Revisiting 'My Life' And The Saddest Movie Ending Ever

The things that make us cry are personal. Our reactions to most things are our own, of course, and what makes you angry might make me laugh, what might offend one person could bore the next, but those are reactions without personal, intimate investment. The things that make us cry, though, are the things in tune with our own empathies and memories. To that end, most of us have a trigger of some kind – something that's near guaranteed to get us misty. For some it's heartache, for others it's seeing characters suffering some terminal illness, but for me?

It's scenes of fathers who think they've failed themselves and/or their children.

I touched on these themes previously with my look back at the under-appreciated adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, but one film that always drove that particular knife into my heart was Bruce Joel Rubin's 1993 drama My Life. Its ending – one I'm going to begin spoiling below so heads up to those of you a quarter of a century behind on your movie watching – left me a wreck more than once in the 90s. Its effect was so powerful as to get me misty even thinking of the scene in question despite having not re-watched it in nearly two decades, and for years now I've labeled it as one of the saddest endings I've ever seen.

This month marks the film's 25th anniversary, and re-watching it recently for the purpose of this article, I found three surprises awaiting me. First, the scene I thought was the ending is actually followed by ten more minutes of the movie. D'oh! Second, it's occasionally clunky and features issues I really should have noticed even before becoming a film critic. And third, while the scene in question still devastates me I'm no longer crying thinking only of my own father – I'm crying for myself too. Ugh.

My Life is the story of Bob Jones (Michael Keaton) who's happily married and enjoying a successful career in Los Angeles. He's recently received two pieces of news that send his life spinning – his wife Gail (Nicole Kidman) is pregnant with their first child, and he's been diagnosed with terminal cancer that threatens to kill him before the baby's even born. These combined revelations lead him to start recording videos so the kid can know who his/her dad was, and he includes things as varied as shaving tips and details about his own childhood. That latter focus, combined with visits to a Cambodian "doctor" played by the great Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields), sees Bob reflect on the reasons behind his desire to leave his own family so far behind.

As a kid, he felt shame and disappointment in a father who worked so hard in the scrap metal business, and when he grew up he left Detroit and moved across the country to focus on a well-paying, respectable career in LA. He pushed his brother Paul (Bradley Whitford) away too once he joined their father's business, and part of his resentment towards them both is the memory of a dad working so hard for so little who barely had time to spend with his sons. The more specific memory, though, involves a birthday wish he made as a child for a circus to perform in his backyard. He asked his parents, he prayed to God, and he told his entire class about it, but when he rushed home from school the only thing in the yard was his mother doing laundry.

It's a relatable incident – a child wanting something so badly and not understanding why their parents couldn't deliver – but Bob's disappointment grew inside him transforming from sadness to anger to a determination that he'd never be in a position where he had to rely on others to deliver for himself or his own children. Wife and video camera in hand, he visits his family back home, and rather than share the news of his illness their reunion instead devolves into arguments and renewed resentment. He's carrying so much negativity within himself, and while no one's pretending it's the cause of his cancer it's certainly not helping. Bob lives to see his son's birth, but with his health declining rapidly Gail notifies his family. Disputes and disagreements are forgotten as Bob enters his final days with his wife, son, father, mother, and brother by his side.

He's awakened by Gail one morning and wheeled outside, and as his family gathers around him still dressed in their pajamas a sheet parts to reveal a circus troupe performing in his backyard. Acrobats, clowns, jugglers, and more dance and perform before him, and his weary eyes brighten just enough. His haggard and pale face relaxes just visibly. And his proud, sad father leans in with love and regret to say simply and softly "Better late than never."

My words don't do the effect justice, but writing them out is still enough to get me a bit misty because again, crying is personal, and to me the scene captures too well many of my own complicated feelings towards my dad and the knowledge that parents know when they've disappointed their children. The film places no blame on the father and instead recognizes that Bob's issues are his own – his anger, his pity party as a child, his inability to forgive – but as one character tells him, "Dying's a really hard way to learn about life." It's never too late for these lessons, but coming at the end of life, at the end of possibility, means coming with regrets.

I long ago made peace with my own father and recognized that his faults are human... and that my reaction and response to them are merely faults of my own. The backyard circus scene still crushes me as it reminds me not only of the shame I felt at feeling "poor" and at thinking I had a dad who was somehow lesser than others, but also of the shame I know he felt at being unable to provide at times like "real" men, husbands, and fathers were supposed to. I know he was disappointed in himself, a feeling my behavior surely encouraged, and it's a feeling I still struggle to forgive myself for. The scene serves as both a reminder of those fissures and the promise of forgiveness that brings them both back together.

My re-watch of My Life hit me in a brand new way this time, though, and that brings me to the third surprise I alluded to above. Sure I was wrong about the placement of the ending scene, and the film's a bit sloppy at times in its narrative and editing, but the biggest revelation for me hits home in a newly personal way. My wife and I have been trying to have a child for a few years now, and while we've only gotten truly serious about it in the past two, I worry that time's running out. There are still steps to try, some of them difficult, many of them expensive, but in my quieter moments I sometimes worry that I'm failing her. That's guilt enough (and the subject of a different essay), but I also worry pre-emptively that I'm failing my own kid. Yes, my currently non-existent child, thank you very much for the reminder.

I may have waited too long before deciding how much I would love having a daughter or son of my own, and I may never get the chance to see them resent me for failing to deliver a circus on their birthday. Like I said, it's personal, and it's enough to add more wetness to my eyes thinking of lost possibilities. And it gets worse! I very much want a child or two, but the film's awareness of mortality means the thought of actually having one this late in life leaves me a little sad too. My general immaturity suggests a much younger person than I am, and the idea of my child graduating from college when I'm 70 is ridiculous. Isn't it? I don't know. It feels like it should be? (And for those worried about the math, yes, my wife is younger.)

The memories that bond me to the scene in My Life relate to a son being angry and embarrassed by a father who he thought couldn't provide or play or be an active part of his life, and while I always believed I'd be different I worry now that it may be out of my hands. Even if I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity it comes with new concerns. What if my old ass can't keep up with my daughter? What if my son is ridiculed for having a dad old enough to be his grandfather? What if I die before seeing them grow because again, I'll be an old ass man by that point?! What if I fail them?

The rational part of me knows both that I'm being dumb and that every hopeful parent has their own fears and concerns, but as someone who's currently more 'hopeful' than 'parent' these feelings are regrettably personal. You can keep your Toy Story 3 (2010), your Titanic (1997), and your The Notebook (2004) as those supposed tear-jerkers leave me dry. If you want to see this guy cry (you don't) just toss on the bathtub scene from Say Anything (1989) or the ending of About Schmidt (2002). Or, if you're feeling especially cruel, make me watch the last twenty minutes of My Life again. It's a movie that most people have forgotten or ignored despite its still relevant life lessons, but for me, it's one of the saddest films I've ever seen... and as the years tick by, the damn thing just keeps getting sadder.

Now if you'll excuse me, the ovulation calculator and my wife's voice are paging me upstairs.