A cinematic trail of tears

Hartford Courant

“Laugh, and the whole world laughs with you,” Grandma used to say. “Cry, and you cry alone.”

Sorry, Grams, but large groups of Americans are sobbing in unison throughout the country, thanks to “The Notebook,” an unabashed tear-jerker that opened nationwide Friday, practically with a warning to bring a surplus of tissues.

You’re going to need them to get through this sentimental tale, which looks to place itself in the Weepie Hall of Fame, right up there with four-hankie flicks such as “Terms of Endearment,” “Love Story,” “Beaches” and “Steel Magnolias.”

“The Notebook” is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, no stranger to the sad love story (“A Walk to Remember” and “Message in a Bottle”). In “The Notebook,” an older man (James Garner) reads aloud from a notebook to an invalid older woman (Gena Rowlands) he visits in a nursing home. The notebook’s story is about a couple separated by World War II, then passionately reunited after taking different paths.


Moviegoers laid out $13.5 million to buy tickets to the New Line Cinema film in its first weekend.

“As an audience, we don’t get the chance to meet many space aliens or comic superheroes. But we do know about love and death,” said Jeanine Basinger, film professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., explaining the genre’s appeal. “In today’s moviegoing world, a lot of the movies are detached from what we know to be everyday life and reality. They’re special-effects-generated; they’re big and they’re fun. But the movie that comes out and really connects to something we know about draws in an audience. And when the audience gets there, it releases tears.”

Hollywood has had a long and illustrious romance with such fare. There was a time when the big studios specialized in films that aimed not to leave a dry eye in the house. Think “Dark Victory” (1939) and “Imitation of Life” (1959), and you get the idea. The weepie was pure melodrama and clearly in the woman’s domain.

“The old ‘woman’s film’ was grounded, as unrealistic as it might have been, in actual female concerns of men, motherhood and marriage,” Basinger said. “However glamorized her life was in those movies, there was some essential failure in the woman’s life: a romance that goes wrong, the child who dies, the husband who dies, a love is lost in some way. And the woman has nothing, and she has to get out and do it for herself.”

Essential to the tear-inducing effects of these heart-renders is something very simple, according to Basinger: “Love and death are the two main categories,” she said. “They can have all kinds of generic settings -- love and death in war, in the Wild West, in the fashion world.”

If it seems that the golden age of the weepie is long gone, there’s a reason.

“They used to make them better because they made more of them,” Basinger said. Still, she said, “weepies is a form that has never gone away. It just hasn’t been as popular or done as well in the movies. But it has been done well consistently in television, on Lifetime and with the TV movies of the week. All that ‘I’ve got a disease,’ ‘My husband left me for a cheerleader.’ And soap operas do that too.”

Why do many filmgoers like a good cry?

“Catharsis,” Basinger said. “Sometimes when we go to the movies, we want escape. We want to go to where people are rich and drink Champagne and sing and dance. But sometimes we want to go into our own emotions and what we’re feeling -- to see someone else experience loss, pain, unrequited love. For anyone out there who wants to bawl their eyes out, this will be it. Let’s face it, there aren’t many tears in ‘DodgeBall.’ ”