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Art that made me cry: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life is a ruthless machine for the extraction of the biggest, saltiest tears’

The books, movies and songs that never fail to trigger the waterworks among the critics

Hugh Linehan: ‘Just pass me the whole damn tissue box now’

Film: It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s Christmas Eve, 1945, standing on a bridge above a dark river in the midst of a snowstorm, a disgraced banker is about to end his own worthless existence. But guardian angel (second class) Clarence Odbody has other ideas, having been granted a vision of George Bailey’s actual life, from the moment when, as a 12 year old, he rescued his little brother from drowning (gulp) to the time he saved his grief-maddened boss from accidentally poisoning a customer (deep breath) to the ... oh god, just pass me the whole damn tissue box now. Lots of things make me cry, but Frank Capra’s fantasy is a ruthless machine for the extraction of the biggest, saltiest tears. Let those ducts fill to the brim and stream down your cheeks. Blow your nose as noisily as you like. But don’t bother trying to clean yourself up because there’s a another wringer of a scene on the way that will reduce you again to a blubbering, jellylike wreck. Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: ‘The final scene is heart-wrenching’

Book: The Age of Innocence

Emiliyan Stanev’s The Peach Thief, set in my beloved Veliko Tarnovo (in Bulgaria) in the last months of the first World War. It is about a love affair between a Serbian prisoner of war and the wife of a Bulgarian colonel. The descriptions of the devastated town are as moving as the doomed love affair. Emma Donoghue’s Room I found extremely moving. Stories of injustice against a child, and love transcending that, touch the heart. Silas Marner, Heidi, Goodnight Mister Tom, Claire Keegan’s Foster. But my top tear-jerker is Edith Wharton’s brilliant novel, The Age of Innocence. The final scene, in which Newland Archer looks up at the Countess Olenska’s window in Paris, 26 years after they have parted, and decides not to go up to see her, is heart-wrenching. The film is good too, for a cry.

Mick Heaney: ‘Mary Weiss plucks the heartstrings like a virtuoso’

Song: I Can Never Go Home Anymore by The Shangri-Las

The Shangri-Las were the ultimate 1960s girl group, a perfect marriage of the authentic and the manufactured. Two sets of sisters who started singing together at high school in a gritty neighbourhood in Queens, New York, and went on to create a string of three-minute pop psychodramas under the auspices of producer Shadow Morton, epitomised by their timeless anthem of doomed rebelliousness, Leader of the Pack. But it’s their 1965 hit, I Can Never Go Home Anymore, which unfailingly loosens the tear ducts in this writer.

A cautionary tale about the perils of running away, more spoken than sung, it features lead vocalist Mary Weiss remembering how she fled home after an argument with her mother, about a boy, natch. The romance promptly ends, but it’s too late to reunite with her mother as, ahem, “the angels picked her for a friend”. With its foreboding narration, orchestral crescendos and urgent cries of “Mama!”, it’s shamelessly melodramatic and manipulative, though one suspects its target audience of teenage girls reacted to the schlocky sentiments much as Oscar Wilde did to the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, one must have a heart of stone not to laugh. But when Weiss mournfully intones “I can never go home any more” one final time, she plucks the heartstrings like a virtuoso, prompting this listener to mutter lame excuses about getting something in my eye. They don’t make pop tear-jerkers like that any more.


Donald Clarke: ‘It should be banned’

Film: Goodbye, Mr Chips

The 1939 version of Goodbye, Mr Chips is remembered as a sweet drama featuring Robert Donat as a kindly buffer who learns wisdom over 50 years teaching at an English public school. It is that. It is also the most ruthlessly sadistic hanky-dampener ever made. Happy tears greet his unlikely marriage to glamorous Greer Garson, but neither the poor woman nor her baby survive a mid-film pregnancy. Astonishingly, worse is to come. Over the succeeding hour, a terrible realisation slowly builds. We have now reached the early years of the 20th century and half the boys we’ve got to know are about to be killed in the first World War. Oh, and the nice German master we met decades earlier will buy it on the other side. Just when you haven’t recovered from that, the protagonist himself passes on. “I thought I heard you saying it was a pity ... pity I never had any children,” he wheezes. “But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them ... and all boys.” Damn thing should be banned.

Fiona McCann: ‘Who’s the best in every way? Bing Bong’

Film: Inside Out

Full disclosure: I’m a cryer. I well up at everything, from the poem Wee Hughie to the part where the Great British Bakers call their families to tell them they’ve won Star Baker. But for a guaranteed gusher, there’s nothing like Bing Bong’s last act in the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out. Bing Bong is the imaginary friend from Riley’s early years and he still lives inside her head, which is where most of the action of this movie takes place. But as Riley gets older and life gets real, things become a little chaotic in there. Bing Bong, a giant magenta felino-delphino-elephantine, is trapped with an emotion personified called Joy in the Memory Dump, a pit of fading memories slowly en route to total obliteration.

Without getting too much into the technicalities of how a part-cat, part-elephant, part-dolphin and a talking feeling scramble to get out of a vast pit of disintegrating memory balls – it involves a broom jet-fired kid’s wagon, singing and the rules of physics – Bing Bong dives heroically back in so that Joy can escape and remain part of Riley’s emotional lexicon. But oh, that sacrifice: any chump can fall on a sword, but Bing Bong is offering himself to utter oblivion. He’s choosing to be forgotten. What act more selfless, more noble? “Take her to the moon for me,” are his final words as we watch him being erased forever. Who’s the best in every way? Bing Bong.

Helen Cullen: ‘Patti Smith’s tough, clear-eyed eulogy for a lost lover’

Book: Just Kids

A great weeper in life generally, it is surprising for me now to realise that few books in a lifetime of constant reading have made me cry. Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir, however, was finely tuned to hit unexpected nerves when it landed in my life at just the right moment. Set against the dirty glamour of the late 60s New York art and music scene, Patti recalls the passionate naivete of youth and her beautiful, complex relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the years before they became famous. In her tough, clear-eyed but romantic style, she writes a love letter to the hustle, the dreaming and the sacred days of falling in love and falling through life. A master of illuminating meaning from life’s greatest mysteries, this book becomes not just a eulogy for a lost lover but for lost dreams and a testament to the ghosts that walk among us.

Ciaran Carty: ‘The Marseillaise moment never fails to make me weep’

Film: Casablanca

Art touches heart as well as mind, sometimes with tears. Standing before Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid is a numbing experience, but rather than cry, you feel outrage at the barbarity it represents. Walking through the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem with its heart-wrenching old photographs of families soon to be exterminated, my eyes again remained dry, this time with shame. Two novels almost brought tears: Almudena Grandes’s The Frozen Heart with its compassion for families caught up in the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, and Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, which reads almost like music in evoking the anguish of being black in the US. Cinema, however, is the art where feelings truly dominate, particularly for me in Casablanca, when a ragbag of French exiles in Rick’s bar defiantly sing the Marseillaise. It’s a moment that never fails to make me weep, no matter how often I see this Hollywood classic, filmed in 1942 while France was still occupied by the Nazis.

Sarah Gilmartin: I was ‘inconsolable’ at Mufasa’s death

Film: The Lion King

High-brow tears: the sense of loss and lives unlived, of a past that is no longer accessible, which is to say the past in general, that occurs at the end of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Middle-brow: the moment that Juliet, played by a distraught Claire Danes, wakes up from her induced sleep in a coffin in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Low-brow: Mufasa’s death in Disney’s The Lion King. I saw the film at a sleepover with a bunch of girls when I was about 11 or 12 and I’m not sure I ever shook off the tag, for the remainder of secondary school, of being inconsolable for the entire night over the death (and let’s be honest here, mauling) of a cartoon lion. As for one that gets me at some point every time I read it: Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody?

Patrick Freyne: ‘A work of evil sentimental genius’

Song: Jody and the Kid by Kris Kristofferson

The song that’s guaranteed to make me cry is Kris Kristofferson’s Jody and the Kid. I first heard it as a child because my dad had a best of Kris Kristofferson album recorded on to a C60 cassette (he wasn’t a big audiophile). I still feel Kristofferson is best appreciated through a fog of cassette hiss. Jody and the Kid is a soft-hearted story song, of the kind only country singers can get away with. The narrator, Jody, sings about his relationship with “the Kid”, initially a literal kid who follows him around when he is also a kid. By the second verse, years later, they’re grown-ups and in a relationship. In the final verse, there’s been a tragedy and the narrator is alone with his daughter, “another little girl who follows me”. The tears usually come to my eyes during the final lines. I’m not going to spoil them here but you should listen to them. It’s a work of evil sentimental genius, an ever-reliable tear-jerker from one of country music’s best tearmongers. I listen to it at least once a week.

Gemma Tipton: ‘I can’t even describe Carol Ann Duffy’s poem without crying’

Poem: Last Post

I cry at adverts. Also mawkish movies, slushy novels – anything marked tear-jerker will have me in floods. Those tears, while generally globby and sometimes snotty are not, oddly enough, an emotional drain. Visual art moves me, but never to tears. For a real sense of deep (and damp) grief, it has to be poetry, but only when I speak it. Reading aloud uses a different part of the brain, it’s active and it makes the words live differently. Carol Ann Duffy’s Last Post has so worked itself into my heart that I can’t even describe the idea of it to someone without crying. It doesn’t help that there are horses in it. I once made the mistake of choosing to read Derek Mahon’s Everything is Going to be All Right as part of a talk I was giving. I got as far as the bit about the sun rising in spite of everything and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Gulping through the final line at speed kind of undid the hopeful intent of the whole thing.

Seán Hewitt: ‘Joanna Newsom navigates abortion with terrifying acuity’

Song: Baby Birch

Joanna Newsom’s song Baby Birch, from her epic album Have One on Me (2010), has shocked me into tears many times, not only for the sheer ferocity of emotion but for the pacing of its delivery, the breathtaking virtuosity, vulnerability and the unflinching gaze on the surreal realities of pregnancy, loss, regret and freedom. The violent fairytale of the medical procedure is delivered in a painful, paining way. Though it’s not explicit, the song seems to navigate abortion with terrifying acuity. Over nearly 10 minutes, she sings a sort of fiery lullaby to the ghost of the lost daughter: “Well, I wish we could take every path/I could spend a hundred years adoring you.” It is exquisite and excruciating in equal measure.

Tara Brady: ‘Almost unbearably moving’

Film: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

The fascinating, experimental documentary Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould closes with an announcement of the pianist’s death in 1982 and a shot of Gould (played by Colm Feore) walking away from the camera across an icy tundra. A postscript notes that the Voyager Golden Records – two phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 when launched in 1977 – contain Gould’s recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No 1. Gould, in common with Thelonius Monk, was almost as famous for humming in the background of his own recordings as for his musical genius. Hearing this track always reminds me to check on the Voyager spacecraft’s positions. Both are in interstellar space. Voyager 1 will reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud in 300 years. It is almost unbearably moving to consider the ultimate fate of the Golden Records. Should any entity ever drop a needle on to those phonographs, I can only hope that they can hear Glenn Gould humming.

Kevin Courtney: ‘My tears spilt out like Lego pieces from the box’

Film: The Lego Movie

I’m a sucker for a cinematic tear-jerker – just turn up the strings, turn on the drippy dialogue, and I’ve turned into mush. But one unlikely film delivered a sucker punch to my tear ducts and left me feeling like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. That film was The Lego Movie, the hit animated adventure about an ordinary brickie battling the evil Lord Business who is out to freeze Lego world forever with a deadly substance known as the Kragle. Everything on screen is Lego but, in a mind-blowing twist, our hero finds himself in the real world where eight-year-old Finn is playing with his dad’s Lego collection, creating his own imaginary worlds. Dad (played by Will Ferrell) doesn’t want Finn messing with his Lego as every piece has to be in its right place, so he decides to glue all his Lego sets permanently in position. When Dad eventually realises the error of his rigid ways, and reconciles with his son, my dad tears spilt out like Lego pieces from the box, and my own eight-year-old sitting beside me had to move seats to avoid the embarrassment.

Tony Clayton-Lea: ‘It made me think of my wonderful father-in-law’

TV: Ted Lasso’s Be Curious speech

Too many examples of art make my eyes brim over (and sometimes for the wrong reason), but the most recent was a scene from the Apple TV+ comedy series Ted Lasso. The scene is known as the Be Curious speech, which Lasso delivers during a darts match with the smug Rupert Mannion (Anthony Head), the former owner of Richmond FC, the club that Lasso now coaches. The speech pivots on a quote by the US poet Walt Whitman – “be curious, not judgmental” – and it hits on decent people being belittled for or evaluated on their (so-called) lack of sophistication or their simplistic way of looking at life. The scene made me cry because it immediately made me think of my wonderful father-in-law who, in his mid-80s, passed in 2020. Nicholas didn’t have much time for cynics, pretentiousness, fine wines or Michelin-star restaurants, he didn’t fully grasp the intricacies of self-identifying and he preferred Nat King Cole to everything else, but he was the most gently curious, sincere and kind person I have ever met. Art in whatever form is a trigger, it makes you function, it makes you hesitate, it makes you consider. Be curious, not judgmental? Bullseye. That makes tears.

Kevin Power: Terry Pratchett had me ‘blubbing away’

Book: Reaper Man

In the course of reviewing a recent biography of Terry Pratchett (A Life with Footnotes: The Official Biography by Rob Wilkins), I did my due diligence and picked up some of Pratchett’s 41 Discworld novels. One of the few Discworlds I had not read before was Reaper Man (1991), in which Pratchett’s semi-anthropomorphic Death is forcibly retired by the “auditors of reality” and goes to live as a mortal being on a farm where his scything skills come in handy. The book, superficially daft, in fact constitutes a profoundly moving argument about how we should see death not as a frightening, dramatic figure but rather as a sort of strange friend. At the end, when Death asks, “What can the harvest hope for, if not the care of the reaper man?”, I found myself blubbing away. What a sentiment, I thought, and what a sentence.