With 50/50 hitting theaters this week, we’re taking a look at cancer movies. A rather grim concept, we know, but as the Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt dramedy proves, not all movies about the disease are straight tearjerkers – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find two ‘"big C" movies that are that similar.
Here are the ones that, be it for their harsh realism, uplifting nature or superb performances, we think got it right.
My Life Without Me
Sarah Polley stars in this subtly devastating drama, as a 23-year-old woman diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, a secret she keeps and uses as a impetus to live like she never has before. The movie is a tad manipulative, but the acting – from Polley and costars Scott Speedman and Mark Ruffalo – more than makes up for it.
Terms of Endearment
Widely considered one of the forefathers of the dramedy, James L. Brooks’ 1983 Oscar behemoth isn’t necessarily about cancer, but the disease plays a large part—and when it strikes star Debra Winger, Brooks depicts it for what it can be: a cruel disease that sometimes even movie protagonists can’t fight off.
This HBO movie unfolds like the Pulitzer-winning play on which it is based, featuring Emma Thompson – whose Vivian Bearing is bedridden with terminal ovarian cancer – often looking into and speaking to the camera. Thompson’s remarkable, Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated performance, coupled with a somewhat refreshing spin on the terrible disease, make Wit one of the best cancer movies of all time.
Life as a House
While emotionally predictable from the get-go, the metaphor-heavy Life as a House is an ultimately touching movie—especially for the teenaged set. Kevin Kline elevates what might otherwise have been a decent TV movie to a solid father-and-son dramedy.
Better known for its chemistry than quality (and the line "Love means never having to say you're sorry"), Love Story is still widely considered the definitive on-screen...well, love story. And nothing tugs at the audience’s heartstrings, viewing after viewing, more than the side story of Jenny’s (Ali MacGraw) condition, assumed to be leukemia.
It’s hard to say where it ranks in Akira Kurosawa’s canon, but on the cancer-movie list, Ikiru is way up there. The legendary Japanese director told the story of a terminally ill cancer patient trying to find meaning during his final days—long before that became a sort of template for this subgenre—in an exploratory, satirical and always brilliant fashion. Ikiru is a gem from the early ‘50s that is definitely worth tracking down.
No such list would be complete without this 1971 TV MOTW, based on the true story of football players Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and their friendship during the former’s ultimately losing battle with cancer. Also known as “the movie that makes dudes cry.”
An unrelenting downer—but what else could you expect from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams)? And what else could you expect from Javier Bardem but a top-notch performance? And of course, “downer” isn’t synonymous with “bad”—the movie, about a man privately dealing with terminal cancer amid other tumult, is actually quite amazing … if you’re prepared for its constant gut punch.
Last week, we scoured a galaxy far far away for a missing star: Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill. We found that he had been living comfortably in a universe of fantastic voice acting jobs.
But even with the Star Wars franchise’s legendary status, more than a few actors discovered that the series was a black hole from whence their careers had difficulty escaping. Today we turn our attention to another Star Wars veteran whose appearances on the silver screen have been woefully infrequent since the curtain closed on cinema’s greatest trilogy. Today, we search high and low for Billy Dee Williams.
Why We Love Him:
Before Billy Dee Williams realized international superstardom in the Star Wars series, he was paying his dues in small film roles and a massive repertoire of television work in the late 60s. In 1971, Williams took on the role of real life football star Gale Sayers in Brian’s Song. Like many members of my lesser sex, the gridiron subject matter of Brian’s Song is what enticed me to see it. And like most guys (even if they refuse to admit it) I wept like an infant by the time we got to William’s speech about his teammate and friend Brian Piccolo. It wasn’t merely that the film was inherently sad, Williams’ performance was incredibly powerful.
After kicking scores of ass during a run of blaxploitation films in the 70s, Billy Dee landed the role of Lando Calrissian in Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars franchise itself was a mammoth success, but Williams’ was not content merely riding its coattails. Lando was, much like Han when we first met him, one of the few characters that began his story completely unaffiliated in and dispassionate about the intergalactic civil war. He was a businessman and a natural leader, and Williams brought an effortless level of cool to the role. In fact, much of what we love about Billy Dee Williams is his unflappable coolness. Lando’s subsequent troubled conscience makes him one of the more interesting and layered characters in the series and Williams inhabits each layer with master skill.
What Happened To Him?
Like Hamill, Billy Dee Williams had trouble matching the success of Star Wars later in his career. I will say that 1981’s Nighthawks is not only one of my favorites of his performances, but also one of the best buddy cop movies I have ever seen. Williams and Stallone play two tough-as-nails beat cops who join a task force aiming to take down an international terrorist. The film is suspenseful, gritty, and Williams and Stallone play off one another beautifully. The film is currently streaming on Netflix so if you have a chance, it’s definitely worth checking out.
But beyond that, there just aren’t many notable titles on his post-Star Wars resume—with one exception. In 1989, Tim Burton cast Williams as Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent in the first Batman film. Harvey Dent in the comic books was always portrayed as a Caucasian character so the choice to cast Williams was interesting. True to form, Williams made Dent a cool-as-ice politician much like Lando Calrissian. He did this so well that, though his screen time was brief, he made our introduction to Harvey Dent a memorable one.
Where’s He Been?
So logically the question becomes, why didn’t Williams return to the Batman franchise in Batman Forever? Well, I guess I should say that it would make logical sense to ask this question if you were aware of the fact that Harvey Dent would eventually become the villainous Two-Face. Even though the script for 1989’s Batman made it very clear that this transformation would not occur right away, Williams only accepted the role because he was assured that when the Two-Face story was explored, he would be the actor to play him. He actually had a clause in his contract that stated as much. But when Joel Schumacher took over the series, he decided he wanted Tommy Lee Jones to play the part and so Warner Brothers bought Williams out of his contract. Since then, he’s been in very few theatrically released films. His most recent widely released film was 2002’s Undercover Brother.
The saddest part of this whole story is that Billy Dee Williams currently has no projects in development. I wholeheartedly feel he is among the most talented and cinematically captivating actors of all time. He’s made appearances on animated series here and there over the last few years, often reprising the role of Lando for nostalgic sake. But frankly, I would love to see him land another role like that of Fox in Nighthawks; something gritty and heavy that he can sink his teeth in to.
That man is simply too cool to remain inactive.
Sean Maher, Mekhi Phifer and Ben Gazzara have been cast in ABC's Wonderful World of Disney's Sunday showcase Brian's Song, a remake of the Emmy-winning 1971 TV movie starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. Set in the 1960s, the film recalls the real-life story of the friendship between two Chicago Bears players, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Despite very different backgrounds, the two develop a deep bond that is shaken to its core when Piccolo is diagnosed with lung cancer and ultimately dies at age 26. The story also explores the relationship between a white man and a black man during the turbulent '60s.