It's enough to make a grown man cry

Few guys can keep hankies in pockets at movies like 'Antwone Fisher'


January 05, 2003|By Linda Lee | By Linda Lee,NEW YORK TIMES

As if the economy and the sad state of his favorite sports team weren't enough, a man now has something new to cry about. The movie Antwone Fisher opened late last month, and all over the country men are honking into their handkerchiefs as the movie ends with a crawl saying, "In memory of my father ... "

The film is a virtual fatherfest, with Denzel Washington (who also directed) playing a psychiatrist-father figure to the title character, a mixed-up (and fatherless) Navy seaman played by Derek Luke. One surefire audience grabber occurs at a Thanksgiving dinner, when the seaman recites a poem that begins, "Who will cry for the little boy?" Later the manly psychiatrist (who has no children himself) tells Antwone, "I love you, son." And a scene at the end that includes a grandmother sitting at a groaning table and croaking, "Welcome," is bound to choke up any holdouts.

"That one gets everyone," said Joy Bryant, who plays Antwone's love interest. She watched the movie in a screening room with a group of men. "Men kind of have this shifting-in-the- seats thing, a lot of umm-umm, frog-in-the-throat to keep from crying," she said. "And some men really bawled. One big manly celebrity, a young cute stud, came up to me with his eyes bloodshot. He said, 'I tried to hold it in, and I couldn't take it anymore -- wah!' "

Sure, women cry at movies, but as men are wont to say, women cry at anything. Men have traditionally cried less often and less hard, and even after decades of urging by therapists (and women) for them to express their feelings, most men still feel that crying shows a loss of manliness.

Antwone Fisher is the latest of a subgenre, the male weepie -- others include Field of Dreams, Saving Private Ryan, Bang the Drum Slowly and Braveheart -- that un-dam the waterworks. Its popularity raises a question: What does it take to make strong men cry?

Randolph R. Cornelius, a professor of psychology at Vassar, has studied the matter under laboratory conditions. He showed men films like Peege, a 1972 short about visiting a grandmother in a nursing home, and what he considers the champion male weepie, Brian's Song, a 1971 television movie about an interracial friendship between two Chicago Bears, one of whom dies. (In his lab, women get the death scene from Steel Magnolias.) Women cry when they are angry or frustrated, Cornelius said, or when there are conflicts in a relationship. "Men cry more in situations involving loss," he said, "or about re-establishing connections."

Terrence Real, a psychotherapist at the Family Institute of Cambridge in Watertown, Mass., echoed that conclusion. "What men think about when they cry are the losses, the missed opportunities, the missed connections with other people," he said. "They have regrets about bad behavior, like drinking, or being too angry, or not being with their kids enough. And their issues with their fathers."

He added: "Women continue making friends all through life. As men grow older, they have fewer friends. So as they go down the conveyor belt of life, they cry more."

Movies open floodgates

American men, mind you, more than hold their own in the international crying Olympics. A study in 29 countries completed in 1999 found that American male college students cried 1.9 times a month on average, half as often as American female college students but tied for first place with Nepalese male college students.

Many men are more likely to grow teary watching a movie or a television drama -- even a Hallmark commercial -- than in real life, even after a wrenching event like a parent's death.

"That's the power of movies," Cornelius said. Not only do they take place in the dark, where men feel safe, he said, "but they can create this alternative life space in which we express our emotions, and they are freer and less complicated than our real lives."

The movies that bring on men's tears, Cornelius said, are in essence about male bonding -- losing or winning at sports, sacrifice on the battlefield, or losing or gaining a father. "Ordinary People was a real tear-jerker for men," he said. "A boy says, 'I love you,' to his father at the very end. As the lights came on, every man in the house wiped his eyes very quickly."

It's easy to say some men fear being seen as wimps. But something about men's tears is itself upsetting. Consider how CNN handled footage of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa choking back tears for a full minute before speaking about his friend Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in October. Before rolling the tape, CNN issued a viewer discretion advisory. Sen. Harkin "gets very emotional," cautioned the anchor, Wolf Blitzer, who added, "I just want to issue that alert to those of you who may not want to watch this."

It was as if the sight of a man's tears threatened viewers' own composure, implying that the social order itself was in danger.

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