The art of crying on command is not one easily undertaken. When it is insincere we, as viewers, know. Crying is an expression not only of grief but also of joy. Of pure surfeit of emotion. On the screen, when it is done correctly, it can tap into the deep well of empathy within a viewer. There is a power in vulnerability. It connects us to each other. Daisy Ridley’s tears as Rey make her an even more empathetic character because we see her vulnerability alongside her strength. Ridley is a beautiful crier. Claire Danes is not. When Claire Danes cries, her entire face is overcome. Her chin trembles. Her lip quivers. It is what most people probably look like when they cry. And for that reason it is brilliant.
Throughout the course of cinematic history, directing has changed. Watch any film from the early days of sounded cinema and you’ll see that when people answer the phone, they stare at a single fixed point. Now, people on the phone let their eyes dart around the room, as we are wont to do in reality. More complex roles for women are being written (though, as Shonda Rhimes rightly says, we’re in desperate need of more), which allows for more complex emotional development. Cue the wobbly chin.
In Homeland, Carrie Mathison struggles with a hell of a lot. Death, mayhem, destruction, mental illness, betrayal, you name it and Carrie has dealt with it. It’s no surprise, then, that a woman whose entire life seems to be in a constant state of being foiled by the CIA, terrorists, or both, is a crier. What Danes’ particular cry-face brings to this, however, is a far more raw expression of overwhelming emotion than a pretty-cry would. When you’re running from an assassin you think has been sicked on you by your former mentor, your cry-face is probably the last thing on your mind.
Throughout Danes’ career, she has portrayed complex women. In her breakthrough role as 90s complicated teen Angela Chase, Danes’ ugly crying adds another level of authenticity to a show that was already groundbreaking for its accurate portrayal of growing up. As the 15-year-old High School sophomore, Angela deals with themes of infidelity, assault, addiction, abuse, homelessness, and more. That’s on top of the average high school kid’s daily life in what she describes as a war zone. In stark comparison to, say, the pretty crying on Gossip Girl, a show also meant to somehow portray the complex emotions of teenagers.
There is an expectation in film and TV that women fall into discrete categories. Femme fatale, victim, strong and unemotional. Even as characters begin to slowly break those moulds, there is still a shortage of diversity for women on screen. Danes’ ugly crying does not make her ugly, far from it. Her beauty comes from her strength, her vulnerability, her empathy, and the empathy she elicits in those who watch her. Even when you don’t like her character, you don’t doubt the sincerity of the emotion.
Besides all of that, there is something to be said for not being pretty all the time. There is an undue amount of pressure on women to be beautiful (a subjective term at best), no matter what. This is a particular strain on celebrities, of course, and the ramifications are that even in the direst situations, audiences somehow won’t empathise with, or feel pity for, an ugly woman. What we get with Danes is halfway between the two. She is a pretty woman, who cries “ugly”. That she crosses that line between what ‘the eye of the beholder’ wants to portray, instead, what she genuinely feels, reminds the audience that, though this is entertainment, it is also art. And, as Nina Simone said: “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” In the particular case of Homeland, the things Carrie Mathison deals with are ugly, and her responses to them are full of horror. Her crying is not only a mirror of the emotions so many people confront on a day to day basis, but a reflection of the times indeed.