I just watched "Love Liza" on IFC, and while it was a pretty good flick, it made me wonder how many times, in the history of formulaic filmmaking, a screenwriter's been sitting around trying to work on the story, trying to give the main character a compelling problem, and someone says, "oh, just give him a dead wife."
I mean, Robin Williams has practically made a career off of dead wives (Dead Poets/Fisher King/Good Will Hunting). Mel Gibson made the transition to big-time acting with his dead wife in Lethal Weapon. The Fugitive. Kiss of Death. Solaris. The number of lightweight leading-man vehicles which have been elevated with the dead wife trick, it's really staggering.
And, in these movies, she's always a maximum babe. The only film I can think of where the dead wife is sort of average-looking is About Schmidt, and in that one he felt liberated by the death.
I can't think of many dead-husband movies offhand that milk the death in the same way. Usually when they need a leading-actress to earn the acting money they do the Lost Child Thing, which is just as cloying. ("My Baaaaaby. My Sssssson." Poor Julianne Moore.)
....Semi-on this topic, I just watched "The Unit" by David Mamet on CBS last night. What a strangely disjunctive thrill to hear the MametSpeak on TV. Reminded me of when I was first all turned on by The West Wing, before the chatterbox style turned self-parodying. I think (hope) the Mamet style will not so soon wear out its welcome....anyway, the show is all about husbands and wives in a military setting and you just know sooner or later someone on the Unit is gonna be killed. But I get the feeling that rather than wallowing in the grief in that contrived, Emmy-chasing sort of way, Mamet's going to address it with some pithy, borderline-bitchy summation, like, "well, that happened...."