‘It always destroys me’: our writers on their saddest movie deaths

<span>Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, Mufasa in The Lion King and Nancy Allen in Blow Out.</span><span>Composite: Landmark Media/Disney/Everett Collection</span>
Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, Mufasa in The Lion King and Nancy Allen in Blow Out.Composite: Landmark Media/Disney/Everett Collection

Earl in Magnolia

“Have you seen death in your bed?” bellows Julianne Moore’s unfaithful gold digger, wracked with guilt and hurtling toward a full breakdown as the husband she’s never appreciated draws his final breaths. The cold, horrifying fact of mortality covers Paul Thomas Anderson’s skyscraping Magnolia, the first film he made after watching his own father succumb to cancer, an experience he channeled into the plot strand concerning Jason Robards’ ailing Earl. As he withers away in his Los Angeles mansion, sifting through a lifetime of regret, his mistakes return to him in the form of the virulent misogynist son stunted by his dad’s neglect. Tom Cruise delivers the best acting of his entire life as the long-estranged Frank in their confrontation, his open-wound emotionality a leveling gesture of naked vulnerability from Anderson, but Robards matches him with crumbling-statue Shakespearean gravitas that gives way to a cowed, fearful smallness in the face of eternity. Infirm during the shoot, he’d pass away one year after the film came to theaters – along with Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ricky Jay, another one of the ghosts haunting this heaving outpouring of grief. Charles Bramesco

Jack in Titanic

There is no movie I have seen more in my 30 years than Titanic, which contains a scene 100% guaranteed to make me cry. It’s not the one you think of; the moment Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack slips beneath the icy waves is sad, sure, but even on my first watch at 13, I knew it was coming, and the theatricality of the whole thing – the floating door with ENOUGH ROOM FOR BOTH, the fake frozen hair, the dead outstretched arms – felt too surreal to fully hit. But the very end of the movie, when a now 100-year-old Rose DeWitt Bukater Dawson Calvert returns the Heart of the Ocean diamond to the North Atlantic, and then the camera pans over photos from her 83 years without Jack, it gets me every time. She lived a full life of milestones, tedium, adventures, aging; he remained frozen at 20, in time, in her memory, forever. Devastating! On the nose, sure, but what about the tragedy of dying too young, of never knowing who the person you loved would become, isn’t? Adrian Horton

John’s daughter in The Crowd

There is nothing as brutal as bereavement for making you feel alone in a crowd, especially when the loss arrives suddenly, and apparently at random. In King Vidor’s peerless silent 1928 weepie The Crowd, James Murray was plucked from the extra pool to play John, a young man struggling to stay afloat in the big city. Two-thirds of the way through the film, John’s daughter is killed in a traffic accident and there in the teeming street, his life falls apart. Surrounded by strangers, taunted by their happiness but locked in his own world of sorrow, John typifies the loneliness of mourning. If you haven’t seen the film, this will give you a flavour: the emotional devastation of the isolated father inspired Vittorio De Sica to make Bicycle Thieves. There is no ending to grief, and Vidor struggled to find a suitable close for the film. When it comes, it is a bittersweet reminder that “the crowd laughs with you always … but it will cry with you only for a day.” For the individual, moments of happiness may come and go, but the pain endures. Pamela Hutchinson

Ellie in Up

While most devastating movie deaths occur far into any given film, Up’s absolutely crushing demise happens just within the animated feature’s first 10 minutes. The movie’s intro sequence, which follows the lifelong romance of protagonist Carl and his eventual wife, Ellie, was singled out for exuberant praise upon the film’s release, and it has come to be known in and of itself for its breathtaking storytelling and emotional resonance. The two come across as so genuinely, purely and naively in love that the sorrows visited upon them hit so very hard. The simple device of husband Carl saving up for wife Ellie’s trip to Paradise Falls – a trip that she sadly never gets to take – is one of many such devices that expertly exemplify the pair’s lifelong devotion to each other, ultimately making Ellie’s death all the more heartbreaking. By using these to represent the larger arc of their lifelong love, Up pairs the tale back to its narrative bones, making all the more space for the unfairness of Ellie’s death to take center stage. No matter how many times I watch it, it always just destroys me – the only consolation is that we have the rest of Up to cheer on Carl’s balloon adventure and regain our emotional footing. Veronica Esposito

Mufasa in The Lion King

Nothing could prepare us for Mufasa’s death – not the reviews warning of what would be deemed The Lion King’s Bambi moment or the news coverage at the time reporting on parents reacting to its intensity; not even the villainous Scar’s Broadway-ready musical number triumphantly announcing his plans to orchestrate murder. He literally warned us to “be prepared!” And yet that scene, so operatic and tender, from the deadly stampede that kills Mufasa to the mourning after, still hurts 30 years later. It’s the fussed-over and expressionistic animation that get you, the way Scar’s shadow grows more imposing throughout and how the last time we see Mufasa’s eyes, they’re stricken with fear as the world around him goes dark. But more than anything, it’s the way young Simba crawls beneath his father’s massive, lifeless paw; a child curling up to a corpse, yearning to be held and protected. We rarely see grief captured in such deeply unsettling and profoundly moving terms. Radheyan Simonpillai

Sally in Blow Out

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is about many things – the corruption and paranoia gripping America at its bicentennial, how the tools of cinema can reveal some truths and bury others, the expected De Palma themes of obsession and voyeurism – but it’s also, more basically, about a sound man searching for a scream. The right scream is one of several fresh sound effects Jack (John Travolta) needs to wrap up his latest B-movie assignment and he’s out collecting them when his microphone picks up the audio from a Chappaquiddick-like incident involving a politician and a sex worker named Sally (Nancy Allen). Jack and Sally forge a powerful bond in trying to piece together the truth against an overwhelming force to cover it up, but their fate is sealed in an extraordinary Liberty Day set piece in which Sally’s murder is obscured by popping fireworks. Only Jack can hear her scream. It’s a “good scream”. Scott Tobias

The Behranis in House of Sand and Fog

For most of 2003’s remarkably bruising drama House of Sand and Fog, a mighty sense of hope is what keeps Ben Kingsley’s strict patriarch going. He’s a former Iranian army general now living in the US, maintaining a life beyond his means, feigning the life of a white-collar gentleman while working that of a blue-collar immigrant. But he has a brighter future in mind, a return to the lofty status he once shared with his family but just in a different place, a belief that the American dream can also be shared by those not born there. The story, which pits him against a depressed addict played by Jennifer Connelly over the ownership of a house, continues to show him the impossibilities of a happy ending but he persists, unblinking. That is, until he no longer can when in an instant his son is shot, in the kind of unravelling nightmare we watch through the small gaps between fingers, and all hope is gone. After he says a final, wrenching goodbye, in a cold, hopeless hospital room, he poisons his wife and then suffocates himself, a horrible death chosen as punishment for not being the father and husband he thought he should be. Some criticised the cascade of tragedies as overly melodramatic, but I’ve always been too crippled with a deep, haunting sadness, pushed to further tears by James Horner’s hair-raising score, to poke holes. It’s the end of a dream and one that symbolises the end of many others, particularly gutting in the immediate years after 9/11 and still, sadly, gutting now. Benjamin Lee

Dizzy in Starship Troopers

Among its many delights, Starship Troopers is stuffed with high-impact death scenes: from the on-air reporter carved up by invading bugs, to shellshocked General Owen being splattered by a flying decapitator, to poor old Zander getting his head emptied by the Brain bug. But – hear me out – the scene I’ve never stopped thinking about is the last, super-emotional moments of Dizzy Flores, mortally wounded and choking on blood, but comforting herself in the knowledge that she did, if briefly, knock boots with her massive long-term crush, square-jawed Johnny Rico. “It’s OK,” she mutters to Rico, “because I got to have you.” Excuse me, there’s something in my eye. Quite a few somethings. Of course, the irony is that Rico’s own massive long-term crush, Carmen, is piloting the actual spaceship on which this affecting scene is taking place. Part of the brilliance of the film’s satire is that it triangulates the situation to not demean Dizzy’s death by having Rico melt into Carmen’s arms; he may not requite her feelings, exactly, but he stands up for her memory and nails the funeral speech. What a way to go. Andrew Pulver

Bing Bong in Inside Out

Few studios push buttons as effectively as Pixar. But while the showstopper opening of Up leaves me oddly cold, I cannot see, or even overhear, Bing Bong’s self-sacrifice without weeping. Partly it’s the existential terror of the situation: perky Joy and candy-crying elephant/cat/dolphin hybrid Bing Bong stranded in a valley of death, where memories, and even his limbs, crumble to dust. Not only will they perish, but so too will any chance at a happy life for the girl in whose mind they once lived. Partly it’s the cheery mania of Richard Kind and Amy Poehler’s voice work, plus the mounting sound cacophony, all song and apocalypse. But it’s mostly the easy decision behind Bing Bong’s jump from the rocket, so Joy can stand a chance of making it back to headquarters: of course you’d condemn yourself for a child you love. “Take her to the moon for me,” he calls out from the death pit, so bravely and movingly – a line my son never fails to find hilarious, as I sob into the Kellogg’s. Catherine Shoard

Related: Inside Out 2 review – Pixar returns to emotional Mission Control for Riley’s teen years

The squeaky shoe in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

I was eight years old when Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out in theaters, old enough to know that cartoons never die and to have complete trust in Christopher Lloyd. So you can imagine the shock that came over me when my beloved Doc Brown reappeared as a rubbery and sinister figure called Judge Doom whose whole reason for being was to make Toontown, his animated remit, less fun and zany and commit violators to capital punishment. To this day I’m still traumatized by the scene of him immersing the sweet, innocent squeaky shoe into the Dip – his special toon-dissolving brew – and haunted by the boot’s pained squeals. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have pushed my parents so hard to see the film – a wonderful compromise of live acting and kids stuff, I argued with an eight-year-old brain that was nowhere near ready to make heads or tails of Jessica Rabbit, let alone the many cartoon deaths that followed the shoe’s. Saturday morning cartoons haven’t been the same since. Andrew Lawrence

Selma in Dancer in the Dark

Usually crying from fellow moviegoers is detectable via a series of relatively discreet sniffles and rustling of tissues. Not so when I saw Dancer in the Dark back in the fall of 2000. That’s the only time I can recall watching a movie and hearing the sounds of actual guttural wailing from other viewers, like you would at a particularly wrenching funeral. And, to be clear, I wasn’t a neutral observer in this phenomenon. Dancer in the Dark does just about everything possible to warn you that Selma, the impoverished and sight-losing mother played by pop singer Björk, will probably not meet a happy ending: it’s directed by feel-bad maestro Lars von Trier, it uses elaborate musical-fantasy sequences to contrast with its bleak handheld “real life” scenes, it takes inspiration from weepy melodramas – and in case none of that was enough, the audience from the showing before mine emerged looking as if they’d spent two hours at a hospital bedside. Yet the unjust execution of Selma, just after she learns that the operation to save her young son’s vision has been a success, and interrupting her final song, performed sans fantastical musical accompaniment, still hit me in the gut and left me sobbing alongside everyone else. For all of the movie’s obvious and intentional artificiality, blending old-fashioned genres in ways at once clever and shameless, Selma’s death gave me something more akin to the uncontrollable, panicked feeling of real-life grief than the usual tasteful sniffling. Jesse Hassenger

Thelma and Louise in Thelma & Louise

I recently visited Sedona, Arizona, for the first time while attending an old friend’s bachelorette. And while driving through the red rock desert, blasting Annie Lennox with her in the passenger seat, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to at least one intrusive voice in the back of my brain urging me to pull a Thelma & Louise. Of course I didn’t, but such is the power of the heartbreaking end scene, in which our titular fugitives slam on the gas of their 1966 Thunderbird, speeding off the edge of the Grand Canyon to certain doom. It’s an OG meme, parodied to death on The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Wayne’s World 2. But cheesy dude humor cannot dull the spirit that comes with two ride-or-dies choosing to “keep going” rather than face the fuzz. It’s a visual metaphor for the kind of all-encompassing devotion that you’ll only ever understand if you’ve been lucky to experience the beautiful, life-giving mess that is female friendship. And for the record, you never see them hit the ground … I always like to believe that they lived, actually. Alaina Demopoulos