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Sad movies have therapeutic value, experts say

| Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some movies are designed to tug gently on your heartstrings. Others, without warning, just give them a big yank.

"My Sister's Keeper" (starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin), opening this weekend, is about a young girl who discovers she was conceived as a "harvest child" to grow kidneys for her leukemia-stricken older sister. She sues her parents for the right to make her own decisions about her body.

We can pretty much guarantee this is at least a two-hankie movie -- it's directed by Nick Cassavetes, who also directed the weepy romance "The Notebook."

We line up to cry, year after year, for movies designed specifically to manipulate our emotions to the point of collapse. Seriously, why do we enjoy emotional movies that drive us to tears•

The answer is a little more complicated than it first seems.

"I can only speak from my experience here, but I must say that my favorite all-time reason to go to sad movies is to grieve," says Adrienne Wehr, producer of "The Bread, My Sweet" (2001), a locally made film that is both very sad and very good. "I love being 'alone' in a theatre and witnessing a sad film, when I myself am in a place of sadness. The tears gush, and, while I may appear fairly wrecked afterward, my load has somehow been lightened for having let loose a floodgate of feelings.

"Plus, I love sad movies even when I'm not sad, simply for their keen ability to conjure up a world of feeling within me -- rooting me in my state of being alive here on earth, having this very human experience."

The thing that makes sad movies sad usually is the threat of abandonment and loss, says Paul Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside.

"Leaving -- people, animals, things -- is a common theme," he says. "My favorite was 'Old Yeller' (1957). This kid -- I was about the same age -- had this wonderful dog that got rabid, and they had to shoot him. I cried for days. I still think of it today."

Ultimately, these movies are really talking about death. Of course, not every sad movie is literally about death, but anytime someone or something important leaves us, it's a subtle reminder.

"They might all have to do with death and dying, which is the ultimate abandonment," Friday says. "All of these sad movies are symbolic representations of what's inside every human brain -- this need to be connected, in order to be safe. We're social animals. When people say goodbye after long connections, that's not something that's learned. Mothers will start dreaming very early on that their children are leaving."

But why do we enjoy this• Do we get some kind of subliminal thrill from this momentary brush with loss -- and, symbolically, with death•

Yes, sort of.

According to Dr. Birgit Wolz, a psychotherapist, author and "cinema therapist" based in Oakland, Calif., the painful emotions released by sad movies often are helpful.

"Sad movies make us feel alive because of catharsis," Wolz says. "Painful emotions can do more than produce tears by watching sad films -- they have also been proven to create stress chemicals in our bodies. Catharsis helps to counter these by releasing buried feelings. Nature has provided us natural cathartic processes like laughing and crying to move us through and beyond our pain."

Sad movies can help us intuitively work through -- and sometimes overcome -- old, unresolved grief and trauma, Wolz notes.

"What makes sad movies so 'enjoyable' is this: They allow us to confront very real and deeply sad feelings in a safe and protected environment," she says. "They allow us to confront real issues by experiencing 'reality' in a safe distance on the screen because our emotional responses feel real.

"Movies draw us into the viewing experience but, at the same time -- often more easily than in real life -- afford a unique opportunity to retain a perspective outside the experience, the observer's view."

Wolz, who runs a Web site called , has found sad movies to be an invaluable tool in her therapy practice.

"Because many films transmit ideas through emotion rather than intellect, they can neutralize the instinct to suppress feelings and trigger emotional release," she says. By eliciting emotions, watching movies can open doors that otherwise might stay closed.

"For many of my clients, it is safer and therefore easier to let go of their defenses while watching a movie than it is in real life with real people. By identifying with certain characters and their predicaments, they can experience emotions that lie hidden from their awareness."

This isn't merely a chick-flick phenomenon -- there are plenty of tear-jerkers out there for guys, too. You'd have to be a stoic dude indeed to not well up a little during the baseball/fatherhood parable "Field of Dreams" (1989), or the part of "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) when Mrs. Ryan is informed that three of her four sons have been killed on D-Day.

Guys have the same tear ducts that women do. It just helps if the context is important enough -- sports, for example -- that their use is warranted.

For the most part, however, sad movies just don't have the same effect on men, Friday says.

"Guys will go to a sad movie, go home and watch a hockey game," he says. "Women will keep crying. Women will hold on to very intense things. Guys, by our very nature, we let go. Unless it's a real trauma.

"Guys will go have a beer and talk about Santonio Holmes. Their wives will talk about which scene is saddest."

The great sad movies

The American Film Institute has long held a mission to preserve and honor the history of film, and is probably best known for its many lists of the 100 greatest films of all time in various categories -- "100 Years ... 100 Laughs," "100 Years ... 100 Thrills," and so on.

Surprisingly, it hasn't come up with a list of the great tear-jerkers of all time. But they were happy to speculate about what would be included if such a list were to be assembled.

"If you are equating sad with 'tear-jerker,' off the top of my head, I am certain that 'Titanic' (1997) would be right up there, as would things like 'Terms of Endearment' (1983) and 'The Notebook' (2004)," says Patricia King Hanson, executive editor and project director for AFI Catalog of Feature Films. "And, of course, for sheer sentimental power, there's nothing like 'It's a Wonderful Life.'"

Unremarkable, forgettable tear-jerkers are easy to make and easy to find -- there are entire cable channels dedicated to them. But the truly great tear-jerkers all have one thing in common -- they're great films first, with great stories, directing and acting.

"You also have to have something that strikes a universal chord, even if the situation is rather far-fetched," Hanson says. "'An Affair to Remember' (1957), for example, had something of a silly premise -- that the Deborah Kerr character would be paralyzed in an accident moments before having her reunion with Cary Grant.

"But audiences can identify, because they become so attached to the character. They want Cary and Deborah to be together and are crushed when their happiness is delayed. It may not have happened to us in the audience, but we can identify with the way they feel because everyone has had disappointments in their lives."

Of course, there's a fine line between "moving" and "mawkish" or "maudlin" that many of these films tend to cross.

"It's hard to define, but, in my case, when a scene comes on that really seems designed to make me cry, I've emotionally left the movie," Hanson says. "Generally speaking, movies -- especially TV movies -- about fatal diseases seem overly mawkish."

Just about everybody -- even professional film historians who quite literally have seen it all -- can admit occasionally being caught off guard by a movie that unexpectedly caused the tears to flow. For Hanson, it's "The Lion in Winter" (1968).

Reader responses

"In the scene in which King Henry (Peter O'Toole) is lamenting everything he's lost and his failure, Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) cries and tells him she's lost more because she lost him," Hanson says. "That struck me because, no matter who we are, losing the love of someone you feel deeply about can even make a queen feel like a failure."

'Cold Mountain'

I'm a sucker for an emotional love story. "Cold Mountain" is such a heart-wrenching tale of uncontested love between a man (Jude Law) and a woman (Nicole Kidman). I'm not a fan of war, but this movie just makes me grab the box of Kleenex.

-- Ellen Popovich, New Kensington

'A New Leaf'

I love the movie "A New Leaf." Walter Matthau portrays a high-living playboy who's running out of funds. To solve the problem, Matthau's character courts, and subsequently marries, a ditsy, unattractive heiress/botanist, played by Elaine May. Following the wedding, Matthau plots to kill her for her money. The ending always leaves me in tears. I've tried to analyze why, and realize it's because that particular movie is very true to life. I've lived long enough to notice that we don't usually get what we were trying for and expecting. What we do get is probably what we needed all along.

-- Carolyn Taylor, Greensburg

'Imitation of Life'

The movie that (made me cry) the most was "Imitation of Life" with Lana Turner. When I was a young girl, my mom and I would watch this movie and bawl our eyes out practically every year it was on TV. We would go through a box of Kleenex. It was a moving story about a mother and her love for her daughter. My mom has since past away, but every time I see this movie, I think of the nights we would stay up to watch it. Now I have daughters of my own, and we have watched this movie and bawled our eyes out.

-- Cindy Kaufold, Munhall

'The Notebook'

"The Notebook" is the movie that drives me to tears every time I watch it. I remember reading the book before I saw the movie, and I sobbed and cried the whole way through it. Then, watching the movie and knowing what was going to happen made me cry even harder. This was a beautiful love story, and for anyone who has or had a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, you feel the pain. Great movie!

-- Dot Ostronic, Pittsburgh


Without a doubt, one movie that always moves me to tears is "Ghost." The thought of being able to touch the one you love just one more time, and to see that person once again, would be life altering! No one that I know is able to hold the tears back when that movie is on!

-- Kathy Ansell, Scottdale

'All Mine to Give'

The movie is about a poor family whose father dies. They struggle to survive. The mother gets sick, and as she is dying, she asks the oldest child to take care of his siblings. The eldest child can't find one family to take all the kids, so he must split them up among several families. This movie will require several boxes of tissue.

-- Suzanne Fabrizio

'Imitation of Life'

One tear-jerker that always makes me cry is the "Imitation of Life." This movie reminds me that we sometimes do not realize how much we love our mother (or father) until we lose them. It's also heartbreaking to lose a parent without telling them you loved them. We see this when Sarah Jane returns to her mother's funeral without having had a chance to tell her how much she loved her.

-- Doris Sobota, Blairsville

'Homeward Bound'

As an avid movie enthusiast, it pains me to say that the first film to pop into my head was ... "Disney's Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey." As a 38-year-old mother of three, I have seen the film many, many, many times! Yet, I burst into tears at the end of the film when the elderly dog, Shadow, limps up over the hill toward his young master and utters the words, "Oh Peter, I worried about you so." (Good Lord, I am tearing up even now just thinking about it!) I don't even have to sit through the entire film; I can just stroll past the television carrying some laundry upstairs and catch a glimpse of that battered, bruised heroic golden retriever, and the waterworks begin! My kids think it is hilarious!

-- Monique Kraus, Beaver


"Shadowlands" makes me cry every time I see the look on Anthony Hopkins' face when he gazes at Debra Winger on her death bed. My husband gave me the same look when I suffered Hodgkin's disease in 1972. It is such a tender look of love.

-- Patricia Orendorff Smith, Indiana


To be so in love and broken apart so suddenly makes me weep. I've watched it 10 times, and every time it makes me realize how fragile life is. I feel their pain -- how could you not cry• It makes you understand that, when someone you love walks out the door, make sure you give them a hug and tell then you love them. You may never get another chance.

-- Pat Ahlborn, Youngwood

'Madame X'

I didn't have to think for one minute -- my every time cry movie is "Madame X" with Lana Turner and John Forsythe. It's one of several remakes of a movie about an attorney defending a woman accused of murder, not knowing that it is his mother. I defy anyone to watch it and not cry!

-- Sally Wingert, Greensburg

'The Man in the Moon'

It's just a wonderful story about family, friendship, first love, tragedy and forgiveness. Reese Witherspoon plays a 13-year-old that develops a friendship/crush on an older teenage neighbor boy. But he soon meets her 16-year-old sister and they fall in love. He is killed in a farming accident, and both sisters are grieving. The scene that makes me cry every time is when Reese's character sees her sister sobbing on the boy's grave and goes over and comforts her. No words spoken, but it is one of the most powerful scenes. I've probably seen this movie over 20 times!

-- Natasha Kreutzberger, Harrison City

'The Notebook'

I am embarrassed to say it, but "The Notebook" made me cry like a baby, and I am a man of 50-plus years. It just struck me as moving when the central characters die in each other's arms at the same time. I didn't see it coming, although I did pretty much figure out that it was themselves they were telling the story about. I challenge anyone to watch that movie in its entirety and be dry-eyed at the finish! My family laughed at me when I told them, and then they watched it and also cried. How could you not?

-- Jeffery J. Jackson, Pittsburgh

'Marley & Me'

Toward the end of the movie, during the really emotional part when Marley was going to be put to sleep, while I was hunting for a tissue in my purse, my husband elbowed me to also give him one -- and he doesn't cry for anything! We were not the only ones. All you could hear throughout the theater was the sounds of sniffles and sobs.

-- Valerie and John Sever, Hutchinson


The movie that makes me cry and has made me cry for years is Walt Disney's "Bambi." It just tears your heart out to hear Bambi calling for his mother when she has been shot and doesn't answer. This movie will always touch your heart. I remember taking my kid sister and sons when they were little to see the movie at the theatre and also crying just hearing those little children sobbing their hearts out. At the ripe old age of 78, I still cry when I watch "Bambi."

-- Dolores Bredl, New Castle

'Dr. Zhivago'

The first time I saw "Dr. Zhivago," I missed a good bit of dialogue because I was crying so hard I couldn't hear what the actors were saying. Near the end of the movie, when Yuri Zhivago sees Lara from the bus and cannot get her attention and then dies -- let's just say I was much moved. I saw it at least a dozen more times at the movies. Four years after the movie came out, my daughter was born and I named her Lara after the main female character. I have the movie on VHS and have watched it many times through the years. It's a wonder I didn't name my son Yuri.

-- Teresa Cecchetti, Lower Burrell

'The Christmas Shoes'

I'm not one to watch a movie more than once. However, I can watch this one any time it's on. I like the story line -- a young boy is trying to buy his dying mother a pair of Christmas shoes -- and Rob Lowe.

-- Chris Crytzer, Coraopolis


According to my son, the movie he thinks is a movie that gets to a guy is "Rudy." Since no guy wants to admit that a song brings tears to their eyes, I had to settle for "it just does."

-- Joanne Slappo, South Park

'All Mine to Give'

The story involves a family's desperate times when the father of six children dies. The mother is left to take (a job) sewing to support her family. Winter comes, and she falls ill to typhoid fever. Before dying, she calls her eldest son, Robbie, to her bedside and asks him to find good homes for the children. Robbie and his brother Jimmy visit the people in the village to find homes for all their siblings. The scenes are heart-wrenching, seeing the family torn apart. Robbie had given his siblings a Christmas not imagined. I was sobbing so hard I could hardly breathe to see this family torn apart.

-- Paulette Mike, Lower Burrell

'The Way We Were'

This was easy! I was 17, and my boyfriend had just broken up with me. My girlfriends and I went to the movies -- and this one did not help my emotional state! Hearing the title song still takes me back to the '70s. "Can it be that it was all so simple then?" Yes, it was!

-- Kim Schneider, Brackenridge


The movie that always makes me cry is "Titanic." Even when I try to watch it after all these years. The last 5 minutes are the hardest, because my grandmother died right before the release of this movie. The ending for me is a real tear-jerker.

-- Jeff Crock, Lake City

'Enchanted Cottage'

One movie that is guaranteed to make my husband and me cry is an old black-and-white called "Enchanted Cottage." It might be a little soppy, but it is a beautiful love story between a disfigured man and a plain girl. Since I have watched it many times, I start to tear up even before certain scenes start!

-- Beth Dananay, Pittsburgh

'The Sound of Music'

The one movie that gets me every time I watch it is "The Sound of Music," my all-time favorite. It especially touches me because the heroine and I share the name Maria. So I have always identified with Julie Andrews' portrayal of Maria Von Trapp. When she walks down the aisle in that beautiful wedding gown in that magnificent cathedral while the orchestral version of "How Do You Solve a Problem ..." is playing, I bawl every time!

-- Maria Brinza, Greensburg

'King Kong'

I have never been able to watch "King Kong" meet his demise on the top of the Empire State Building without shedding quite a lot of tears. The latest version of the film was one of the best -- the ape had quite a personality, which made one feel more sorry about his fate. It's man's greed, quest for fame, and all the usual suspects that make this film so sad.

-- A. Massimino, Latrobe

'Love Story'

I love to cry at movies! I've been crying for 53 years. But there is one movie that really got the tears flowing. One evening, when I was in high school, I went to the movies with my mother to see "Love Story." I started getting weepy about halfway through the movie. By the end, I was sobbing out loud! My mother was a little embarrassed at my emotional release. She kept leaning over, handing me a tissue and telling me it was only a movie. It was great! As I left the theater with a red nose and swollen eyes, two little ladies came up to me, patted my hands and asked me if I needed anything. Mom was totally mortified as I walked after her shouting, "Love means you never have to say you're sorry!"

-- Kathy Brown, Ligonier

'La Vie en Rose'

One that stands out is "La Vie en Rose," the biopic of Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow, a true story of a tortured genius. I just loved this film, Marion Cotillard who portrayed Edith Piaf, and the theme song, "Je ne regrette rien" (No, I regret nothing). I am stunned that she lived her rags-to-riches story in just 47 years. I openly wept a number of times during this amazing film.

-- Lawna Blankenship, Venetia

'Marley & Me'

By far, "Marley & Me" has been the most emotional movie that we've seen in years. It hit home like gangbusters. The movie and our lives were one and the same. A year before the movie was released, we had to put our beloved Brittany to sleep. The way Marley acted and the way Brittany acted was duplicate.

The whole vet scene was copying ours. It was like it was happening to us all over again. Brittany may be gone from our lives, but she will never be forgotten.

-- Denise Brzezinski, Vandergrift

'Meet Joe Black'

The movie that makes me cry so easily, especially near the end, is "Meet Joe Black." I relate well to the main character played by Anthony Hopkins. He is a 65-year-old man who is visited by the Angel of Death, played by Brad Pitt. As he tells his daughters how much he loves them and how proud he is of the women they have become, I can't help but think of my three daughters. His special relationship with his youngest is also as it is with mine. I am 71 years of age and happily married to my lovely wife of 41 years. Even though Anthony Hopkins' character is a widower, I still relate with the love he has for his girls.

-- Tony Randazzo, Pittsburgh


In 1982, while a Chartiers Valley High School student, I took a girl to see "E.T." She was bawling her eyes out when it appeared he was dead, but I was crying, too. I always was proud of the fact that I was able to put my arm around my head from behind and wipe my eyes in a sneaky fashion. Now, all these years later, I decided to watch with my 6- and 3-year-old sons, trying not to get emotional again. The end of that movie still chokes me up, when he has to say "goodbye" to E.T., gets the hug, and the little alien rubs his back with his fingers. Very well-done flick and certainly a classic.

-- John Duffy, Upper St. Clair

'Steel Magnolias'

"Steel Magnolias" makes me cry every time I watch it. Sally Fields has a way of bringing you into her character, Malin, through the story of her daughter's struggle with severe diabetes. By the time Julia Roberts' character, Shelby, dies, I am so caught up in the emotions of the strong mother/daughter relationship that these two shared. The part that makes me lose it, however, is in the cemetery when Malin is coming to terms with having just buried her daughter, and her friends rally around her after she is completely emotionally spent. It is such a wonderful movie of female relationships, both family and friends. I guess I see some of my mom and my friends in those characters.

-- Amy Myers, Pittsburgh

'Marley & Me'

The saddest movie I have seen in a long time is "Marley & Me." Several people told me it was sad, but I did not expect to actually sob for about 15 minutes. It brought back so many memories of pets that we loved so much who are no longer with us and the tough end-of-life decisions we had to make.

-- Donna Bodnar, Pittsburgh

'Sophie's Choice'

No doubt about it -- "Sophie's Choice." As a mother, my heart ripped when I heard the choice she had to make. First, she is told one of her children will die. Then, she is told it is her choice which one. As soon as she makes the choice, the baby is ripped from her arms and gone. Then the remaining child is taken away, and she never sees him again, either. She never knows if he lived or died. To live with the memory, the heartache and the guilt is living death. I have never cried over a movie like I did that one. I still cry whenever I think about it.

-- Susan Pletcher, Scottdale

'Imitation of Life'

"Imitation of Life" is a movie made in 1959. I saw this movie on TV for the first time when I was in grade school. It is the first movie that ever made me cry, and every time I have seen it over the years, it has had the same effect. It made me cry because it clearly depicted pure love and selflessness and deep loss. I think this movie is the greatest tear-jerker of all time. I hope they never do a remake.

-- Kate McParlane

'The Bridges of Madison County'

The movie that does it for me every time is "The Bridges of Madison County." I lived the life Meryl Streep depicted in that movie, being married but needing and wanting something more, feeling like my life was going nowhere and having in your grasp an exciting possible future, but feeling trapped. My life did end up happier, because I followed the path she did not take. But that movie was my life for years.

-- Josie Henk, West Mifflin

'An Officer and a Gentleman'

Being a man, I hate to admit to it, but the movie "An Officer and a Gentleman." I watch it every chance I can, and the scene where Richard Gere comes to get Debra Winger after graduating from Naval Officer school. He enters the plant where she's working and picks her up and carries her away with his hat on her head, and the musical song sung by Joe Crocker brings tears to my eyes, knowing she's headed for a better life with him.

-- Regis W. Brucker Sr., Brackenridge

'Turner and Hooch'

I can watch the Titanic sink or any other disaster and never shed a tear. Broken relationships, mushy endings and psychological studies bore me. But, put me in front of a movie in which the dog/horse/etc. dies, and I am a sobbing mess. "Turner and Hooch" is one of the movies that has made me grab the tissues. Both Turner (Tom Hanks) and Hooch (dog) are great characters and work hard to develop a relationship. Hootch becomes loyal to Turner, who cares for him, but we don't know how loyal until (Oh my goodness, I am crying typing this!) Hooch gives his life to save Turner's life. Hooch dies, and Turner cries. I sobbed! (I need that tissue now, please!)

-- Christine Sokalski, New Kensington

'Father of the Bride'

As a parent of two children, I can only imagine what it will be like on the day they get married. This movie has a way of tugging at my heartstrings. My children don't "get it" when they see me crying every time I watch this movie. I guess it's something only a parent can understand. But it's the way the movie is told through the eyes of George, the father. The way he recalls his time with his daughter as she was growing up, to present day. And he has to realize that she is no longer "daddy's little girl" as he sees her falling in love and eventually getting married. The movie provides comic relief at just the right times, which is what gets me through. I give it a 7 out of 10 tissue rating!

-- Joyce F. Eger, Greensburg

'Imitation of Life'

The movie "Imitation of Life" with Lana Turner makes me cry every time I see it. A young woman passes for white and denies her black mother until her mother dies and she realizes what she's lost. It's truly a classic in my book.

-- Fran Accamando, Pittsburgh

'Song of the South,' 'The Notebook'

The first movie I ever cried at was "Song of the South" when I was a little girl. But the saddest movie I ever watched was "The Notebook." I cried for hours after that movie was over.

-- Linda Brecht, Export

'Terms of Endearment'

This movie showed the love between a mother and a daughter, even though they fought like crazy and were two totally different people. The part where Shirley MacLaine is screaming at the nurse to give her daughter her pain medication is the one that always gets to me.

-- Georgia Marhefka, Pittsburgh

Additional Information:

The winners

We asked readers to tell us which movies make them cry.

From all the entries received, we picked three people at random to each receive a $50 movie gift card -- and a box of tissues.

The winners are:

• Cindy Kaufold of Munhall

• Regis Brucker Sr. of Brackenridge

• Linda Brecht of Export