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Before the NFL became the new national past time, Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers were names best known for their lives both on and off the field. The latter was a star running back. The former was his friend, stricken down with cancer well before his prime. From Sayers’ severe knee injury (this was the late ‘60s we’re talking about, medically speaking) and Piccolo’s brave battle, this duo turned football into a five handkerchief free-for-all. One of the most popular TV movies of all time, Brian’s Song has become a benchmark for sports weepers. One viewing and you’ll know why.
It’s rare for a tearjerker to become a legend, but this Cary Grant/ Deborah Kerr melodrama retains so much impact that it became the basis for Meg Ryan’s lovelorn character in Sleepless in Seattle. The story is so schmaltzy it might even cause diabetes, but the two actors are so enigmatic and committed to their cause that we come away completely entranced by their love and devastated by their loss. While much of the movie is mere set-up for the wonderful weepiness of the finalé, there are sequences before the big reveal that work on our wary feelings in full blown boo-hoo mode.
While the argument over whether or not this should have beat Raging Bull for Best Picture are all but moot (Scorsese’s film is better, but not superior), there’s no denying Robert Redford’s emotional power behind the lens. Some point in the moment when troubled teen Conrad Jarrett (Oscar winner Timothy Hutton) confronts “the truth” about what happened to his brother, it’s clear that this is movie’s main tear inducer. But the real waterworks arrive when our hero comforts his dad (Donald Sutherland) during a crisis in his marriage. Just that one exchange between these two gifted actors is enough to keep one blubbering for hours.
Innocence dying ala The Fault in Our Stars is one thing. When more complicated and less compassionate characters come down with a terminal disease, the sentiment remains the same while getting there is given a crucial creative makeover. Such is the case with James L. Brook’s Oscar winning adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship and the shifts that occur once the girl (Deborah Winger) is diagnosed with cancer. Shirley MacLaine earned her Academy Award for showing that not every response to tragedy is sorrow. Instead, this angry and defiant mother is all rage, and then regret, and we feel for her.
After enduring what her character had to survive in order to make it to the last act of the film, it’s no wonder audiences openly sobbed at Steven Spielberg’s misunderstood take on Alice Walker’s nuanced novel. Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie Harris suffers so much, and her indignities are both personal and familial, that when she is finally reunited with the children she was forced to give up, it’s a moment of pure emotional release. This is the kind of catharsis that the tearjerker was made for, summing up the story in one breathtaking sequence of human connectivity. It’s a gut punch, but a good gut punch.