It’s easy to make someone cry. Just show them a key two-and-a-half-minute scene from what scientists have determined is the Saddest Movie Ever Made.
According to Smithsonian.com, scientific study has determined that the most reliable tearjerker of all time is 1979’s ‘The Champ,’ in which washed-up boxer Jon Voight returns to the ring in order to earn enough to retain custody of his son, Ricky Schroder. Particularly, the climactic scene where — spoiler alert! — the little boy watches his battered dad die (end spoiler). It’s a moment that makes Schroder and the hardened old men in the scene all bawl their eyes out, and it’s all but guaranteed to do the same to you.
Those are the findings of James Gross and Robert Levenson (you can read their study in this PDF document), who spent years looking for the optimum film clip to make people cry so that they could serve as test subjects for other social scientists’ experiments on how sadness affects people’s behavior. Using film to induce tears was quicker, more efficient and more ethical than, say, telling people their families had been harmed or that they were suffering from some awful disease. After all, people willingly pay good money to see movies that make them weep, and they go home without being permanently traumatized.
Turns out that watching Schroder and Voight’s climactic scene was the best way to get the waterworks flowing fast, although watching Bambi lose his mother to a hunter’s bullet in ‘Bambi’ works pretty well, too.
Gross and Levenson also found the best films to elicit other emotions as well. The quickest route to amusement, they found, was through Meg Ryan’s orgasm-in-the-deli scene in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ Easiest way to scare folks is via ‘The Shining’ or ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ For obvious reasons, John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’ is the easiest way to elicit disgust, and the films that get people the most riled are the bullying drama ‘My Bodyguard’ and the apartheid saga ‘Cry Freedom.’
‘The Champ,’ though, is a fascinating find, since it works just as well on men as it does on women. For all the premium our culture places on men holding back their tears, it seems there’s no shame in sobbing over sports movies, particularly ones involving fathers and sons or early death. Guys, it’s officially OK to cry over ‘Rudy’ or ‘Field of Dreams.’ Tears are also allowed for ‘Brian’s Song’ and ‘Bang the Drum Slowly.’
Even for women and children, there’s something a little embarrassing about crying at movies; the word “tearjerker” implies that we moviegoers have to have the tears violently yanked from our resistant eyes. There seems to be something sadistic about making children sit through the mother’s death in ‘Bambi,’ or similar animal deaths in ‘Old Yeller’ or ‘The Lion King,’ even though we all watched them as kids ourselves and didn’t grow up to be sociopaths.
Critics often deride movies that make us cry as shameless and manipulative. But secretly, we like to be manipulated at the movies. We yearn for catharsis. We like horror movies to scare us, mysteries to surprise us, action movies to thrill us, and tearjerkers to make us weep. Many years ago, I interviewed Billy Crystal upon the release of his tearjerker ‘Mr. Saturday Night,’ and he lampooned the critics who resented how manipulative the movie was. “Damn you for making us feel something,” he paraphrased.
Since that’s what we actually want movies to do, feel free to cite below your favorite tearjerking movie. Maybe you cried at the end of ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ when a bereft Heath Ledger says, “Jack, I swear …” to an empty shirt in a closet. Or maybe during ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,’ when Sam tells Frodo he can’t carry the other hobbit’s terrible burden, “but I can carry you.” Or maybe at the endings of ‘Toy Story 3’ or ‘E.T.’ Or maybe during ‘In America,’ when the ‘E.T.’-inspired immigrant dad risks his last dollar at a carnival to win a stuffed toy for his daughter. (Or, if you’re like me, maybe you cried at all of these.)
Which movie is guaranteed to make you cry?
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.