Big Boys Do Cry

4 minute read
Bruce Handy

My colleague Richard Corliss once dismissed the film Field of Dreams in these pages as “the male weepie at its wussiest.” I couldn’t agree more, and yet I sobbed when I first saw Field of Dreams in a theater in 1989; I sobbed again when I recently saw it on videotape, especially during the final scene, when Kevin Costner finally gets to play catch with his long-dead father. Watching this, I felt like the subject of an Oliver Sacks case study: I wanted to laugh derisively, of course, but the film somehow circumvented the part of my brain that controls critical judgment and beamed directly into the blubber lobe. My tears were compulsive, reflexive, the way I imagine tears to be for women when they watch female weepies like An Affair to Remember, in which Deborah Kerr can’t meet Cary Grant at the Empire State Building because she’s been hit by a car, or The English Patient, in which Kristin Scott Thomas can’t meet Ralph Fiennes because she has died alone in a cave. I mean, women are drawn to this material in a creepy, Pavlovian way, right? Surely they don’t enjoy it.

These musings were prompted by the just released film October Sky, another drama about a withholding father and a stubborn son that also made me cry. October Sky was produced by Charles Gordon, who also produced Field of Dreams, which makes him one of the great male-weepie auteurs. “The kid seeking his father’s acceptance is such a universal theme,” says Gordon. It’s also an old theme: if God had even once said he was sorry, or at least admitted he was a hard-ass and offered to take Abraham or Jesus out for a malted, I would probably have cried reading the Bible too.

Gordon’s latest work–a fine, well-acted film, by the way–is based on the memoir Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr., a former engineer at NASA who grew up in a small West Virginia coal town in the late ’50s hoping to pursue a career in rocketry. This was against the wishes of his father, who in the movie says things like, “Quit wastin’ time worryin’ about Wernher von Braun,” and “By golly, you’d find out [about life in the mines] soon enough.”

I don’t think I’m giving too much away to note that one, Homer makes good; and two, one of the film’s final images is of Dad’s arm giving Homer’s shoulder a paternal blessing as a rocket soars impossibly high into a deep blue sky–a male-weepie moment to rival Field of Dreams’ climax. An entire audience of NASA brass and astronauts was reportedly broken up at a preview screening in Washington, although when I checked this out with former astronaut Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, he gave me a cagey “not really” when I asked if he had cried. He also said he didn’t cry at the movie Apollo 13, even though it was his story, but admitted to having been made “emotional” by another Tom Hanks vehicle, Forrest Gump, which I always thought of as a real wussy movie, though I was too chicken to say so to Lovell.

As a kind of self-dare, I decided to immerse myself in the male-weepie canon, even though this meant viewing certain films I had been avoiding for decades, like Brian’s Song, Bang the Drum Slowly and The Great Santini. I also read Death of a Salesman and sought out a recording of the old Harry Chapin song Cat’s in the Cradle. Certain themes obviously undergird these works: dying fathers, dying athletes, dead fathers, dead athletes. These are romances, to be sure, but instead of the overblown, tear-jerking gestures of male-female romances, the car crashes and death caves and Barbra Streisand ballads (“Misty water-colored MEMMM-RIESSSS”), we have the tiny, crabbed, tear-jerking gestures of guyish intimacy: the game of catch, the hand on the shoulder, the locker room’s dopey, he-really-likes-you insults. But no pats on the butt! One of the most curious things I’ve noticed about male weepies is that–in an effort to diffuse even the suggestion of homoeroticism?–they tend to lack sex of any sort. But who needs that old thing when you’ve got Dad, a ball and a mitt?

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