From Brian's Song to Terms of Endearment, Cancer's 5 Greatest Screen Performances

Single-named phenomenon Cancer has a deservedly chilly reputation outside of Hollywood, but in films, the heterogeneous class of diseases inhabits a world all its own as a performer, provocateur and villain. In this week's 50/50, Cancer arrives with a harrumph and lingers like a noxious haze, making it the Joan Crawford of 2011. This begs the question: What are Cancer's five greatest performances in cinema? The answer will force you into a beautiful monologue.

5. Brian's Song

Cancer smartly appealed to the male population in one of its first starring outings, choosing to illuminate the plight of football icon Brian Piccolo. In this landmark TV movie, James Caan plays the sick star, and Billy Dee Williams plays Gale Sayers, the Bears legend who gives a thoughtful, poignant speech about his friend. Note the fearsome presence of Cancer, which pervades the room with real star potential.

4. Dying Young

Here it is: Cancer's guilty pleasure. While many tearjerker illness films softly tread on past successes in the same subgenre, Julia Roberts cries ultra-loudly in this romantic yarn with Campbell Scott. It's the right movie to cry at, even if the characters are more interesting than the predicament they're in. Cancer likes to pretend it did a lot of the work here, but our titular duo is compelling enough without a life-threatening circumstances. You're righteous, Cancer, but you're not the true star here!

3. One True Thing

Realism is important, and nobody knows this better than Cancer. In this family drama, we watch as Renee Zellweger comes to grips with her parents -- especially her mother (Meryl Streep), whose sickness requires a frosty Zellweger to move in and learn how to take care of her. It's a movie that won't wow you with Cancer's range, but its fiery antagonism is never in question, even if Cancer is often soft-spoken throughout this movie.

2. Terms of Endearment

Cancer barely even read the script for the first half of Terms of Endearment, and in the second half, it hogged all the attention and forced Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine to schedule around it. This is where it becomes a story with a semblance of a spine. Sure, MacLaine and Nicholson scored Academy wins, but it's Cancer that brought them to their best point. It's the performance that makes you forgive Cancer's gimmicky, cloying performances in movies like Love Story and The Family Stone.

1. Wit

After Cancer accepted that it was never going to win the Oscar, it downgraded itself to the small screen figuring its polarizing technique would work on pay-cable. Cancer was right. In this Mike Nichols-helmed HBO adaptation of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning play, Emma Thompson triumphs as the terminally ill professor Vivian Bearing, whose comprehension of John Donne's works helps propel her through incessant rounds of chemotherapy. Cancer is a jack-of-all-trades in this movie, moving gracefully from lighthearted moments into utter devastation, and that's why Wit topples a Best Picture like Terms of Endearment. It's poetic, but unpretentious. And the Cancer finds a way into every verse, breath and punctuation mark of Vivian's journey, taking on layered meanings as she deciphers the segue (or is it a comma?) between life and death. C'mon, Cancer deserved a Saturn Award here. At least.


  • Jason says:

    "Cancer arrives with a harrumph and lingers like a noxious haze, making it the Joan Crawford of 2011." Hahahahahaha. Thank you for giving Cancer's work in "Wit" the credit it deserves. I know "50/50" was going for something else entirely, but next to "Wit," it just seemed so shallow and flippant.

  • kristie says:

    Javier Bardem in Biutiful should not go unrecognized. Heartwrenching.

  • dan ginavan says:

    Wit is a lovely film, but it has one major weakness. Doctors are cold and uncaring, and nurses are the font of love and compassion. I'm not writing about nurses, I know a lot of nurses (A LOT) Many nurses are the font of love and compassion. But oncologists, who deal with cancer, palliative care, and hospice on a daily basis, who are in fact completely absorbed with those topics are usually a pretty damn compassionate bunch too. The doctor portrayal in Wit should remove it from this list, although the film is great in every other way.

  • Didn't see "Wit" but I know from being a doctor and having to tell someone they are dying from cancer that you are never the same afterwards. It is easy in the movies to portray the uncaring doctor who only wants to continue life. The reality is far more complicated and messy. People need hope above all else even in their darkest hours. Take it away and they die quickly without a fight. Give them hope when their is none and they know it instinctively. Doctors are not uncaring, they just have an impossible balance to strike.