Some of the most powerful moments in film have come from a single piece of dialogue: that perfect balance of screenwriting & performance. Dan Grant takes a look at some of the finest film monologues of all time.
The movie monologue can do a lot in a film. It helps you understand a character and it can make you feel emotions. When written and delivered to perfection, the movie monologue can stay with you for a very long time. It’s also a celebration of words as the story moves along without the aid of special effects or anything visual, it’s all words. Doing this list, I didn’t realize how many truly amazing monologues and/or speeches were out there. To limit this to ten is incredibly difficult but since this site is all about the top ten, here are the ten best film monologues.
10. JFK (Stone, 1991)
“It’s Up To You…”
In one of the longer speeches in film history, District Attorney Jim Garrison puts it all together for the jury, explaining his version of the JFK assassination. He takes us on a journey as he breaks it all down. It’s detailed, precise and incredibly emotional. It culminates with Kevin Costner looking directly into the camera, as he delivers his last line: “It’s up to you.” He asks us, the audience, to make up our own minds. Costner delivers the speech beautifully with director Oliver Stone and editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia putting it all together in the editing room to make it as memorable and tension filled as it is.
9. Malice (Becker, 1993)
“Let Me Tell You Something. I Am God”
This speech has always resonated with me. Aaron Sorkin was one of the writers and as great as his body of work is this one speech might….MIGHT be his crowning achievement. Alec Baldwin delivers it furiously and flawlessly as he is being asked by a medical board if he has a “God complex”. He is being investigated for malpractice that cost a patient her ability to bear children. The proper response from him of course is to say “No, I do not.” But instead he goes on to tell the board “You ask me if I have a God complex? Let me tell you something. I am God”.
8. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
“The Devil’s Eyes”
This is the shortest monologue on the list but it is one of the more chilling ones. As delivered by the inimitable Donald Pleasance, his speech is more of a warning than anything else. He tells the sheriff that he met a young six-year-old Michael Myers, and behind his eyes was pure and simple evil. He tells him that there is no life in his eyes and any rudimentary sense of right or wrong has long since been evaporated. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, Halloween is that rare thing: a horror movie with a great script! This monologue gives us an insight and and understanding of what we are dealing with. Unlike other iconic horror villains, we actually get a bit of reasoning as to why Michael Myers is who he is.
7. A Time to Kill (Schumacher, 1996)
“Now Picture She’s White”
Mathew McConaughey plays a white lawyer defending a black man deep in the southern United States. Samuel L. Jackson plays the man he is defending. Directed by Joel Schumacher and written by Akiva Goldsman, this emotionally charged film about racism and hatred really cuts to the bone. It is blessed with a brilliant cast and it is punctuated by McConaughey’s brilliant delivery of his closing argument to the all white jury as he is trying to convince them to set Carl Lee (Jackson) free after he just killed two men who raped, sodomized and left his 10-year-old daughter for dead. He has them close their eyes as he recounts the story to them. He tells them, in gory detail about how they hung her, urinated on her, threw beer cans at her hard enough to rip the skin off, took turns raping her and then threw her into a ravine to die. At the end of the speech, he says, “Now picture she’s white.” It’s a moment in film that brought me to tears. And it won him the case.
6. Mississippi Burning (Parker, 1988)
“I’ll Cut Your Head Clear Off”
Another film about racism that features a brilliant and emotionally galvanizing speech. Gene Hackman plays FBI agent Anderson alongside his partner Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe). The agents want the same thing but their approach is very different. Anderson believes in using every tool necessary to get information, Ward does everything strictly by the book. That is until Mrs Pell, played by Frances McDormand, gets the hell beat out of her by her husband, who is a suspect in the case and a police officer. Upon seeing her battered and bruised body in the hospital, Anderson no longer cares about procedure and protocol and he goes after the deputy in his own way, using his own vigilante methods. He finds Deputy Pell in a barbershop, getting a shave with a straight razor. His eyes are closed and Anderson removes the razor from the barbers hand without Pell realizing the switch, until the razor startes cutting him. With that straight razor to his throat, he goes on to tell the deputy, “Make no mistake about it deputy, I’ll cut your f****** head clean off and not give a shit how it shows up on the report sheet.” It’s a moment that we, as the audience, have all been waiting for. Directed by Alan Parker and written by Chris Gerolmo, Hackman gives one his best speeches. It also leaves the deputy shocked and unable to move.
5. A Few Good Men (Reiner, 1992)
“You Can’t Handle The Truth”
Aaron Sorkin’s second appearance on this list. As delivered by Jack Nicholson, this has become one of the most memorable scenes in film history. All throughout the film, Nicholson gives us hints of arrogance and comes off as someone immune to criticism. At one point in the film he tells the investigating lawyer, as played by Tom Cruise, that he eats breakfast 300 yards away from 4,000 Cubans who were trained to kill him, so flashing a badge in front of him is not going to make him nervous. All of this is set up for his vitriolic explosion where he tells the court that “yes” he did order the Code Red which resulted in a Marine’s death and he would do it again because he is Nathan Jessup and you aren’t. One of the interesting things about the speech is that every bit of it is true. We may hate men like Jessup, but we need him. It’s brilliantly written and expertly delivered by one of the iconic actors of our or any generation.
4. Network (Lumet, 1976)
“I’m Mad As Hell”
Paddy Chayefsky was one of the great writers of our time. This might be his greatest piece of work he ever produced. Peter Finch delivers one of the more rousing speeches and the most interesting thing about it is that the words he says are just as relevant today as they were in 1976. This man is angry. He’s mad at what America has become. There’s corruption, rioting, gangs, selfish and greedy politicians and the threat of communism. His point in this speech is that Americans (and you can say the same thing about Brits, Canadians, Australians and many others) are complacent and as long as they have their small slice of paradise, they won’t say anything about the bad air, the poisoned food, the corrupt government and business leaders and how jobs are drying up. He goes on to say that it’s time to NOT be complacent and that you need to see what’s happening right in front of you. You need to rise up, raise your fist and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!!” Peter Finch died just before winning best actor in 1976, this monologue certainly sealed the deal for him.
3. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
Quentin Taratino has arguably done more to change cinema than just about any other director. In 1994 Jules and his partner Vincent, played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, are about to kill three young thugs who stole something from the henchmen’s boss. Just before doing so, Jules recites a part of the Bible. This shows us that Jules is not to be trifled with. As he is delivering the monologue about great vengeance and furious anger, we see the horror on the kid’s face. We know this is a bad man. But it doesn’t end there. What’s interesting about this little speech is that Jules repeats in three times in the film and each time it is at a different point in his life and his journey. At the end when he tells Ringo that if you heard these words in the past, chances are you would be dead as that fried chicken, he is a completely different man than when he first says it to Brett. Pulp Fiction is a bit of a spiritual film as Jules grows from a ruthless hit-man to a man who wants to reform and get out of the “life”. It’s a terrific monologue, all three times he says it. One side note is that you easily could have had Christopher Walken’s watch up his ass speech here too. But if you have to pick just one iconic monologue from Pulp Fiction, you have to go with Ezekial 25:17
2. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
USS Indianapolis Speech
Jaws was written by Carl Gottlieb but Quint’s speech about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis was written by playwright Howard Sackler, tweaked and lengthened by writer/director John Milius and finally reworked by actor Robert Shaw. When Shaw first delivered the monologue, he was drunk on set that day and he made a mess of the scene. He flubbed his lines, forgot parts of it and generally made it very uncomfortable for director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was relatively new to Hollywood and didn’t really want to say much to Shaw, who was a legend at this point and so he left it alone. Shaw was so embarrassed by his own actions that he went back to the hotel that night and studied the monologue, reworked it and came to the set the next day and did the piece in one take. This monologue is not only fascinating but it gives us insight as to why Quint hates sharks so much. Being on board a US warship that sank during WWII and watching your friends get devoured by sharks, would probably make anyone hate them. Shaw’s delivery is so precise and really haunting. He recounts the ordeal like it happened last week and not 30 years ago. Also brilliant about his delivery is the expression on his face. At first it looks like he is sharing a joke with Brody and Hooper. Then as the story goes along, his face changes to a more serious tone. And finally when talking about not ever wanting to put on a life jacket again, there is no more humour in that face or voice, but one of anger and terror. It’s perfect from start to finish.
1. Rocky Balboa (Stallone, 2006)
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows”
The story of Rocky is one of the great tales of the American dream. Here’s a man who started from nothing, maybe even less than nothing, and he went all the way to becoming the world champ. Rocky has always been about hope and a burning desire to succeed. By the time we got to the sixth film, many of us, myself included, wondered what could Sly Stallone possibly bring to the table that we haven’t all seen before. Turns out, a lot. This monologue he delivers to his son is one that we could all benefit from because it’s not about boxing, it’s about life. He tells his son that “it ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” When life deals you a raw deal and you look to blame someone else, that’s a cowards way out. Stallone is one of the most underrated and gifted writers of the last 40 years and this monologue is the greatest ever put on film in my opinion.
Here it is in its entirety:
“I’d hold you up to say to your mother, “this kid’s gonna be the best kid in the world. This kid’s gonna be somebody better than anybody I ever knew.” And you grew up good and wonderful. It was great just watching you, every day was like a privilege. Then the time come for you to be your own man and take on the world, and you did.
“But somewhere along the line, you changed. You stopped being you. You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you’re no good. And when things got hard, you started looking for something to blame, like a big shadow. Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!
“Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, ya ain’t gonna have a life…Don’t forget to visit your mother.”
I know there are dozens of great monologues that are not included here. There’s films like On the Waterfront, Any Given Sunday, Good Will Hunting, Silence of the Lambs and so many others. This list is personal, as it should be. So what do you think? What should have made the list in your opinion?
Written & Compiled by Dan Grant
What are the best movie monologues in your opinion?