Monologues: The Gravity of Words

Monologues reveal the most inner-thoughts of characters, they attempt to capture a sentiment or characteristic of a character for comic, dramatic or narrative purposes. This approach of using extended spoken parts in film has it’s advantages. From a film-makers perspective it’s easy to recognise the benefits: speaking for longer tends to reveal the strength of an emotion, the clarity of an idea or the dominance of one character while also giving a closer peak into their minds. A monologue is film’s equivalent of the internal narrative of books. Much like an extended shot this method of dialogue should be limited across the course of a film and used for dramatic input. There are typically three types of monologues which are comic, dramatic and classic. The purpose of a comic monologue is usually to elicit laughter over the course of an extended skit or joke. Dramatic monologues usually play on power dynamics or are an explosion of the repressed anger or passion of a character. The latter, and my least favourite, acts as a narrative device to explain with exposition parts of the story the director is incapable of demonstrating. This undermines the core principle of storytelling in film which is to show and not tell, to imply and let the audience bridge the gap in their own minds.

Some of the funniest monologues that have ever hit the screen range from Dustin Hoffman’s coming out on Tootsie or Brad Pitt’s half baked introduction to the insane asylum from 12 Monkeys, or the hilariously alliterative introduction of V, the homage to the swimsuit arena from Team America: World Police or the opening monologue from Annie Hall by Woody or the many monologues from Dr.Strangelove but nothing can top the Dalai Lama monologue by the hilariously bizarre Bill Murray and his brother Brian-Doyle Murray. Although it is rumored that the monologue is pure improvisation by Murray it can be found in the earliest drafts in the script. Murray did his own spin on it on set. In this set-up Brian plays the straight man in the scene, not fully grasping Bill’s point which propels the monologue forward. The delivery is wry but eccentric in typical Murray fashion and the combination of religious and secular in hilarious contrast means that as the scene builds the joke grows funnier. This is the correct use of a comic monologue.

Shifting focus to the voiceover, a not quite universally loved non-diegetic monologue on top of a film commonly used to bookend a piece. Adaptation has one of the best examples of voiceover of all time. By contrast there is also the beginning of Goodfellas about the aspiration of becoming a gangster, or the beginning of Trainspotting about the choices in life, or indeed the end of American Beauty concerning beauty in the smaller and simpler things or interspersed throughout Fight Club to reveal the cracked psyche of it’s protagonist. However, the single best  and most sublime example of a voiceover in my mind, and one for future films to follow, comes from one of cinema’s greatest voices from the Shawshank Redemption – Morgan Freeman. The character Red is let out of Shawshank and contemplates life outside of the world he has known for so long summed up in the words ‘get busy living or get busy dying’. The amalgamation of a series of profound and simple statements exhibited from a personal character perspective subversively sums up the film’s core message through it’s simple, noble hopes and aspirations.

On another level, movie villains are well known for delivering monologues, they love to gloat, to reveal their masterplan, to explore their machinations and taunt the hero. To focus on the best of the worst you could argue the Joker’s monologue about his scars are exemplar, or Daniel-Day Lewis’ homage to his favourite frozen drink, threats from Denzel Washington in his King Kong speech, psychoanalysis from Hannibal Lecter or a lesson about fashion from Faye Dunaway or the trope subversion of Ozymandias in Watchmen but there are only two that are the perfect example of this trope. These monologues are shouted by two of cinema’s greatest actors. This is Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Devil’s Advocate and Cape Fear. Both of these characters blaspheme in their own way and insist time and again on their omnipotence and unstoppable power. These terrifying performances are brilliantly written and completely on par with one another. Al Pacino delivers this monologue with such fervor focusing on the sadistic nature of God, on how he has manipulated his power and become an absentee landlord. This monologue, although directed at an individual, reveals a pent-up frustration and spite with wonderfully balanced language and a daggering performance. The bloodied De Niro delivers these perfectly crafted lines with a laid back arrogance and sermon-like mockery which hardens the dialogue. Contemplative dialogue meets great performances in these two films.

Romantic monologues vary from the ever-popular confessions of love including classics from Jerry Maguire and When Harry Met Sally or Felicity Jones’ poem from Like Crazy or the blessing of an interracial marriage in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner but nothing comes close to B.B Anderson’s confession of an affair in Emar Bergman’s Persona. This may be one of the most erotic scenes ever filmed yet there isn’t a single frame of suggested nudity. The monologue is brilliantly performed and is also sad, brutally honest as well as deeply confusing which makes it the perfect blend of deep psycho-sexual analysis that even Freud might love. The flippant disregard of romantic advances and the heart of the character are revealed. The use of sensory explicitness give a deep and evocative insight into the speaker’s mind and youthful rebelliousness as she remains trapped by circumstance.

Speaking of Freud, or whatever graceful segway from sex to death you would like to choose it is important to honour some of the monologues that make us wonder who is chopping onions. From the heartbreaking what-if monologue in Schindler’s List, or Ellen Burton’s tragic fantasy from Requiem for a Dream or Brando’s regrets of a squandered career from On the Waterfront or when Lou Gehrig finally says goodbye in The Pride of the Yankees or when Jack Nicholson talks with his father in Five Easy Pieces or when Tom bids farewell to his mother in The Grapes of Wrath mortality has been explored time and again. But by far the most sobering of them all comes from the late Robin Williams’ park bench monologue from Good Will Hunting. It is honest, inspiring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, Williams’ unforgettable speech breaks Damon down, breaks us all down, and speaks to a depth of sorrow that we will never know; it was a truly brilliant moment from a dearly missed man.

If you have accessed the internet recently you will know there is one type of monologue that is popular beyond all others – the inspirational speech. This can come in many forms such as from a teacher in Lean on Me or Dead Poet Society or a Father in like in The Pursuit of Happyness or a coach in Any Given Sunday or just a janitor like in Rudy or from a Wall Street fat-cat in Wall Street but nothing comes close to the advice of a  boxing champion to his son in Rocky Balboa. The simple logic with a powerful voice and a remarkable piece of philosophy demonstrates an admiration for the struggle in life as well as the beauty in pursuit. Stallone’s performance is ideal as he emphasises his words creatively and shifts tone time and again. The two characters stop to experience this delivery marking it as an important moment. Having already seen the bloody violence of boxing the violent imagery used in the monologue is potent and  is reminiscent of the brutality of the ring while speaking about wider concerns and strengthening the bond between a father and his son.

There are times in film when characters reach beyond their breaking point enough to throw their hands in the air and say f*ck it. This happens in the minister’s eulogy in Synecdoche New York or in Ed Norton’s mirror tirade in 25th Hour, or the opening letter in Michael Clayton which is a different but equally awesome breakdown but nothing holds a candle to the explosive and literary thespian monologue of Paddy Chayevsky in Finch’s Network. This spills out of the screen as a call to action that he is mad as hell. The live broadcast reveals the anchors’ explosive rage as his furious delivery surmounts all other performances. The spitefulness comes across in the exaggerated body language and the sweating rage of his performance as his voice raises in tempo and ferocity to find a new depth of anger. The issues he confronts on a day to day basis erupt volcanically in this piece of uninhibited rage.

There’s nothing better than a good story told right. Because screenwriters are paid to tell stories sometimes they tell stories within their stories which is exactly seen in Buona Sera’s story about his daughter from the beginning of The Godfather and Anne Hathaway’s devastating confession from Rachel Getting Married as well as Christopher Walken’s ridiculously awesome story of the golden watch from Pulp Fiction and Radio Raheem’s story from Do the Right Thing coming from The Night of the Hunter. But My favourite is Quinn’s story from the US Indianapolis in Jaws because it is chilling, eerie and absolutely classic and one can thank the uncredited writer Harold Sackler for the idea. The steady rocking of the boat to the sound of Quinn’s hypnotic voice lulls the viewer into the story within a story as we delve into his scarred and broken mind. Talking about this while the light from the tagged shark draws closer builds ominous tension and expands the role of the shark as well as it’s mythology as it draws closer and the action builds to a close.

If there is one type of monologue that saturates the minds of viewers it’s military monologues. If movies were real life soldiers would spend more time practicing eloquence than sharpshooting. Gladiator, Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, the opening of Patton, the napalm morning in Apocalypse Now, the President’s address from Independence Day, the drill sergeant’s extended verbal abuse from Full Metal Jacket and Tom Hanks’ disarming of his group’s tempers in Saving Private Ryan all of these strive towards a man better known for his actions than his words in his first all-sound film The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin. His beautiful and inspiring condemnation of fascism made by Schultz at the end. The almost Shakespearean grasp of language perfectly captures each of the sentiments and from noble beginnings the tomne changes into a rousing speech calling for unity in a beautifully wide-eyed and noble speech, defying conventions and examining morality.

If there is one setting better known for it’s extended soliloquies than the battlefield in Hollywood it has to be the courtroom. There is Atticus Finch’s defence of Tom Roberts from To Kill A Mockingbird, the murderer’s defence of himself from M, a brilliantly stirring filibuster from Mr.Smith goes to Washington, some yelling moments from Al Pacino in Injustice for All and Wonderful Woman but the best of all time has to go to the mind blowing moral ambiguity of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men. Here is a brilliant speech from a so called villain doing something absolutely terrible that almost seems to make too much sense. This was Aaron Sorkin’s break out film from his own stage play. It only seems logical therefore that all the writerly star-power he went on to command clearly shows through here. The script is brilliant, Jack Nicholson’s performance is pitch-perfect and it’s a perfect capstone on a perfect movie which is why it could be considered the best movie monologue of all time. As the truth grates at our nerves and the harsh truth reveals itself in all of it’s complexities the audience feels truly torn. Kaffee is brought down a peg as the punishingly intricate moral complexities of his decision are laid bare to the audience. This is a truly amazing scene, worthy of it’s place in movie history.

Overall, the movie monologue has established itself as a timeless utility for filmmakers and actors alike to reveal a character, a conundrum or a feeling as something clear and memorable. There is something about the gravity of words and dialogue, the impact it can have when made explicit to the audience. The extended soliloquy creeps up on viewers and then hits them without remorse again and again with a new perspective or sensation that solidifies a film’s main themes and draw’s the core conflict into the reader’s mind with clarity, expertise and simple brilliance.



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