When Creed III premiered earlier this month, headlines and reviews correctly wheeled out the same few phrases about the film: “male melodrama,” “male tear-jerker,” “masculine melodrama,” and so forth. In a way, these terms are all just fancy ways to get at one simple truth: This is a movie that might make your dad cry. Or your boyfriend. Or any guy, really, no matter how macho they may be.
Male friendship and camaraderie is not an unusual subject for filmmakers to tackle. (See: countless buddy comedies and bromances.) But rarely do movies explore the less lighthearted side of such relationships. Is there such a thing as a Steel Magnolias for men? What makes tough guys cry? And if there’s such a thing as a “male weepie” — a term first coined by British critic Raymond Durgnat — how can you define it? The very nature of the male weepie is elastic. Rather than love and romance, such movies evoke tears through male camaraderie and brotherhood — unsurprising, then, that war and sports films rate high on the list, at least if my boomer dad is anything to go by.
Even the most earnest male weepies tend to approach the emotional inner life of men from unexpected angles. Rather than straightforwardly address men’s domestic concerns about parenting, women, or the pressures of masculinity, male weepies smuggle those themes via genre filmmaking. Take the war movie, for example, where groups of men are thrown together under extreme duress and therefore forced to confess more heightened emotion.
Not all cultural critics are so keen on the idea of swapping men’s feelings for women’s melodrama. On one male-weepie favorite, The Deer Hunter (1978), in which macho Philly steel workers are thrown into the horror of the Vietnam War, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote scathingly about the film’s “overwhelming male self-pity.” On films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), feminist critic Molly Haskell noted how the message seemed to be that “male relationships are the ones that count.”
And maybe they had a salient point: Why should men get to feel sorry for themselves, given all the turmoil they tend to cause in the world? Maybe some male weepies uphold the same old values and stiff upper lips that got us in trouble in the first place. But that jury’s still out, while male tears remain, for the most part, kept inside. Here, though, are ten films that show the evolution of a nebulous subgenre.
The Champ (1931), dir. King Vidor
Boxing films — even ones that are 92 years old — are always really male weepies at heart. Tough guys can cry if they’ve battled it out against one another in the ring; it’s like the machismo is extreme enough to cancel out the emotion. In The Champ, a pre-code film actually penned by female screenwriter Marion Davies, melodrama is king: a down-and-out former fighter (Wallace Beery) is deep in the bottle, but jumps at the chance to fight one more time to prove himself and win custody of his adoring but scrappy young son (Jackie Cooper). It may sound hackneyed, but in truth it is a plain and simple story that cuts through its age with beautiful simplicity. It’s a credit to King Vidor and to its quality that The Champ is genuinely as sad nearly a century on.
They Were Expendable (1945), dir. John Ford
There’s nothing like a war picture to get men’s tear ducts working, let’s face it, and John Ford’s battle-hardened, immediate post-WWII drama is among the finest out there. John Wayne and Robert Montgomery are in a deadly scenario in the Pacific, manning PT boats with questionable usefulness against the Japanese and taking heavy losses as they go. Directed by preeminent maker of westerns John Ford, based on his own battle experiences and observations during the war, it’s both a realistic and downbeat depiction of friendship and self-sacrifice under great physical and psychological strain. That Ford pulls no punches about the damaging effects of war on these men gives it a lasting sadness, and it’s no question why WWII is the setting of so many Ur–male-weepie war movies – like Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s bombastically effective ode to the masculine virtue of men at war and their love for one another.
Brian’s Song (1971), dir. Buzz Kulik
Often cited as one of the templates for the male weepie, this sports film of friendship and loss stars James Caan: precisely the caliber of tough guy you need to make all the sentiment of a film like Brian’s Song work. Caan is such a burly He-Man that he makes it okay to eke out a few tears if you might not otherwise, particularly in his part as Brian Piccolo, a star football player for the Chicago Bears who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Based loosely on a true story, the story follows Piccolo in his determined final fight with his illness and his dwindling ability to perform on the field, which he valiantly works against at every chance. His friendship with roommate and fellow player Billy Dee Williams is also a model of the cross-racial male friendship that would become a staple in other genres, like the buddy-cop film. This is real three-hanky-weepie territory: The real Piccolo sadly died at only 26 years old, one year before Brian’s Song came out.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), dir. Michael Cimino
Cimino’s strange odd-couple road movie is one of the most flatly homoerotic ever committed to the screen: It’s hardly even subtext so much as text. Starring Clint Eastwood (something of a regular in the male-weepie genre) and a young Jeff Bridges as the stray free-spirited hustler who joins forces with the older, tougher man, the pair are outlaws joined by a tender fascination with each other. Bridges clutches at Eastwood’s shirt sensually, crossdresses to commit a bank robbery, and acts as his friend’s date at a drive-in. In the final, deeply melancholy scene, his helpless love — and perhaps lust — for another man leads to tragedy, but even that tragedy has a strange romance to it that remains genuinely moving.
Saturday Night Fever (1976), dir. John G. Avildsen
Few films delve into the frustrated psyche of working-class manhood like Saturday Night Fever, and even fewer films have been so wholly misremembered and mischaracterized, given the film’s earworm of a Bee Gees soundtrack and its immortal imagery of the original preening hetero ladies’ man in the form of young John Travolta. But scratch the surface and Saturday Night Fever is a film about alienation and aspiration, about what it means to be a man and to find your masculinity questioned for your passion; its downbeat conclusion and ugly portrait of Tony’s dissolution hardly bodes well for the future of the young American male.
Field of Dreams (1989), dir. Phil Alden Robinson
Fatherhood, something so specifically tied up in the average male identity, is a cornerstone of the male weepie, as the topic is bound to strike them more deeply on a fundamental level. Field of Dreams takes this established trope and packages it into a sentimental baseball movie — a sport that seems to immediately fill American viewers with nostalgia for the past, and as a result, nostalgia for their own boyhoods, fathers, and grandfathers. The film stars Kevin Costner as a midwestern farmer suddenly seized by the supernatural urge to build a baseball field — and visited by the ghosts of baseball past — but I doubt I need to recount the plot to you. It may be saccharine, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen my own dad crying at it more times than I can count.
Boyz in the Hood (1991), dir. John Singleton
It’s not that Boyz in the Hood exists solely as a gendered exercise: primarily, and rightly, it is looked at through the lens of race and for its depiction of its moment in time in Crenshaw’s neighborhoods and lives. But this coming-of-age story is also zeroed in on Black masculinity and friendship in a way which makes it special: It’s about camaraderie, tenderness, and care between a disparate group of tough adolescents like Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Ricky (Morris Chestnut ) and Doughboy (Ice-T). It’s fair to say you don’t have to be a man for Boyz in the Hood to make you cry, but there is something really special in the time it makes for platonic love between men in the macho, violent gang warfare it depicts.
Good Will Hunting (1997), dir. Gus Van Sant
There are also few subjects that Good Will Hunting touches on that don’t tick the boxes for a good male weepie: a widower who is still irrevocably damaged by the loss of his wife (female absence often characterizes male weepies; it often lets its male audience members project onto that absence, rather than be troubled by the agency of an actual living woman); a quasi–father-son relationship fraught by complexity; and a bright young man’s sense that his talent and potential is stymied by the world around him. Thwarted male self-belief or ambition is one of the great subjects for the male weepie, too: It is men, after all (particularly of the white, cis, and straight variety) who are told they are future masters of the universe, and seem to suffer more acutely from the sense they may not achieve that mastery. Good Will Hunting wraps all of this up in a palatable and believable package with poignant performances from Robin Williams and Matt Damon.
Warrior (2011), dir. Gavin O’Connor
In this sorely underrated drama of brotherhood, inherited trauma, and MMA, the male weepie is both uplifting and genuinely edifying without playing up to toxic masculinity. Joel Edgerton is the sensible family man whose financial issues are forcing him to secretly engage in MMA tournaments without his wife’s knowledge; his younger brother, played by Tom Hardy, is a wild card who is training in the sport for his own gain. Their estranged father, in a heartbreaking turn from Nick Nolte, is a fall-down drunk with good intentions and an inability to break his toxic patterns, but he decides to help train his younger son for the octagon. You know what has to happen: a cathartic fight between brothers where they sort out their differences in violent fashion, soundtracked to the bleak strains of the National.
Creed franchise (2015–present), dirs. Ryan Coogler, Stephen Caple Jr., Michael B. Jordan
The original Rocky could easily have had a spot on any list of male weepies, given its foregrounding of male ambition, loserdom, and grit. But the modern iteration of those films — the Creed franchise — takes those original considerations and makes them contemporary. In the first Creed, a tragically absent father looms large: Rocky becomes a father figure instead for young Adonis, and his need to prove himself in the shadow of them both is a big thematic thrust of the second film, too. In the latest of the films, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is faced with questions of loyalty, racial solidarity with his neighborhood and his friend, and guilt around his own success: Naturally, he fights his old pal Dame (Jonathan Majors) over many of these very same issues. The ring is a perfect microcosm for male rage and, eventually, tenderness, as boxing is, perhaps surprisingly, a deeply intimate sport both physically and emotionally. There’s a locker-room encounter at the end of Creed III which tells you all you need to know about how combat sports unlock vulnerability — and, for the men in the audience, tears.