According to author John Green, his acclaimed young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars was intended as a revision of the classic cancer-story tropes of saintly sufferers and soft-lit deaths.
It’s yet another reminder that, in the movies, dying is often the best makeover.
In anticipation of the opening of the film adaptation of the book, here’s a brief history of beautiful people in movies who left us too soon.
Ali MacGraw, Love Story
If Charles Dickens perfected the romantic death in literature, Love Story did the same for cinema. The timeless romance between an athletic rich boy and a doomed smart-aleck set a new formula for schmaltz – including the totemic catchphrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This film also inspired Roger Ebert to diagnose "Ali MacGraw’s Disease," “where the only symptom is the patient grows more beautiful until finally dying.”
Deborah Winger, Terms of Endearment
Terms of Endearment avoided the mockery bestowed upon Love Story with a few crucial flips of the script. Besides focusing on the tumultuous relationship between a mother and her daughter, the film also named the fatal disease (in this case, breast cancer) and made at least a few nods towards the ravages it wreaks on the human body. Deborah Winger, a Best Actress nominee for the film, still looked pretty great right up until the end, though.
Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias
The specifics of kidney failure are unappealing in real life, but Julia Roberts earned her first Oscar nomination for her vibrant portrayal of a young mother struggling with a medical emergency in this female ensemble piece. Unlike other tearjerkers, though, the film didn’t draw out her last moments – just a quick collapse. The emotions on the remaining cast members’ faces told the rest of the story.
Campbell Scott, Dying Young
Two years later, Roberts was on the other side of the bed, playing a nurse who falls for a leukemia patient played by Campbell Scott. Though he’s a rare male version of the trope, Scott plays many of the same beats as his distaff counterparts, teaching Roberts to explore all the wonder that life has to offer. He was pretty dreamy, too; his large eyes and sallow skin offered an unintentional preview of Robert Pattinson‘s look in Twilight.
Robin Wright, Forrest Gump
Like Love Story, Forrest Gump never specifies the exact illness that Robin Wright’s Jenny suffers from, but given the film’s journey through all the cultural touchstones of the postwar era, it’s a good bet she died of AIDS. Fortunately, Jenny never had to suffer through lesions or lymphoma, just slightly paler skin and darker eyes. Never forget: “Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away.”
Winona Ryder, Autumn in New York
Most May-December romances have to address the fact that both lovers are in different life stages eventually, but Autumn in New York skillfully sidesteps this issue by giving Winona Ryder’s character a fatal heart condition. Before she goes, though, she manages to help Richard Gere reconnect with the daughter he never knew, helpfully dying before it gets weird that the two women are the same age.
Charlize Theron, Sweet November
But if Autumn in New York showed it was possible to mix the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Beautiful Sick Person tropes, Sweet November perfected the recipe. A remake of the 1968 movie of the same name, the film stars Charlize Theron as a cancer patient making the most of her remaining time by falling in love with a new man every month and leaving him better off than she found him. It’s a ridiculous scheme, and one that only works because Theron shows no symptoms of the devastating lymphoma that soon will kill her.
Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember
A Walk to Remember springs the beautiful young person’s death on you. For much of its runtime, the film seems to be a classic “popular boy falls for nerdy girl” love story in the vein of She’s All That; the world was not yet able to predict Nicholas Sparks’s emotional twists. When Moore’s terminal leukemia arrives, the film ascends to a higher plane of melodrama – but she never looks less than adorable throughout.
Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge
There’s no sense in ever docking Baz Luhrmann points for realism – the director lives in a neon world of his own creation, where centuries of high and low culture collide in a whirlwind of dance and song. Nicole Kidman’s consumptive showgirl in Moulin Rouge embodies his tonal shifts perfectly: As in the Victorian novels of old, one moment she’s can-can-ing up a storm, the next minute she’s dying of tuberculosis.
Ben Whishaw, Bright Star
If beautiful young people dying reads as inherently romantic to us, maybe that’s because many of the original Romantics really did die young. The 2009 biopic Bright Star covers the last years in the life of the poet John Keats, in which he fell madly in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25. The story’s been sanitized for the screen, of course; 90 minutes of uncontrollable bloody coughing is not the kind of thing that wins you Oscars. Instead, Keats spends his final days merely sallow-cheeked and pale – the original hipster of Hampstead.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, Romeo + Juliet
OK, so it was poison that killed these two star-crossed lovers, not a fatal disease. But you can’t deny that they look better than ever in their final moments. Who new crypts had such great mood lighting?
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