A short cinematic history of girls (who die for boys)

It's Not You, It's My Cancer: Ill-Fated Romance on the Silver Screen

on October 03, 2011 by Inkoo Kang

walktoremember.jpgHave you seen that romance movie where that pretty girl dies of cancer but still looks very pretty and not at all like her body is killing her? No, not Gus Van Sant's new movie Restless. It's an older one. No, not Love Story. Not the one with Charlize Theron. Or Mandy Moore. Or Leelee Sobieskiwho's she, again? Why are there so many tearjerkers with pretty, dying girls anyway? What fuels the girl-on-girl violence of young female viewers forking over their allowances to watch actresses die slowly and painfully? (Or quickly and painfully, in the case of horror flicks, which also get the dude stamp of approval.) And perhaps most puzzlingly, why are terminally ill young women wasting their last days on earth teaching blandly handsome, emotionally stunted boys how to open up, feel and grow? Here are six filmsfrom iconic, generation-defining Oscar winners to deserving recipients of multiple Razzieswho think death is the prescription for true love.

Love Story (1970)
Cancer Type: Leukemia
Most Ridiculous Item on Her Bucket List: Never apologizing
Summary: Rich preppy Ryan O'Neal meets, marries, and loses scholarship student Ali MacGraw, then writes some really awful poetry, including the nonsensical line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Lessons: (1) Die young and leave an impossibly pretty corpse. Love Story inspired film critic and thyroid cancer-survivor Roger Ebert to name and define Ali MacGraw's Disease: "a movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches." (2) Don't have cancer while being poor. Love Story introduces the division between the grieving rich and the cancer-stricken poor-a theme that recurs with such reliable regularity, the genre could be a critique of the American health care system.

Here on Earth (2000)
Cancer Type: Bone
Most Ridiculous Item on Her Bucket List: Having her breasts named "New York" and "New Jersey" by her boyfriend
Summary: Track star Leelee Sobieski dumps poor boy Josh Harnett for rich boy Chris Klein because she wants to ride in a brand-new douchemobile before floating up to heaven.
Lessons: (1) You can get bone cancer from a track injury. It's science! (2) Money can't buy rich, disaffected teenage boys a lesson in life appreciation from a dying girl. Oh wait, it can.

Sweet November (2001)
Cancer Type: Hodgkin's Disease
Most Ridiculous Item on Her Bucket List: Trip to the DMV
Summary: Callous ad man Keanu Reeves spends a month (guess which one) with Rita, Charlize Theron's cheerful but mentally handicapped character on Arrested Development, before her demise.
Lessons: (1) Pretty, dying women love nothing more than making a project of turning a normally unpleasant man into an unpleasantly normal man. It's fortunate for them that life-threatening diseases so often provide the sick with boundless energy and freedom from pain. (2) The most surefire way of getting a man you met a month ago to propose is to tell him about your terminal cancer. All men assume that a female must be married at least once, so she can die a real woman.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Cancer Type: Consumption, the cancer of the 19th century
Most Ridiculous Item on Her Bucket List: Singing medleys
Summary: Struggling poet Ewan McGregor finds a muse in dying courtesan Nicole Kidman, who fends off the grabby paws of Duke Richard Roxburgh.
Lessons: (1) The fetishization of female suffering extends back centuries, if not millennia. Puccini's opera La Bohème, from which Moulin Rouge! clearly borrows, also features a woman dying of consumption, the slow and silent killer of the Dickensian era. (2) Conveniently for the Ali MacGraws of the world, diseases like tuberculosis and cancer shape the sick into the Victorian ideal of feminine beauty: pale, thin, weak. This, in turn, allows the boys romancing those dying girls to appear more manly in comparison. Cancer is the great gender unequalizer.

A Walk to Remember (2002)
Cancer Type: Leukemia
Most Ridiculous Item on Her Bucket List: Temporary tattoo (seriously)
Summary: Mandy Moore is the goody-two-shoes pastor's daughter, Shane West is the sensitive bad boy who is born again through her death.
Lessons: (1) The tumors that sprout from these cancer-stricken girls might as well form a halo. The women in cancer romances are always saints and martyrsselfless, long suffering, uncomplaining. (2) Death is only a temporary separation from your soul mate, who you'll reunite with in heaven. Unless he remarries? How does that work, exactly?

Restless (2011)
Cancer Type: Brain
Most Ridiculous Item on Her Bucket List: Atrocious haircut
Summary: Twee Mia Wasikowska meets emo Henry Hopper and helps him get closure after his parents' deaths.
Lessons: (1) Pretty, dying women are the best teachers of carpe diem. Your high school yearbook motto would have been taken so much more seriously if you had had lymphoma. (2) Real relationships are boring. The most exciting type of romance is the kind that only consists of the honeymoon phase and that ends before you can taint your idealization of your beloved by learning about their deep flaws and annoying habits. That way, you can compare the frozen mental portrait you have of them and never face up to the reality of who they actually are.

Tags: Restless, Love Story, Sweet November, A Walk to Remember, Here on Earth, Moulin Rouge!, cancer, Charlize Theron, Mandy Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ali McGraw, Gus Van Sant, Mia Wasikowska

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