Crying: The Power of a Good Cry – The New York Times

The Great Read
Tears are central to great acting. A lifetime of weeping at the movies has taught me how much letting it all go in real life can matter, too.
Credit…Illustration by James Zucco
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I was 6 the first time I cried in a movie theater. It was at “E.T.,” after the government seizes Elliott’s house in order to conduct experiments on the alien who has become a member of the family. Something about the plastic and the tubing and the hazmat of it all just wrecked me, something about how E.T. had gone from brown to ashen, from vibrant to moribund, the way his precious potted geraniums had wilted. I cried, hard enough that the sobbing impaired my vision, hard enough that my poor mother leaned over and asked if we should leave. She thought I was unhappy, but I wasn’t. Not at all. Once E.T. is finally rescued and Elliott, his brother and their friends go sailing through the sky, I kept crying. As high up as they were, I was higher. The minute the movie was over, I wanted to feel whatever that was again.
What I’d felt was the ancient power of art to make a puddle of us. “E.T.” led me into a love affair with being made to cry among strangers in the dark. I almost typed “being reduced to tears,” except where is the reduction? Crying for art is an honor, an exaltation, a salute. It’s applause with mucus and salt. I’m not the only person who lost it at “E.T.” It was the No. 1 movie of 1982. And what I presume we all experienced was a willingness to give ourselves over to the ridiculous beauty of a story about feeling everything.
Usually, my crying has warranted some explanation — in the first grade, as a movie critic. I’ve had to clarify lots of tears. The ones shed for the freeze-framed triumph that ends Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”; for the dissonant moment, in “Avatar,” when James Cameron zooms us, for the first time, around his imperialist 3-D coloring book. The hardest crying I’d done since “E.T.” was at the closing shot of Spike Lee’s “Clockers.” It’s just Mekhi Phifer staring at the desert through a picture window on a speeding train. I was a junior in college; Phifer was about my age, and I understood the stroke of profound fortune that whisked his character from drug-dealing, poverty and probable death in Brooklyn to parts West. The wonder on his face, the circumstantial auspiciousness of that imagery — its fruity vividness — showed me to myself.
These many years of lachrymosity have opened up an immense appreciation for professional tears. Actors guide us away from any shame we might harbor over our own weeping: In the relative anonymity of a darkened theater, their crying frees us to let go. Viola Davis, for instance, cries the way I do: with everything she’s got. But also with more than I have. And mostly with her nose. The tears in a Viola Davis cry can seem hazardously indistinguishable from snot. Not a weep so much as a gush. When a dam breaks on one of Davis’s characters, though, she maintains a balance between poise and collapse. The dam won’t break her. She knows what happens when she’s upset, and no amount of fluid shall derail a full expression of the heartbreak whose delegate is facial discharge.
Anytime waterworks overtake Davis, I wonder how she does it. Where did she go in order to come back with this? Among the instruments in an actor’s tool kit, none are more mysterious than crying. It’s an expression of emotion that only the body can certify. Although the body needn’t always secrete. Julianne Moore excels at a dry-heaving style that often settles between an asthma attack and an engine that won’t turn over. How is she able to work herself into complete, sublingual devastation the minute someone shouts, “Action”?
Tom Cruise muscles out his tears so it’s not crying so much as a bench press. Angela Bassett’s face becomes a furious scene of quaking, hazy devastation; napalm in the mourning. Isabelle Huppert is a melting ice cap; Penélope Cruz a meadow at dawn. Will Smith can seem mad that somebody got him out here looking like this — all tenderized. Gwyneth Paltrow becomes an elbow that’s just scraped concrete, while psychosis seems to overtake Mel Gibson until his tears appear to be crying him. The faucet you forgot to turn off? Jessica Lange. And Anne Hathaway? She brings out the Sir Mix-a-Lot in me: I like big ducts and I cannot lie! Julia Roberts is the divine ripsnorter of weeping. We’ve hailed Meryl Streep as our greatest screen actor, but she’s also the Chinese restaurant menu of crying, “The Hours” being Item No. 88 — under “soup”; that movie has so many mighty criers that it’s actually a pool party. Then there’s the lone tear that Denzel Washington releases as he is whipped in “Glory”: Two centuries of exploitation in a rivulet of damnation.
“Broadcast News” is the great American movie about crying. Holly Hunter plays a daily weeper in love with William Hurt until she finds out he faked tears in an interview. His ginned-up feelings are a breach of both journalistic ethics and her sense of emotional hygiene. But perhaps the movies’ most ferocious crier is Glenn Close. No one appears to have given the act more choreography and less shame. A Close cry refuses a distinction between the physical and the emotional. It’s something most performances leave to the face, but Close can weep with her whole body. People who dislike her wish she had more decorum. They need to stop. Nobody turns to this woman for decorousness. They’ve come to watch her go to town.
In old Hollywood, it was enough for an actor to imply crying — to act rather than inhabit it. The details of a story provided a context for the sorrow, rue, upset or delight a star then conjured with a voice that quavered, brows that arched, eyes that welled up enough to issue — perhaps — a Single Tear. Actors could seem put through the wringer without seeming wrung out. But in the middle of the 20th century, Method acting had become the dominant style. The Method’s adherents were in pursuit of realism. Of truth. Tears signal an achievement of honesty, proof that an actor is fully in her role. Paroxysm overtook pantomime, inviting charges of vanity and excess. The production of tears seemed true, nonetheless, and, for an audience, therapeutic. The movie theater has always been a realm for the therapy of sanctioned crying. We know where we stand with art and its desired approximation of life. But when life makes strangers cry, our hearts can go cold — like, throw-a-rotten-tomato cold. We can be harsher to civilians in apparent distress than performers paid to imagine it.
We Americans have rarely known what to do with shows of emotion. Something about the “show.” It can feel like a tell — of insincerity, of opportunism. Of politics. For some time, we’ve existed in a cynical zone in which any public tears bespeak performance. The weeping families and classmates of massacred schoolchildren are ridiculed because some of them support legislation that would change gun laws. Those mourners found themselves slapped with a new designation: crisis actors.
Can public tears ever be pure? Could any leader now risk more than a cracked voice? A woman rarely gets away with even the crack. There was that one time somebody at a campaign stop asked Hillary Clinton about how she manages it all, and the tears came, along with a debate that boiled down to whether she was scheming to appear feminine and what took her so long.
We’ve traditionally insisted upon stoical resolve from our elected officials. Executive tears belie national dignity. Joe Biden appears to be a natural crier. Other people’s lost loved ones seem to evoke his own losses, which include a wife and two children. His ready access to grief, and the resulting tears, seem right for a time in which a virus has killed millions of people. But his readiness to cry strikes some of us as strategic. Does this occasion warrant distress or action, emotion or policy? “All of the above” has become an impossible answer. I recently saw a photo someone posted to Twitter of a bumper sticker that read, “How’s my crying,” and had attached to it, with droll contempt, the White House’s phone number. Public grief is barely tolerated, yet rarely have we been fewer degrees of separation from the grieving of others. It occurs to me that somewhere near the base of the chasm cleaving the country is a wish to deny the legitimacy of a man who, given his druthers, might be out there feeling everything all the time, in order to keep installed a man worshiped, in part, for feeling nothing.
Whose tears don’t arouse someone’s suspicion? Is this the crying of narcissism or possible gain? The tears of a clown? Or a crocodile?
The fairness of such questions crossed my mind in the fall, when the U.S. Open ended with Novak Djokovic’s weeping hard under a towel. He had failed to achieve the rare feat they call a calendar-year Grand Slam, in which one player wins all four major tennis titles in a season, which, in Djokovic’s case, meant he also missed becoming the winningest major-title holder. He didn’t always play his usual exhilarating tennis. The pressure was too much, perhaps. Daniil Medvedev outplayed him in the final, but Djokovic also wasn’t himself, languid against his opponent’s vigor, speed and guile — frustrated, answerless. A loss like that, in which the loser is both soundly beaten and self-defeated, stings. Djokovic appeared stung.
The crowd showered him with sympathy, which, for him, was a radically warmer outpouring than the jeering he is more accustomed to. So the sight of him losing so uncharacteristically, then sobbing like that, in the public privacy of terry cloth, with just enough of an opening in the towel to spy each half of his mouth rocking back and forth, in a convulsive rictus: It got to me, too. I thought back to that moment when, in January, he fought against the Australian government for an exemption to play in the year’s first major tournament without a mandated vaccine. He might have falsely claimed on his exemption application that he hadn’t traveled internationally in the two weeks before he got to Australia. And yet, I thought, there is a decent person in there: I saw him cry. His self-inflicted harm, his cultivated villainy, garner a tinge of pity from me. I can hear the skeptics saying I’m a fool. The dude spent that whole jag beneath the towel. How do we know he didn’t fake crying, too?
But I believe that even the tears of antagonists merit our consideration. In November, Kyle Rittenhouse took the witness stand at his murder trial and proceeded to sob through his testimony. He was asked to recall the night he shot two men dead and wounded another in Kenosha, Wis., during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse didn’t get far before he appeared to quake some. He wore a suit that was a touch too big and lent his little-boy countenance a lick of dress-up: the teenager miscast as a double murderer. If there were any parents on the jury, I imagine part of them ached at the sight of someone who could have been their child struggling to breathe because his face was caught in the sort of stutter-sputter that babies use to indicate a wail is coming. Rittenhouse tried to keep going, gesticulating with his arms but speaking in a vomitous retch. After a bit more of that, the judge showed mercy and called a recess.
Rittenhouse’s lawyers told the media they were happy with the decision to put him on the stand. They tried their case out on a pair of mock juries, once with Rittenhouse’s testimony, once without. “It was substantially better with him testifying,” one of his lawyers said. “I mean, to a marked degree.”
“Crocodile tears” are a phony display meant to lure sympathy. The blubbering Rittenhouse did in the courtroom certainly won the understanding of a crucial bloc: He was acquitted of all charges. His tears were apt for a trial that hinged on whether Rittenhouse had the right to defend himself in the manner that he chose. The crying could be construed as more self-defense.
We know that certain crying is meant to exonerate racial insult or insensitivity by redirecting attention away from the offense under consideration, toward the crier’s feelings. White tears, they’re called. Look at how what I did to you is making me feel. But white tears, manipulative as they can be, still arouse my curiosity: Where do they come from? In his book, “Crying: The Mystery of Tears,” a biochemist named Dr. William Frey reminds us that the ability to shed tears is what separates us from animals. So let me state the obvious: A crocodile sheds none.
Sorrow appeared to reside in the weeping I saw Kim Potter do in a Minneapolis courtroom a month later at her manslaughter trial. She killed Daunte Wright when she mistook her gun for a Taser. Potter cried at the scene that day in April; she also wept on the witness stand. Were these tears of contrition or a performance for an audience of 12? Could they, somehow, be both: a public recognition of her unconscious certitude that the young Black man she shot was fitter for a bullet than a stun? Would the tears of Derek Chauvin, at his trial in the spring for the murder of George Floyd, have only mocked the horror of his crime? (He declined to testify; there was no self-defense.) To the extent that Potter was crying for sympathy, her tears remained beside the legal point. The jury found her guilty.
It can be disquieting, the competition between empathy and good moral sense. Feeling for Potter scarcely exonerates her. It just aligns my humanity with the full expression of hers. I watched her trial as I do most of these courtroom shooting tragedies, with the defendants on one side of the scale and the weeping done by the victims’ families on the other. Wright’s mother appeared at a news conference such a wreck that she could barely stand. The scales just don’t balance themselves, morally. They can’t. But culpable grief can’t easily be pooh-poohed as counterfeit. Potter knows the life she took altered lives. I received her tears as a byproduct of remorse. One of those lives is hers.
Public tears often do invite dismissal as performance. Something moves these people. Regret, shame, stress, embarrassment. Maybe the sorrow has arrived too late. No crying could return Daunte Wright to his people. But those tears are also what some of us need to restore a kind of personhood to the seemingly inhuman and ostensibly guilty. They’re what we need to feel human ourselves. Crying can seem more persuasive than words: The body trumps language. No matter why they’re shed, tears are a vulnerable outpouring. Crying feels to me like a performance of humanity in a theater not of inhumanity but of ahumanity, an uncertainty about what it is to be human at all. The ancient Greeks knew: Tears must be it.
We Americans are quite possibly disastrous sympathizers, afraid of one another’s feelings. They’re an affront. I have to admit to paralysis anytime I come across someone weeping openly — in a conference room, on the subway, wandering around an airport, at a bar. What’s needed here? Maybe I’ve monitored the situation from afar, until a sense of voyeurism compels me either to look away or to just check on the person already. Rare are the inquiries smarter than: “Are you OK?” It’s a question that then obligates the sufferer to pause her distress and issue an “I’m fine,” which is sometimes meant to reassure me, to swear that I can delete the message her red eyes and swollen face have transmitted to my empathy. Offers of relief have been declined with pride, with testiness, with tender uncertainty because somehow we’ve learned that a stranger’s offer of concern still amounts to an invasion of privacy. This is why watching artists cry is easy. No one is implicated. We’re excused from the potential awkwardness of conferring comfort.
It’s been two long years of spotty attendance at our cathedrals of crying. I can’t pretend that moviegoing was in great shape before theaters became a pestilent vector. We now have access, for instance, to a galactic load of Korean television fully equipped to well us up while we knit scarves or fold clothes. It’s simply easier to stay home and sob when, say, Mahalia Jackson graces the stage in the middle of “Summer of Soul”; and for a while it was far safer. But absent a more robust moviegoing culture, we’ve forgone a ritual of shared expression, a communal roost in which all tears are OK, be they shed for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” or Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” each its own style of weepie that — as the industry watchers among us will eagerly point out — are not hits. That might be how estranged from the commingling of our emotional lives we’ve grown in 40 years. The man who made “E.T.,” the sentimentalist to whom we once flocked for emotional sensation, now can’t lure us out of our homes.
For a long time, we’ve been numbing ourselves. Even our lacrimal surrogates in Hollywood have been turning their backs on us and toward age-defying procedures that culminate in faces that can no longer approximate our sorrow. A crisis of deadening is being passed down to the next generation. The renewal of book bans on works of fiction, by the likes of Toni Morrison and Art Spiegelman, ensures the alienation of children from their feelings, the disconnection of those feelings from a shared history of hardship and the extinction of the moral imagination. We are running from ourselves, evading the inevitability of emotional difficulty. What if my mother had yanked us up that day at “E.T.” and insisted that my crying was inappropriate? What other beauty would I be dead to? What kind of truth? Before a single person had died of Covid-19, we were succumbing to an addiction to pain relief; the pandemic has only expanded our capacity for overdose and compounded our aversion to grief.
How many funerals and memorials have we not attended in the last two years? How many of us mourners remain ungathered? More mass bereavement feels warranted. And if I’m talking about an event grander, more national than the small, private ceremony my family has postponed for my aunt Geri, my grandmother and her little brother Marcellus, what would such a gathering resemble? I can’t say. I do know, though, how it would sound. Wounded. 865,000 times over. It’s a sound for which we’re unprepared and with which we are strangely unfamiliar. A sound that no one wants to hear, whose rawness remains unbidden. A sound, in art, like Anjelica Huston with minutes to go in a movie called “The Grifters,” down on her knees, howling and gasping over a dead body — her character’s son, whom she has just wantonly killed. Huston heaves with a despair that the movies rarely show us.
I once did that sort of crying, on the day my mother died. She was ill, so her death was anticipated. Still, there’s no preparation for the foreign force that takes over. I had always imagined her death drawing out calm sobs, something “dignified,” like the old movie actors. What came up, instead, was violent and wild. I stalked around a hallway outside the bedroom where I found her, as though I were hunting for something that had been misplaced — my mother’s life, her soul. The wailing was disbelief. It was helplessness and futility. It was abandonment and finality. I cried so loud that I worried her neighbors would call the police: Yes, I’d like to report a murder at 1044. My eyes had shriveled to raisins; all I could see were tears in a queue patiently awaiting their drop, an infinity pool of anguish. Her death was peaceful, almost as we had planned. And yet — only an actor prepares. It’s a peculiar experience, crying that way: undammed, with your entire self, with everything in you, roaring out. I felt as if I had died, too — because, in a way, I had.
It’s here that I’d like to amend that biochemical assertion about how our crying distinguishes us from animals. Crying arouses the animal in us. I didn’t know such a creature, a werewolf in my case, resided in there. Not a hulk but a hurt, kept far from the surface. For safety. You don’t access it. The wolf finds you. It drags immense sorrow through these tiny openings — nostrils, eyes, the mouth. It’s the animal in us that needs to speak now. It’s waiting, ready for a mass howling when we are.


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