves, for that would break two ethical codes: his as a man of action and the filmmakers' in honoring the bleak vision of their literary master. For clues there are only the dream-parable of a man chasing a hat in the forest -- the film s title shot -- and a privileged glimpse under Tom's own hat brim in a final shot that closes the door on an anti-matter universe.

"Paris, Texas" (1985)

Wim Wenders, the cinema's poet laureate of roads and life-journeys, reached career apogee with this powerful meditation on lost family and the vastness of the American West. The same can be said of Harry Dean Stanton, the Kentucky-bred character actor who here plays a man named Travis, who one day tramps wordlessly out of the wasteland into modern America as though he might be the shade of John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, "forever wandering between the winds." The long but spare scenario devised by Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepard has to do with Travis' re-encountering his young son, whom he last saw in infancy, and eventually the boy's mother (Nastassja Kinski). In fact, Stanton became so invested in the restoration of this family, he was devastated to discover upon seeing the final cut that their reunion was only fleeting. This is a virtually metaphysical film of heartbreakingly specific observation. Ry Cooder's slide-guitar accompaniment is uncanny, at times less like music than the hum of road traffic in the great distances inside one's mind.

"The Four Feathers" (1939)

A.E.W. Mason's 1902 tale of the scion of a British army family who resigns his commission on the eve of a military campaign and is accused of cowardice, then sets out on a private quest to redeem his lost honor, was made into a universally beloved movie by Hungarian-British Zoltan Korda. John Clement is fine as the tormented Harry Faversham, but the film's heart beats most eloquently in the performance of Ralph Richardson as the brother officer who's his rival in love. John Durrance (Richardson) loses his sight in the Sudanese war and has no way of knowing that the "dumb Sengali native" who rescues him is his old friend. His realization, months later back in England, prompts the noblest gesture of sacrifice and self-rebuke in the annals of gallantry. The film, like Harry Faversham, manages the not-inconsiderable trick of both honoring and deploring the military code of the Empire, but Richardson and Durrance -- exemplars of manliness at its finest and gentlest -- make us thrill with conviction that there'll always be an England.

"The Bridges of Madison County" (1995)

This is a masterly improvement on and transcendence of one of the schlockiest bestsellers of the '90s. Clint Eastwood takes the simplistic fable of a brief, but life-changing, encounter between a heartland farm wife (Meryl Streep) and a philosophical, world-ranging photographer (l'auteur) and imbues it with authentic passion and tenderness. For much of the film's two-and-a-quarter hours it's a two-character movie, but those characters inhabit classically defined, electrically charged spaces -- whether it's the bee-loud summerscapes of Iowa's covered-bridge country or the intimate farm kitchen where the lady of the house pares vegetables for the evening meal and her guest reaches past her expectant shoulders to fetch a towel. The affair, the love of both characters' lives, acquires the haunted splendor of a ghost story, and the couple's final sighting of each other -- in rain, the morning after their bravely willed parting -- is shocking in its nakedness and pain.

"Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937)

Talk about your separations. When Leo McCarey accepted the 1937 Best Director Oscar for his inspired comedic improvisation "The Awful Truth," he muttered, "Ya gave it to me for the wrong movie." The right movie, by his lights, was this drama about a couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) who -- married for decades, with a passel of grown children now scattered about the country with families of their own -- are unable to provide for their future. The offspring are neither notably selfish nor unloving; the facts are that no one can take care of both mom and  dad. And so, after a final evening on the town filled with McCarey's inimitable comic touches, one of the parents will board a train for the opposite coast and one will stay behind, never to see each other again. It's a movie you never forget, because it doesn't leave you unchanged. Small wonder that Hollywood never made another like it.

"The End of the Affair" (1999)

Title notwithstanding, "The Crying Game" (1992) isn't the Neil Jordan movie with the strongest address to the tear ducts. That might be "Mona Lisa," Jordan's 1986 fairy tale of a petty-criminal goon (Bob Hoskins) in love with a princess (Cathy Tyson) even more out of reach than he imagines. But instead let's salute Jordan for the best film adaptation of a Graham Greene novel that Greene had no hand in ... and one as painful as "Mona Lisa." The illicit lovers do a lot of suffering: Julianne Moore's Sarah Miles is already dead when the (mostly flashback) film begins, and Ralph Fiennes' Maurice Bendrix is in a rage at God for taking her away from him. Still, we honor the movie here for Stephen Rea, who takes the most thankless role in film and literature -- Henry, the ineffectual, asexual husband so dull he's almost beyond Sarah's betrayal -- and makes of him a hurtfully vulnerable and valuable human being. It was the supporting performance of the year, but Oscar didn't notice.

"How Green Was My Valley" (1941)

Give John Ford some light and shadow and a receding diagonal of landscape or bodies in motion, and he'd have you brushing a tear from your eye without your knowing why. Throw in a big-hearted, bestselling novel about the breakup of a Welsh family of coal miners in the face of death, economic hardship and the increasing small-mindedness of their community, and you had Hollywood's most epic tearjerker ever. "How Green Was My Valley" is often scorned as "the movie that got the Oscar instead of 'Citizen Kane'" -- which ignores that it's one of the half-dozen best films to win the award. There are so many luminous moments that wet the eyes ... like the downward trail of smoke from the match Reverend Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) has just used to light the overhead lamp in his room, and the answering rise of the hitherto-unseen Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) out of the darkness to compel his confession of love. "There is no fence round time": In this memoir narrated with the voice of an aged man we see only as a child (Roddy McDowall), past and present flow into each other with the quiet strength of a river.

"The Human Comedy" (1943)

From the opening scene -- a black man on a rolling railway car interrupting his singing at end of the day to call "Goin' home, boy!" to a child (Butch Jenkins) watching from trackside -- this William Saroyan story of a small California town in wartime is a heartfelt valentine to the American way of life. Well received in its day, it's little remembered now, like director Clarence Brown's other fine, pictorially and emotionally eloquent essays in Americana ("Of Human Hearts," "The Yearling," "Intruder in the Dust"). Mickey Rooney stars -- and he's magnificent -- as Homer, the second son in the Macauley household, the man of the house since Father has passed away (albeit present in ghostly form as Ray Collins) and eldest son Marcus (Van Johnson) is off serving in uniform. Homer works at the telegraph office and delivers telegrams by bicycle -- memorably, a War Office wire he must read one night to a Latino woman barely older than he, advising her that her loved one has died in combat. This is a beautiful film more people should know.

"About Schmidt" (2002)

Quite a few folks tell me they "never watch Jack Nicholson movies anymore, because he's always 'Jack.'" Warren Schmidt is not Jack. He's a 65-year-old man, newly retired after decades of being a drone for an insurance company in Omaha, Neb., and soon newly widowed besides. Impulsively, he starts writing letters to an orphan in Africa named Ndugu, whom he has more or less recreationally undertaken to support through a charity-by-mail. Warren is surprised at the things he finds himself confiding to a black child on the other side of the world he will never meet. His own child, a grown woman named Jeannie (Hope Davis), is about to marry a Colorado mullet-head named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), and Warren decides that he should do something to avert this horrible mistake. Some time and many miles later (for he has taken to driving around in the RV he and his wife never got to use), he realizes that the most heroic gesture he can make on Jeannie's behalf is to make no heroic gesture. Then a letter arrives from Africa, and in a moment to rival Charlie Chaplin's final close-up in "City Lights," Warren -- and Jack -- is transfigured. The millennium is young yet, but Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt" is one of its several finest films.

"Nights of Cabiria" (1957)

Forget gender: The most heartstopping wallop in movies -- for men, for women, for human beings clinging to the planet -- may be this Federico Fellini film's final scene. Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) has gathered the earnings from her life as a Roman prostitute, sold her home, parted from her dearest friend, and placed one big bet on happiness with a man she has allowed herself, against all odds and every object lesson life has ever taught her, to trust. And in the eerie glow of sunset, in a grove on a cliff overlooking the sea, she's lost her bet. Later that evening, utterly shattered, she drags herself up off the ground and makes her way out of the woods. As she walks listlessly along, a party of young people -- laughing, making music, dancing -- catches up to and casually envelops her. One girl favors her with a gravely sweet "Buona sera." Cabiria nods ... or it may just be that her head dips with the motion of walking. She looks about her. The music swells. There is just the hint -- she can't suppress her nature -- of a reflexive smile. Her head turns minutely, specifically registering one young person, then another, until for an all-but-subliminal instant she looks into your eyes. The best moment of your life.

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Richard T. Jameson has been editor of Movietone News (1971-81) and Film Comment (1990-2000) magazines, as well as Seattle's Queen Anne News (2003-present). He has been a member of the National Society of Film Critics since 1980.