I don't remember the name of the journalist who spoke this statement, but I want to say a big amen to that, as my saddest movie involves all these three factors, I know they might sound a little too male-oriented but I'm pretty sure it at least touched upon two branches of this trinity for female audiences, can't women also respond to the sight of a little grief-stricken boy inconsolably crying over the loss of his father, and making grown-up men weep as well?
I want to open this review by saying that "The Champ" holds a very special place in my heart, if only because it might be the first live-action movie I remember seeing as a (6-year old) kid, and for some strange reason, of all the scenes from the film, I was more impacted by the sight of blood, a disturbing novelty for my kiddies' eyes (the sparring partner, the horse's injury and the scary sight of Billy's opponent shouting at him). 4 years later, I saw it and every one was bawling in the TV room, everyone but me, mostly amused by these reactions. The Youtube clips many years later finally had their effect, but even then I knew I had to experience the whole film to measure up the extent of its emotionality.
So I did and I can't believe someone who despises the overuse of superlatives like me would indulge himself to such a clichéd statement but this is indeed the saddest movie ever, with the climactic locker-room scene as the most defining moment. Adapted from a 1931 movie directed by King Vidor, "The Champ", is about a father-and-son relationship, an extraordinary sacred link between Billy Flynn (Jon Voight), an ex-Heavyweight Boxing Champion who reconverted in horse-training, and his 8-year old blond-haired angel-faced son: T.J. (Ricky Shroeder). To say that T.J. loves his father would be a huge understatement; he literally worships him to the point of calling him 'Champ' instead of 'Dad'. I can recall considering my father a true model when I was a kid, I can easily respond to the sight of a kid who admires his father the way T.J. does, especially since this adoration is the build-up that cements the final scene's emotionality.
A few words about Ricky Schroeder's performance: it's absolutely refreshing to see a child acting like a real one, not too mature or annoying, Ricky Shroeder delivers in "The Champ" one of the finest pieces of child acting ever, on the same vein than Jackie Coogan in "The Kid", any kids' performance pale in comparison to little Ricky that year and I can't believe his performance was overlooked by the Academy Awards (while he was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Male Newcomer). The irony is that the same year, an even younger kid was nominated for a similar role; it was Justin Henry as Billy in "Kramer vs. Kramer". I guess Henry was favored in regard of the film's commercial success and the fact that his character was more 'complex', but let's face it, even Justin Henry wouldn't claim to have made millions of people all over the world cry like Ricky did.
The parallel with "Kramer vs. Kramer" can be extended to the father and boy's situation. The mother Annie (Faye Dunaway) left, Billy had the custody and every thing went fine, despite some financial and gambling problems, until Annie showed up again and expressed her desire to take part again in her son's life, her son who thinks his mother died. The film takes then the emotional start with the most simple plot premise and it only avoid cliché's annoyances thanks to the beautiful performance of Ricky Schroeder. Indeed, every single moment work and it almost seems like the adult actors did their best to match Ricky's incredible acting, and I believe that Jon Voight deserved more accolades for his performance.
The film contains some of the most emotional moments you'll ever see, reaching a first pinnacle with three powerful scenes in a row: a heart-breaking father-and-son conversation in jail, T.J. learning that Annie is not a "little angel in the sky" and his outburst of enraged cries when she can't even say that she loves 'Champ', and then the reunion with Billy, hell even the happier moments are unbelievably sad, with little T.J. and his father swimming on the beach (mirroring a previous scene with Annie). It's so effective that I dare even the most skeptical movie viewers to label this film as manipulative. Franco Ziffereli's directing is relatively sober and the music not too over-emotional, so if anything is manipulative, then it has to be a little 8-year old actor's performance, would you believe he'd have this intention?
To conclude, I sincerely don't think any film would have as a powerful emotional impact as "The Champ"'s final scene. Sticking with my own conviction, I even googled the title of the film and the words 'saddest ever' and to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that some scientists after many studies found out that the film could be considered as the saddest ever from the way people were immediately responding to its most emotional scenes (notably the final one). Many readers mentioned titles such as "Bambi", "Brian's Song", "Schindler's List", "Terms of Endearment" or "Grave of the Fireflies" but I think they missed the point of the study which was less about giving a title than determining the most likely film to induce one particular reaction among the majority, in that case: crying.
I remember my father told me that after watching the film in the theater, everyone was weeping and sneezing, he recommended the film to his toughest friends challenging them not to cry, but at the end, they were all bawling like little girls. Like it or not, it deserves the title of 'emotional masterpiece' and I don't think any rational critic will convince me to give it a 'reasonable' rating.
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