The 50 Greatest Tearjerkers

By EW Staff
Updated November 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

SPOILER ALERT! We give away the plots — and even endings — of some of the movies covered within. If you don’t wanna know, flip ahead to page 82.

”Emotional roller coaster” is a horrible, hackneyed phrase, but it’s a cliche for a reason: Something in our nature craves a ride on the ol’ manipulation machine. Nine times out of 10, we know long before pushing play that the movie involves a terminally ill loved one, or an impossible love, or a giant robot that dies for our sins. And then there are the ambushes we still haven’t gotten over…like Bambi’s mom. (Let’s not talk about Bambi’s mom, okay?) Yes, there’s something about fictitious grief — different, it must be noted, from the real thing. (That’s why you won’t find The Sorrow and the Pity, or any other documentary, on our list.) Sure, laughter may be the best medicine — but discriminating depressives know that nothing beats a good sob.

1 Terms of Endearment

Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger (1983, Paramount) Blame it all on Huckleberry Fox. The towheaded tyke was only 8 years old when Terms of Endearment was filmed, but Fox, who played Debra Winger’s younger son, Teddy, in the cancer-in-the-heartland comedy-drama, delivered perhaps the most sob-worthy performance in screen history. Of course, Fox was surrounded by a perfectly schmaltz-free cast — including Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, whose riotous December-December romance earned them both Academy Awards. And he was beautifully guided by that master of unforced emotion, James L. Brooks, who won three Oscars for the film (for adapting Larry McMurtry’s novel, directing, and producing). Still, no performer, prepubescent or otherwise, has ever had such power over our tear ducts as Fox. One third of the way into the movie, when Mom comes up a few dollars short on the supermarket checkout line, young Huckleberry brings on the throat lumps by relinquishing his prized Clark bar, saying, ”I don’t need it.” KLEENEX MOMENT MacLaine is at her devastating best as she takes down an entire nurses’ station by screaming ”Give my daughter the shots!” But when a deathbed-ridden Winger says her final goodbye to her boys, it’s Fox who causes the Great Flood of Our Living Rooms. He utters one line (”Why don’t you shut up, shut up!” delivered to his bratty older brother), but he expresses the unspeakable by scrunching his tiny face into a ball of profound grief and fear, thereby endearing us all to him for a lifetime.

2 Bambi

Animated (1942, Disney, VHS only) From the stillness of a doe and her newborn fawn to the fade-out, in which he watches over his own newborn offspring, Bambi enchantingly touches on all the important stages in the cycle of life. Most of what The Lion King got right, it got from Bambi. But few films can match this movie’s visual beauty, or its depth of emotion. KLEENEX MOMENT That day when ”Man” enters the forest, wild things flee, a shot rings out — and Bambi learns he’ll never see his mother again. You witness this scene as a child and it stays with you forever.

An Affair To Remember

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  • Leo McCarey