Having just seen My Sister's Keeper, I feel I am perfectly situated at the moment to work on the development of a taxonomy of crying in the movies. This movie — and if this is a spoiler for you, then I cannot help you — contains a great deal of crying.
New Line Cinema
My Sister's Keeper: If you want to study movie crying, you could do a lot worse.
New Line Cinema
Not all crying is the same, of course. Some crying is pitiful, while some crying is angry. Also, some crying is well-acted, while some crying is Luke Skywalker saying, "That's not true...that's impossible!" with all the authentic, raw emotion you would get if you were to cast Ryan Seacrest in a production of King Lear.
So let us review. We will look at examples where available.
The Brave Lip Quiver Of The Apparently Doomed
There's actually a lot of this one in My Sister's Keeper. This is how you cry when you are very sick, but you don't want anyone to worry about you. It involves quite a bit of tearing up and a break in your voice, but no sobbing. For you are brave. Very often, the effect is to make the other person burst into wet, sloppy tears through the sheer force of your noble bravery. At which point: you win.
The Masculine Welling-Up That Doesn't Make You Any Less Of A Dude, Man
Think of John McClane in the bathroom in Die Hard. Sure, he's picking glass out of his feet. But the real reason he's weepy is that he's begun to realize that he truly loves his estranged wife and regrets that he may be massacred at Christmas by a colorful band of international terrorists before he gets a chance to confess that he shouldn't have been such a jerk about her taking a new job. The worst thing about dying at the hands of a colorful band of international terrorists: unfinished conversations.
The Soft Whimper Of True Love
I apologize for reminding you of "You had me at hello," which we are so close to being entirely finished with, now that it has had its full run of regular overexposure followed by its full run of ironic overexposure, but this is the form of crying you get right when Renee Zellweger says, "You had me at hello." Earlier in the movie, she cried the Happy Tears Of Hooray, Hooray, I Am Glad You Proposed, but only true love makes her whimper. (Note: she is responding to a Masculine Welling-Up, see above. You can tell that's what it is because he cries while saying "tough competitors.")
Major breakdowns, Meg Ryan, human biology, and much more, after the jump...
The Total Unabashed Public Breakdown Of Why God Why
In Steel Magnolias, Sally Field chooses a funeral, which is as good a place as any, to completely collapse and sob uncontrollably about fate, the cruelty of the universe, and so forth. This requires a good bellow and is therefore a little exhausting, but the upside is that it is highly likely to result in an award. Restraint is not called for. You are railing at the universe; if you are not loud enough, it may not hear you. No, louder.
The Chest-Beating Shriek Of You Just Killed My Brother
At about 3:30 in the above clip from West Side Story, you will see Natalie Wood attempt to hang on to her Puerto Rican accent while simultaneously crying and beating on the chest of poor Richard Beymer. Fortunately, it does not go on very long. Killer killer killer killer killer. Fortunately, while I'm not sure I remember the exact ending of this movie, I think the tragedy is behind her and it's blue skies after this, right?
The Lonely Tear
A great builder of tension. At the end of Ghost, as Patrick Swayze's Sam is being carried off by a four-thousand-watt floodlight, Demi Moore manages to leave her tears snuggled against her eyeballs for most of the scene, while the viewer watches patiently to see when one will finally make its escape, which it does at just the right moment. This can also happen when you are very sad about litter.
The All-Too-Authentic Drainage Incident
It's not too obvious when you look at the clip this way, but during the single scene that earned Viola Davis her Oscar nomination for Doubt, she's crying in a very realistic fashion that involves a seriously runny nose. When her nose was several feet high in the theater, it was a little bit conspicuous. If done well, however, it really sells the product.
The Delicate Shimmer That Says, Blink-Blink-Blink, Really?
Here, Meg Ryan doesn't cry during the fighting part of the end of When Harry Met Sally. She cries only after Billy Crystal gives her the "I love you because you are extremely strange in a way I at least recognize as unique" speech. Blink-blink, says Meg Ryan! Really? Oh, really? Tears of joy! Little tears of joy!
I encourage you to add your favorite and least favorite instances of movie crying in the comments, as we move toward a more complete understanding of this unappreciated art.