A great monologue is a delicate balance between screenwriting and performance. When this perfect balance is achieved, we get unforgettable scenes that vastly improve the films they are in.
Good, well written and well delivered monologues can make us laugh or cry, they can be inspirational or they can just be a means of catharsis. The best monologues are slowly built toward, often serving as the key scene for their film and the defining moment of a character.
In truth, I can’t pick just one monologue and call it the best. There are far too many to choose from and it would be doing a disservice to them all were I to single out just one. Instead I’ve highlighted three that I feel are particularly important. Each one deals with different themes, but they all offer fascinating insights into the speaker’s mindset and motivations, and they are all perfect in their own way.
So, in no particular order, here are the three monologues that I believe are the cream of the crop. Starting with…
Howard Beale – Network (1976)
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
“…We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’
Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD!…”
Sidney Lumet’s Network is an excellent piece of satire that shows the lengths that television networks are willing to go to in order to bolster their ratings. It’s wonderful script netted screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky a well-deserved Academy Award.
Facing unemployment due to poor ratings, long time newsreader Howard Beale (Peter Finch) uses his remaining air time to publicly vent his frustrations. When this on-screen outburst leads to a ratings spike, the network cynically decide to keep him employed a while longer, capitalising on the popularity of his intense, deranged tirades.
The funny thing is that while the expert, volcanic delivery from Peter Finch might sound deranged, what he says makes perfect sense. On the surface it looks like the ramblings of a mad man but his dishevelled appearance does nothing to hide the truth of his words. We soon realise that we’re not watching Beale’s fall from grace, we’re witnessing him galvanise his audience.
He’s warning us of the perils of complacency. He tells us that we have stood by and let awful things happen for too long; that we’re content to continue to do nothing as long as we’re allowed our insignificant little luxuries. Beale then implores us to step out of our comfort zones and stand up for what is right.
With this one speech, Beale energises a nation into action. What makes this monologue even more special is the fact that its message is still relevant today, over forty years later.
Sara Goldfarb – Requiem for a Dream (2000)
“It makes tomorrow all right.”
“…What have I got Harry, hmm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone, you’re gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old…”
Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is a deeply upsetting study of addiction and the devastating effects it can have on people. It’s intentionally depressing and difficult to get through but it’s a story that needs to be told. Its overriding message is too important to be overlooked.
Of the four individuals highlighted in the film it’s Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb who has the biggest impact. It’s a heart-breaking tale of an elderly woman struggling to come to terms with her increasingly lonely life.
With her husband’s passing and her son leaving home, Sara finds herself alone for the first time in her life. This sudden loneliness is crushing for her. After a lifetime of caring for others, she struggles for motivation to care for herself. She still craves for the love and attention from a family that has moved on.
This particular speech sees Sara open up to her son, Harry (Jared Leto). Burstyn’s performance here is pitch perfect. She’s constantly on the verge of collapse, questioning the point of her existence now that everyone she loves has gone. She delivers a few hopeful lines but her face shows a brave smile that she clearly doesn’t feel.
She desires to once again be someone of significance to anybody, but chasing this dream leads her to an addiction that slowly ruins her life.
Atticus Finch – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
“In the name of God do your duty.”
“…The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Lincoln County, have presented themselves to you gentlemen – to this Court – in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted; confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption, the evil assumption, that all negroes lie; all negroes are basically immoral beings; all negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption that one associates with minds of their calibre, and which is in itself, gentlemen, a lie – which I do not need to point out to you…”
You would expect a courtroom drama to be the perfect place to house a great monologue, and Atticus Finch’s (Gregory Peck) closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t disappoint. It’s a stirring scene that highlights the absurdity of racial divides.
The story takes place in a fictional town in Alabama. Maycomb may not have been a real town, but it’s intolerance of different races was indicative of society during that time period. When a young black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), is wrongly accused of raping a white girl, Atticus Finch is the only white person willing to stand up for him. Finch represents Robinson despite knowing the irreparable damage it would do to his reputation around the town.
The closing argument is captivating. Finch deftly sweeps aside the “evidence” of Tom Robinson’s alleged assault, and eloquently deconstructs the racist attitudes that put him on trial in the first place. It’s a remarkable display of moral fibre. He turns the tables on the plaintiffs by acknowledging that the incident did indeed happen, but the culprit appeared to be much closer to home.
Given the unwinnable nature of the case, Finch devotes time and effort to simply make his point. And what a point. It’s a riveting dressing down of a severely racist community. Atticus’s willingness to go against the grain of society, to so excellently voice his contempt for their time-honoured codes and beliefs, makes him a moral hero.
So there you have my picks for the best movie monologues ever committed to film.
There were so many more that I could have chosen. Jack Nicholson’s morally murky speech from A Few Good Men and Al Pacino’s eye-opening opinions on theology from Devil’s Advocate are a couple of honourable mentions, but in the end I chose the above three because I simply can’t imagine a conversation about monologues without them.
You never know, I might bore you with another post on this subject in the future!
So what do you think? What are your favourite movie monologues? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.