by Marlee MacLeod
We don't just watch movies - we experience them. We're inhabitants as well as observers, safe in theatres and living rooms yet inwardly out on some emotional limb. We feel by proxy whatever passes on the screen and we like it that way, especially when it comes to the more unpleasant human experiences.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Consider the success of horror and suspense films; first-hand abject terror is no one's cup of tea, really, but the same situations played out on screen delight millions. We love vicarious fright because it lets us experience the range of emotions associated with it without actually being in danger. Similarly, we want to weep, to sacrifice, to have things fall apart without the inconvenience and unpleasantness of those things actually happening. We want contained suffering and we get it from weepies.
The term "weepie" emerged with the genre itself in the 1930s and is a sly play on the term "talkies." Over the years, weepies have been known by many names - women's pictures, three-hankie films, melodramas, soap operas, tearjerkers and recently, chick flicks. But those terms are unspecific and give the impression that a weepie can be any film that makes one cry for any reason, including happiness. Though the definition is somewhat elastic, the classic weepie generally involves some worst-case scenario - disease, unrequited love, family secrets, war and mental illness are the biggies - and the heroine's (for it is most often, but not always, a woman) struggles against it. Struggle, sacrifice and hard-won redemption are the hallmarks of the true weepie, and it's no wonder; we all know they're admirable ideals, but there's no big rush to volunteer for them. Weepies allow us to do our time on the hardship front for two hours at a time and then return to our more or less comfortable lives.
Silent films easily lent themselves to melodrama, perhaps ironically, since the term "melodrama" itself is derived from a combination of "melody" and "drama." But before the advent of sound, feelings had to be conveyed visually, of course, which often led to exaggerated expressions and gestures. This isn't to say that no one ever identified with or cried at a silent movie. In retrospect, you could probably file countless silent films - DW Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), say, with Lillian Gish, or even FW Murnau's great Sunrise (1927) - in the weepies category. But true weepies, in the historic sense of the term we're using here, didn't hit their full stride until the age of the talking picture, when every vocal nuance and musical embellishment could be used to its fullest extent. Almost subliminally, sound drew predictable reactions - a ragged sigh or swell of violins at the right moment could bring on the tears as reliably as an onion.
Bette Davis and the 30s
At the center of many of these worlds was film's first Weepie Queen, Bette Davis. In life, Davis could be demanding and troublesome, the problem child of the Warner Brothers lot. But a number of her characters were either noble or became noble over the course of a given film and met impossible circumstances with grace and courage. As Judith Traherne in Dark Victory (1939), she matures from spoiled heiress to doting wife and succumbs to a brain tumor so charmingly she could just as well be welcoming The Grim Reaper to afternoon tea.
Dark Victory (1939)
In Now, Voyager (1942), Charlotte Vale morphs from neurotic frump into stylish woman-of-the-world and sacrifices true love in the name of honor. Davis plays Jezebel's (1938) Julie Marsden as pathologically selfish until she suddenly volunteers to accompany her one true love to almost certain death at a yellow fever colony. One could host a monster Weep-a-thon of Davis films alone, really. The Old Maid (1939) is the tale of an unwed mother who watches forlornly as a cousin raises her beloved daughter, who must never know her true parentage. In Marked Woman (1937), a jaded nightclub "hostess" (a Hayes Code-era euphemism for "prostitute") faces disfigurement to rat on a mobster and avenge her sister's death.
But there were plenty of non-Davis weepies released in the 1930s as well. Women attended movies in droves, creating a huge audience of ardent, loyal fans of improbably sad stories. The studios happily obliged them with tale after heartbreaking tale of death, unrequited love, sacrifice or any combination thereof. The original versions of enduring tearjerker favorites A Star Is Born (remade in 1954 and 1976), Imitation of Life (remade in 1959) and Back Street (remade in 1941 and 1961) appeared in 1937, 1934 and 1932, respectively. Stella Dallas (1937) features Barbara Stanwyck as an impoverished mother who sacrifices everything for her daughter's happiness. It's a remake of the 1925 silent original and a precursor to 1990's Stella, starring Bette Midler.
Though it isn't usually categorized as such, Gone With The Wind (1939) is a weepie on the grandest of scales. Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) meets all the slings and arrows her life has flung her, even those resulting from her own selfishness and petulance, with strength and frenzied self-preservation. In the end, things still don't work out and she isn't all that redeemed, but she's certainly clearer about what (or whom) she wants and determined to keep fighting. It's a breakthrough of sorts, the kind that viewers with problems of their own (read: all of them) find uplifting.
WWII and the 40s
World War II provided a wealth of especially poignant and resonant subject matter for all sorts of films, weepies included. Sacrifice was commonplace for Americans during wartime, whether it involved the enforced scarcity resulting from the rationing system or the loss of a loved one in battle. Audiences were especially receptive to films that dealt with the unpleasantness inherent in working toward a higher purpose. Perhaps the best known of these is Oscar winner Casablanca (1942). In this classic, nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) sends away his true love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) not for her own good, but for the good of the entire world, easily trumping all on-screen selflessness that came before. Since You Went Away (1944) explores the difficulties and drama endured by families on the home front.
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) follows the lives of three WWII veterans as they return home and try to deal with the changes around them and in themselves. It features the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role. Real-life veteran and double-amputee Harold Russell received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and a special award from the Academy for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."
Not all 1940s weepies were war-themed. The old standby plots of death, mother love and misbegotten romance were recycled regularly. Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) combines all three, following Lisa Berndl's (Joan Fontaine) decades-long obsession with narcissistic musician Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) in early twentieth century Vienna. In Mildred Pierce (1945), the title character (Joan Crawford) allows her soulless viper of a daughter Veda (Ann Blythe) to run roughshod over her, endangering everything and everyone she holds dear. As it also involves a murder mystery and many film noir elements, Mildred Pierce is a multi-genre film. Its primary focus, though, is on Mildred's pathetic devotion to Veda, and that fact garners it weepie credentials aplenty.
The 50s and the Technicolor Weepie
The 1950s saw the release the most gorgeous, lavishly produced weepies audiences had yet seen. Many of these were directed by Douglas Sirk, who would go down in film history as the master of the form. Magnificent Obsession (1954) stars Rock Hudson as a playboy, remorseful over the havoc he has wreaked and desperate for redemption. Rock Hudson also stars in All That Heaven Allows (1956), a May-October love story wherein Jane Wyman risks ostracism by friends and family to be with the man she loves.
All That Heaven Allows (1956)
Written On The Wind (1956), yet another Hudson vehicle, combines several melodramatic plot elements - betrayal, illicit love, family drama - into an epic weepie mélange. Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk's best-known film, works along the same lines. It tugs at the heartstrings with a combination of themes, including grief, a mother's broken heart and the tension in an interracial friendship. Imitation of Life, like all the aforementioned Sirk films, is a beautiful film full of impossibly rich colors and lush orchestration that serve to heighten the viewer's emotional experience.
A Star Is Born (1954) stars Judy Garland and James Mason, and is a remake of the 1937 original. It's a heartbreaking tale in which aspiring singer Esther Blodgett's career takes off as her has-been, alcoholic husband Norman Maine declines precipitously, both personally and professionally. But A Star Is Born isn't just a tale of doomed romance - it's also a musical, featuring grand productions of some of Garland's signature song-and-dance numbers. Like Douglas Sirk's films, it's saturated with color and sound, which enhance the film's showbiz feel and draws the audience further into the drama.
Realism and the 60s
The decline of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1950s was a factor in the decreasing the popularity of weepies, but not the only one. By the early 1960s, audiences had become more sophisticated and less likely to engage in the suspension of disbelief the more maudlin weepies required. Increasingly, viewers wanted at least a measure of realism. West Side Story (1961) provided a bit in that it dealt with the modern theme of racism, but it many ways it's a last-gasp old-style weepie, complete with star-crossed lovers. It stars Natalie Wood, who also appears in Splendor In The Grass (1961). Splendor deals rather frankly with lust, family secrets and the unbearable tension of adolescence. Deanie (Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are teenagers pulled both together and apart as they try to make sense of the pressures they feel. Splendor is a transitional weepie, a bridge between past loftiness and future grittiness.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
As the 1960s progressed, the number of traditional weepies produced declined, though the occasional old-fashioned tearjerkers appeared now and then. Doctor Zhivago (1965) is an epic in the style of Gone With The Wind, setting an impossible romance against the dual cataclysms of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) also deals in ill-fated love. This adaptation of Shakespeare's play uses young stars (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey), soft lighting and a lovely (if repetitive) musical theme to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable sweetness and innocence. The fact that most everyone knows how the story ends doesn't make much difference in terms of weepieness; by the end of the film, all hankies are out.
Weeping in the Me Decade
Audiences' demand for gritty realism reached a new high in the 1970s. Nevertheless, some of the best-known weepies are from that decade. Love Story (1970) piles on the maudlin conflict nice and thick. Young lovers, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, parental disapproval, fatal illness - all the bases are covered. (Its tag line - "Love means never having to say you're sorry" - is not only one of the most famous lines in all of film history, it was also justifiably mocked by Ryan O'Neal himself just two years later in What's Up, Doc?.) The Way We Were (1973), another highly sentimental picture, stars Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford as oddly-matched lovers (she's a Communist; he likes sports) whose relationship disintegrates over their irreconcilable differences. Its theme song was a major 1973 hit and won an Academy Award.
Streisand also stars in A Star Is Born (1976). This remake has been widely panned, but it's very true to its age and to established weepie standards as well. Instead of the pop/swing music of the 1954 version, we hear rock and roll (though it's pop-oriented). John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) has a cocaine problem and he's an alcoholic to boot. A Star Is Born is a monument, intentionally or not, to the excesses of the 1970s (Streisand's Star-era afro is a good example of this, actually). But those excesses dovetail nicely with the plot; as in earlier versions, this is the story of a man who watches his true love succeed while he lapses into failure and self-pity. As the 1970s were all about self-fulfillment, the decade is a great setting for such a tale. Like The Way We Were, A Star Is Born spawned a hit theme song ("Evergreen") that also went on to win an Academy Award.
The Champ (1979) tells the hard-luck story of a washed-up, alcoholic boxer (John Voight) and his devotion to his son (Ricky Schroder). This remake of the 1931 original (starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper) leaves even stoic viewers in tears. The Champ is a weepie of general appeal, but it's also a good example of an odd film phenomenon that emerged in the 1970s, the so-called men's weepie. The new, sensitive man was allowed to show a feeling or two on occasion, but apparently only in response to certain subject matter. Sports themes worked well on this front. Men could shed a tear at against-all-odds boxing story Rocky (1976), or at Brian's Song (1971), a made-for-TV movie about the friendship between two NFL players, one of whom is dying of cancer.
War, that old weepie workhorse, was a reliable plot mine as well. The Deer Hunter (1978) is an Oscar-winner about the lasting effects of the Vietnam War on returning veterans, somewhat in the tradition of The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946). It isn't a sentimental film - in fact, it's stark and sometimes terrifying. But it lays viewers' emotions bare and shows what can be accomplished by combining the old weepie form with modern subject matter and realism. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) does this as well. This often hilarious Jack Nicholson vehicle is about an ultimately fruitless struggle against authority, and its final minutes can reduce the most cynical viewer to sobs. Like The Deer Hunter, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The 80s and 90s
The 1980s saw the seamless integration of sad plot lines and the standards modern audiences had come to expect: solid acting, mature sensibilities and believability. Several award-winning pictures of the 80s also happen to be no-holds-barred weepies. Sophie's Choice (1982) stars Meryl Streep (who won the Best Actress Oscar) as a concentration camp survivor in one of the saddest films ever made. Terms of Endearment (1983) tells the story of a prickly mother/daughter relationship over a span of decades. Though it treads established tearjerker ground (disease, infidelity, family drama) it isn't maudlin. Starring Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Places In The Heart (1984) features Sally Field as a Depression-era widow trying to salvage her life and save her farm with an odd assembly of helpers. It also deals with racism and the intrigue that lies just below the surface in a small town. Field won an Oscar for her performance and gave the best-remembered acceptance speech in Academy Award history ("You like me! You really like me!"). Out of Africa (1985) earned Meryl Streep another Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Karen Blixen, a Danish landowner in Kenya. Based on Isak Dinesen's works, the film centers on the intense but transient romance between Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a hunter and bush pilot. There were Oscar nominations aplenty (though no wins in any category) for The Color Purple (1985), a sweeping depiction of the black experience in the segregated South that tells the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) from her horrific adolescence to her enlightenment and liberation many years later.
But the old-time, highly sentimental weepie was not down for the count. Steel Magnolias (1989) is an especially syrupy film about five women in a small Southern town. It has an all-star cast (Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts), all of whom play every emotional scene to the hilt. In Ghost (1990), a recently murdered man (Patrick Swayze) struggles from the spirit world to save his widow (Demi Moore) from impending danger. James Cameron's Titanic (1997), probably the biggest blockbusting weepie of all time, sets a rich girl/poor boy romance (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) against the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
The 90s saw a resurgence of the sophisticated, well-produced weepie. The Joy Luck Club (1993) explores the relationships between four immigrant Chinese women and their American-born daughters. Based on Amy Tan's novel, the film uses flashbacks to depict the struggles and trauma endured by the mothers back in China; these stories become the catharsis for a better understanding between the generations. The English Patient (1996) is an Oscar-winning World War II romance told through the memories of a fatally burned plane crash victim. Life Is Beautiful (1997), which stirred considerable controversy but also took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, stars its director, Roberto Benigni, as a father who tries to soften the horrifying realities of life in a concentration camp for his son by convincing him it's all an elaborate, imaginative game.
Like the moon, the weepie waxes and wanes. But also like the moon, it never really goes away. It incorporates societal changes and adapts to prevailing audience tastes with ease. It keeps up with the times while staying true to its purpose, which is to wrest our emotions to the surface where we can give them a good airing out. Once a weepie has had its way with us we can return those emotions to their hiding places and go back to our lives. We're cleansed and confident, and we know where to turn when it's time to repeat the process.
A frequent contributor to The Dual Lens, Marlee MacLeod is also a singer/songwriter with more than a few albums under her belt. She originally sharpened her pen as a rock critic, which is only one reason of many that her blog such a lively read.