When the teen-cancer love story The Fault in Our Stars opens in theaters on June 6, we’re expecting a spike in tissue sales as America mops up those tears. We’re also wondering if TFIOS will bring a fresh crying jag of tearjerker movies to theaters. In preparation, we decided to take a deep dive into despair and catalog the essential elements for a heart-wrenching sob-athon.
Yahoo Movies dissected the weeper world, breaking it down into seven sub-genres and defining each based on narrative themes and most memorable blubber-inducing contributions to pop culture. A couple of minor caveats: First, some movies have been placed in what we deemed the most appropriate subgenre even though they easily could have landed in two or three. Second, this effort involved hard science, and obviously there’s no crying in hard science.
Just kidding! Man, there’s going to be so much crying.
1. The Romantic Tearjerker
This is the quintessential tearjerker type, the one most of us think of when terms such as “weepie” are invoked. These are love stories about people who refuse to couple even though they belong together, who love each other but are torn apart, or who kiss each other super-hard in the pouring rain, because that’s just what you do when you’re Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. Basically, these are the kinds of movies Rita Wilson was talking about when she lost it while describing An Affair to Remember in this meta-moment from Sleepless in Seattle.
Examples: An Affair to Remember, Love Story, The Way We Were, Ghost, Truly Madly Deeply, The Notebook, Brokeback Mountain
Signifiers: Letters that go unread; words that go unsaid; kisses that occur as the score reaches a crescendo; kisses that occur in the rain as the score reaches a crescendo; moments of intense mourning; heart-wrenching farewells; deathbed scenes
Signature quote: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” from 1970’s Love Story. This is actually a blatantly false statement, but because a bereft Ryan O’Neal uttered it, turning it into the official Romantic Tearjerker Catchphrase.
Signature moment: The final scene of The Notebook, which has been known to induce sob seizures even in the most passionate Nicholas Sparks haters. (Megaspoiler: If you don’t want to know how the movie ends, do not watch.)
2. The Sports Tearjerker
This is the subgenre that refutes the silly contention that men don’t cry during movies, a counter-argument also known as “The Field of Dreams Defense.” Sports tearjerkers are love stories too in a way. But in these films, the love is usually between player and game, teammate and teammate, boxer and long-suffering girlfriend, or fathers and sons.
Examples: The Pride of the Yankees, Brian’s Song (a TV movie, we know, but a seminal sobber), A League of Their Own, Rocky, Hoosiers, Rudy, Million Dollar Baby
Signifiers: Inspirational speeches delivered at crucial moments; underdog protagonists; incredible comebacks; selfless acts of sacrifice
Signature quote: “Hey, Dad. You wanna have a catch?” from 1989’s Field of Dreams. And then do you wanna watch us bawl?
Signature scene: Billy Dee Williams, as Gayle Sayers, dedicating an award to cancer-stricken fellow Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo (James Caan) in 1971’s Brian’s Song. You might want to take a knee for this one.
3. The Fatal Disease Tearjerker
There’s no easier way to wring tears out of an audience than by making a movie about illness. The core narrative in these movies is very simple: Someone has a potentially life-threatening disease, someone eventually dies of that disease and then everyone, the audience included, drowns in tears of grief over a life well lived and lost.
Examples: Terms of Endearment, Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Dying Young, Stepmom, Philadelphia, One True Thing
Signifiers: Sudden collapse of a character; emotional moments in hospital rooms; protagonist delivering a monologue about embracing life; the presence of Julia Roberts; the deathbed scene (obviously)
Signature quote: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?” To be fair, this is a lyric from Bette Midler’s rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” But that song is played during a highly emotional montage in Beaches, so it totally counts.
Signature scene: Sally Field at the cemetery in Steel Magnolias. You don’t actually have to hit play on the clip; just think of this scene for a second and you’ll start to tear up.
4. The Kid Tearjerker
This subgenre is a combination of family films and coming-of-age dramas and includes a mourners row of movies that many adults would name as the formative weeper experiences from their childhoods.
Examples: Bambi, Old Yeller, The Champ, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, My Girl, Up, Toy Story 3
Signifiers: Animal dies; parent dies; friend dies; child confronts loss of childhood things; child says painful farewell through tears in way that obliterates hearts of viewers.
Signature quote: “I’ll be right here,” from 1982’s E.T. Between that moment and the John Williams score: Yeah, good luck keeping your lower lip from quivering.
Signature scene: Bambi’s mom dies. That Disney-animated deer calling for his mother is what heartbreak sounds like.
5. The TCM Tearjerker
These are the classic weepers that will air on a random Saturday on Turner Classic Movies and immediately suck you into a vortex of melodrama. Some of them focus on romance; some were directed by Douglas Sirk; a number of them end in pure, unrelenting sadness.
Examples: Stella Dallas, Penny Serenade, Make Way for Tomorrow, A Brief Encounter, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934 or 1969 version), Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows
Signifiers: Down-on-their-luck protagonists; difficult family relationships; key characters who die; children separated from nurturers; scenes set during Christmas
Signature quote: “Please. Let me see her face when he kisses her, please,” from the wrenching moment in 1937’s Stella Dallas when an uninvited Barbara Stanwyck must watch her daughter’s wedding through a window.
Signature scene: Peter O’Toole’s goodbye speech in 1969’s Goodbye Mr. Chips. Honestly the whole end is pretty moving, especially in light of O’Toole’s death just a few months ago. Excuse us a minute.
6. The Historical Tearjerker
These films confront devastation that happened in real life, from the horrors of the Holocaust to the unfathomable cruelties of slavery. Movies in this category tackle such serious matters that it feels disrespectful to put a “tearjerker” label on them. But there’s no denying that the dramas mentioned below, and other socially and historically conscious works like them, are responsible for some of the longest, hardest cries in the history of cinema.
Examples: Sophie’s Choice, Glory, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, 12 Years a Slave
Signifiers: Characters stoically tolerating pain and abuse; protagonists forced to make unimaginable sacrifices; parents separated from children; epic scenes of destruction; large-scale death and destruction; many best picture nominations and wins.
Signature quote: “I will never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go.” Do we really have to tell you that’s from Titanic?
Signature scene: Meryl Streep making a wrenching decision in Sophie’s Choice. If by some chance you don’t know what choice Sophie has to make, the following clip is a major spoiler. One more spoiler: This clip also might make you cry from now until next Tuesday.
7. The Life-Affirming Tearjerker
Life affirmers are cry-intensive movies that are orchestrated to uplift. Even though some very sad things may happen during the course of their running time, by their conclusions they leave audiences smiling through tears.
Examples: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption, On Golden Pond, Dead Poets Society, The Color Purple, Forrest Gump, The Pursuit of Happyness
Signifiers: Grand gestures; family reconciliation; quotable catch phrases; protagonists that triumph over great odds; protagonists that tell off their adversaries in spectacular fashion; endings that make the heart swell.
Signature quote: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’. That’s goddamn right.” Preach, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption.
Signature scene: The ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. You cry when you see it every Christmas, and you’ll cry when you watch it right now.
Photo credit: New Line Cinema