Guys Who Cry

Actors seldom let tears into their performances, so those brave moments when they do-Brad Pitt's weeping in Legends of the Fall, Matt Damon's cathartic cry in Good Will Hunting-are all the more interesting to examine.


We men, ain't we? We come with whiskers, hard looks and all that humankind has accomplished in its tiny filament of history--fire, cars, the rise and fall of Communism, 500 channels--swinging in a soft sack between our legs. We got balls, willpower and a pocketful of excuses we never use because we take it like men, straight-up, no ice, no blindfold.

Yeah, we men, all right. But as good as we are at it, actors are better. They love better, think faster, fight tougher, stand taller and die prouder than any of us could ever hope to. And some of them have the Oscars to prove it. Truth be told, you go up against an actor and you're gonna be out-manned in every way except one: tears. When it comes to crying, an actor can't hold a hankie to you or me. We beat them at crying for the very reason they beat us in everything else--because they, like us, are men, and a man does his best crying not in front of cameras, but in private, where he is free to act on the wisdom of... well, a woman.

Just after he was nominated for his role in Fargo, William H. Macy told me how much he disliked the idea of crying on-camera. "In real life," he said, "when something bad happens and a guy's standing over a body, or whatever, it isn't a lot of crying. In real life you're too busy trying to figure out what to do. You're already working on a plan." Spoken like a true dude--or a guy in denial. Because crying is a plan. Every woman is familiar with the revelatory properties of tears, and the ugly little secret is that men are, too. With all those liquid brain chemicals rushing into dry riverbeds of despair, you see it all clearly. Lying solitary in bed, looking up at the red light of the smoke detector plugged in the ceiling and bawling your eyes out--man, you are the poet laureate of all lucidity, which is Sorrow. Just don't be reading that sonnet in public.

Tears are linked with Need, a condition biologically predisposed to females, as in a womb to fill, a kingdom to destroy, shoes to find for that hard-to-match teal dutch. Men must be intrepid, as in hunting big game, proving the world isn't flat, cornering the market on silver. During the great gaseous emancipation of gender issues over the last few decades, a hole appeared briefly in the masculine ozone level. But somewhere between Burt Bacharach and Woody Allen things got way out of hand, and now, with the stock market working itself up to an orgasmic five figures, men must be all they can be again.

What all this means for male actors, whose job it is to approximate real emotions (and sleep with their costars), is that when some screenwriter sets them up to cry onscreen, they're left with precious little material to borrow from, other than TV evangelists or their own personal experiences--which, they well know, are a private affair. Fortunately for actors, when it comes to crying and males, art mimics life--men are rarely asked to cry in films, and hardly ever to shed wet tears.

It follows then, that if you want an actor to cry, you'd better give him a good excuse. Like grief. Or pain. Or rage. Or self-pity. Or end-of-the-line self-revelation. Who knows how many directors have tried to convince actors to cry, but only those armed with incontrovertible reasons have ever succeeded, and probably not many of them have squeezed out more than one tear every 10 tries.

Unless, of course, we're talking about Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather. Sicilians, he seems to have convinced his cast, wear their emotions on their sleeves. Coldblooded assassins, unfeeling capos? Look again. More tears are shed by the principal characters in The Godfather than blood, and for all kinds of reasons. The first time is when Johnny Fontane, distressed because he can't get a part in a movie, comes to Brando for help. "Oh, Godfather, I don't know what to do," he whimpers burying his head in his hands. Brando leaps up and affectionately bitch-slaps his godson. "You can act like a man! Is this how you turned out? Hollywood hero who cries like a woman?" Second time: the film producer who won't give Fontane the part is served a horse's head in bed and sobs not only like a woman, but a woman who's slammed her thumb in a car door. Third time: when assassins ambush Brando at a fruit stand, Fredo weeps like a little boy, squatting next to the fallen don in denial with a .38 dangling impotently from his ring finger until he cries out, "PAPA!" Fourth time: Brando, lying wounded in a hospital bed, weeps tears of joy when favorite son Michael takes up his hand, kisses it and professes, "Pop, I'll take care of you. I'm with you now." Fifth time: Tom Hagen cries when he's misinformed by his abductors that Don Corleone is dead. Sixth time: the Don and Hagen share a cry when Hagen informs the Don that Sonny is dead. Seventh and final time: the Don looks over Sonny's bullet-riddled corpse with a pinched smile, fights for composure and laments, "Look, how they massacred my boy." Here, admittedly, Brando's tears don't well or fall, but he gets an assist from the plumbing in the background--we can actually hear the dank, lonesome drip of a faucet.

Sicilians, Coppola and The Godfather aside, the situations that bring an actor to tears are discreet and limited. Grief is one acceptable reason. In 1941's shameless tearjerker, Penny Serenade, Cary Grant's tears of grief are an early though not very encouraging example. A leading man if there ever was one, Grant revealed more of himself and connected better with actresses on the screen than almost any other actor of his time. But he didn't usually allow himself to be vulnerable or to indulge in sentimentality or to court pathos. Penny Serenade, in which he and Irene Dunne adopt an adorable baby girl, provides the rare occasion when he went for all three. Having lost his job and been presented with a court order that would take the child away, Grant pleads before the bench: "We love her, Judge. Please don't take her away from us. I'll do anything. I'll work for anybody." As he speaks, his eyes pulse with the sparkly brilliance of tears. But when his voice breaks, it's with all the sincerity of a secretary trying to talk herself out of a speeding ticket.

The quintessential instance of male grieving takes place in the 1993 film Shadowlands. Why is this scene so remarkable? First, a kid also weeps in it. Second, the man is shedding tears not just over the death of the woman he loved, but over the death of the only person he ever loved. But most important, the man playing the grieving man is Anthony Hopkins. In the scene, the boy so achingly misses his mother he's gone up to the attic to sit alone in despair. Hopkins comes upon him and sits down next to him. "I sure would like to see her again," the child weeps. "Me too," says Hopkins, pulling him close, "me too." Then, as Hopkins tries to say something else--to the boy, to the dead woman, to God, or to himself--he chokes so profoundly on his sorrow that for the next 20 seconds he can't get the sound coming out of him to form a word, and tears pour from his eyes. Talk about seeing the red light in the smoke detector--Hopkins is seeing it all here. Whatever he used for inspiration for this scene should be bottled and fed intravenously to unrepentant serial killers, I.R.S. auditors and the Swedish.

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