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5 for the Day: Monologues

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5 for the Day: Monologues

What makes a great movie monologue? Even more to the point, what qualifies as a monologue? Hamlet’s soliloquy would certainly make the cut, but its origins didn’t spring from film, so it’s probably ineligible. Does a speech have to be a certain length to qualify as a monologue? Can it be addressed to someone who reacts or occasionally interjects something in the middle of the display?

When I first thought about tackling this topic for a 5 for the day, many came to mind that I wasn’t certain would qualify. Does Bluto (John Belushi)’s speech in National Lampoon’s Animal House rallying the Deltas asking “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” qualify since Otter and Boone (Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert) made frequent asides while he spoke? When Harry Lime (Orson Welles) talks about the Swiss in The Third Man or Bernstein (Everett Sloane) recalls the girl he saw once in Citizen Kane, since they occur in the confines of a conversation and are relatively short, should they count? For those reasons, those didn’t make my final cut, nor did Robert Stack’s “Have you ever been kicked—in the head—with an iron boot?” bit from Airplane! or Phoebe Cates’ explanation of how she learned there was no Santa Claus in Gremlins. So here are the five I narrowed it down to—feel free to choose whatever you think counts.

1. “Of course it’s a friendly call.” Bob Newhart made his comic reputation with his hilarious phone call routines, but none come close to touching the brilliance of Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb calling to tell the unseen Soviet premier Dmitri that some nukes have been sent toward his country by an insane American general. The movie almost consists of one gut-busting comic sequence after another, but Muffley’s phone callcould be the film’s comic highlight and certainly belongs in the top tier of the great movie monologues.

2. “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale.” You could really make a 5 for a Day (or even more) list of monologues entirely from Paddy Chayefsky script for his ever-more prophetic Network. Much of the movie consists of monologues—from Peter Finch’s much-lauded “mad as hell” speech to his less-often cited tale of a voice speaking to him in the night. William Holden gets his great exit slam on Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen. Hell, Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a monologue that is practically her entire appearance in the film, reacting to the news that Holden is leaving her. Still, for the purposes of this post, I’m going with Ned Beatty’s great screed as Arthur Jensen (another essentially single-scene part that got an Oscar nomination) selling unhinged anchor Howard Beale on the pre-eminence of corporations over countries in this day and age—a sentiment that seems even more true now than it did 30 years ago.

3. “I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.” For my money, Jaws remains Steven Spielberg’s greatest film. It’s essentially divided into two parts: the initial attacks and town reaction, and then what truly makes the film great—three men on a rickety boat. The trio’s search for the killer shark alternates between suspense and laughs, but for one scene it stops. Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) are sharing tales of how they got various wounds when Hooper asks about one of Quint’s. The captain reveals it’s a tattoo he had removed that once bore the name of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the WWII ship he served on that was delivering the Hiroshima bomb but ended up sinking in shark-infested waters. Shaw is mesmerizing—how he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this scene alone is beyond me.

4. “I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” Part of me wanted to go with Christopher Walken’s speech about the path a gold watch took to end up in young Butch’s hands in Pulp Fiction, but with the many great words that Samuel L. Jackson brings to life from Quentin Tarantino’s script, I couldn’t ignore his closing speech as he holds his gun on would-be robber Tim Roth and explains why he isn’t going to kill him and how his whole outlook on life has changed. Not only is it a great speech, and not only does Jackson give it the delivery it deserves, it’s a summation of the entire film.

5. “Women. A mistake? Or did He DO IT TO US ON PURPOSE?” For my final pick, I have to choose a personal favorite of mine from a movie that admittedly isn’t anywhere near the level of the first four on this list. The Witches of Eastwick is OK, and it bears little resemblance to the John Updike novel upon which it was based, but the whole exercise is almost worth it just to witness Jack Nicholson as the frazzled devil complaining to a church congregation about his female troubles. Nicholson has contributed countless great lines and speeches in many films throughout his career, many which probably deserve mention before this one, but I can’t help it; it cracked me up in 1987, and it still makes me laugh just thinking about it today.

Edward Copeland is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Edward Copeland on Film and the political blog Copeland Institute for Lower Learning.