Whether they were written by Quentin Tarantino or forged by history itself, there have been some truly terrific monologues in the history of film. It takes a lot for a great monologue to come to fruition. You can’t just write a bunch of words and then they’re automatically memorable.
Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s hard to listen to someone you know and love for that long, let alone a movie character you’ve only been with for about half an hour. It’s criminally easy to make your audience roll their eyes and zone in and out of the monologue. Crafting a great monologue takes time and skill. Here are the 15 greatest in the history of Hollywood cinema.
15. The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the most memorable portrayals in history. He, along with Christopher Nolan, elevated a mere comic book movie to a true cinematic masterpiece. All of the Joker’s most chilling and iconic lines from the movie stem from this one brilliant monologue.
“You wanna know how I got these scars? My father…was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, ‘Why so serious?’ Comes at me with the knife. ‘Why so serious?!?’ He sticks the blade in my mouth…‘Let’s put a smile on that face.’ And…‘Why so serious?’”
14. The Shawshank Redemption
Morgan Freeman’s closing voiceover narration in prison drama The Shawshank Redemption is the perfect end to the movie, leaving us with an inkling of hope after all the heartache and anguish we’ve felt throughout the movie.
“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. That’s goddamn right. For the second time in my life, I’m guilty of committing a crime. Parole violation. Course, I doubt they’re going to throw up any road blocks for that. Not for an old crook like me.”
“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
13. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The breath-taking climax of the courtroom drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sees Smith delivering a powerful monologue, the likes of which would be ripped off for years to come in all the courtroom dramas that followed.
“I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them.”
“Because of just one plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor. And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule, Mr. Paine. And I loved you for it – just as my father did. And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others. Yes, you even die for them – like a man we both knew, Mr. Paine.”
“You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked! Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”
12. The Silence of the Lambs
Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, despite having just a few minutes of screen time, because he owns every second that he is on the screen. His chilling presence is felt most prominently in this monologue where he figures out Clarice Starling’s deepest insecurities, just by looking at her.
“You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Officer Starling…? That accent you’re trying so desperately to shed – pure West Virginia.”
“What was your father, dear? Was he a coal miner? Did he stink of the lamp…? And oh, how quickly the boys found you! All those tedious, sticky fumblings, in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out. Getting anywhere. Getting all the way…to the F…B…I.”
11. Good Will Hunting
“You’re a first-year grad student; you just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably. You’re gonna be convinced of that ‘till next month when you get to James Lemon. Then you’re going to be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740.”
“That’s gonna last until next year; you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.”
Clark comes in with, “Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social—” but then Will stops him: “‘Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth?’ You got that from Vickers’ ‘Work in Essex County,’ page 98, right? Yeah, I read that, too.”
“Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or do you, is that your thing, you come into a bar, read some obscure passage and then pretend – you pawn it off as your own, as your own idea just to impress some girls, embarrass my friend?”
“See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in fifty years, you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!”
It’s so, so satisfying to see Boston working stiff Matt Damon take a smug, arrogant Harvard student down a few pegs in Good Will Hunting. And he gets a girl’s number out of it!
10. A Few Good Men
A Few Good Men is famous for Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!!” line, but there’s a really powerful monologue about the treatment of the military and what it’s like to be on the other end that follows that.
The key to a great monologue is the pairing of writer and actor, and here, we’ve got Aaron Sorkin and Jack Nicholson – two of the all-time greats in their respective fields – and the results are fantastic.
“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines.”
“You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know – that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth, because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”
“We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!”
“I would rather you just said, ‘Thank you,’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!”
9. On the Waterfront
This monologue is so memorable that it’s made for two memorable movie moments. The first is when Marlon Brando uses it in On the Waterfront, and the second is when Robert De Niro recites Brando’s speech in Raging Bull.
“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night!’ My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So, what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark, and what do I get?”
“A one way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me – just a little bit, so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short end money.”
“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”
8. Apocalypse Now
Robert Duvall pops his head up in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now as the Kilgore character for a nice, brief monologue about the virtues of napalm. He’s an eccentric character, but you can’t take your eyes off him.
“Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over, I walked up.”
“We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell – you know that gasoline smell – the whole hill. Smelled like…victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…” And then he just walks off. The insanity of the Vietnam War summed up in 73 words.
Every great action-adventure or horror film needs a ‘calm before the storm’ scene right before reaching its climax. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws has its ‘calm before the storm’ in the form of its lead trio, Brody, Hooper, and Quint, comparing battle scars on their boat, just before the climactic shark attack that ends in “Smile, you son of a bitch!” ‘
There’s a beautiful poetry to the way that Quint recounts his gripping USS Indianapolis story right before losing his life to the great white.
“A Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin’ back, from the island of Tinian Delady, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into that water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer.
“You know, you know what when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn’t know. ‘Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups.”
“You know it’s…kinda like ‘ol squares in a battle like a, you see on a calender, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark would go for the nearest man and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes.”
“You know that thing about a shark, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and in spite of all the poundin’ and hollerin’ they all come in and rip ya to pieces.”
Y’know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson of Cleveland. Baseball player. Bosom’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up.”
“Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and saw us. He’s a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and come in low.”
“And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a life jacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest. June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”
6. Wall Street
Gordon Gekko explains business, and he’s the best guy for the job.
“Teldar Paper has 33 different vice-presidents each earning over two hundred thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out.”
“One thing I do know is that our paper company lost a hundred and ten million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest.”
“Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pre-tax profit of twelve billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!”
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
“Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.”
Tony Montana’s frustration at the world hits its peak in this pivotal scene where he realizes that being a rich, coke-snorting Miami drug baron comes at an emotional cost.
“What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So, what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie.”
“Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So, say goodnight to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!”
News anchor Howard Beale is told he has two weeks left on the air because his ratings are plummeting. So, he has a meltdown on air in front of the entire nation, and it’s just riveting.
“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.”
“We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be! We all know things are bad – worse than bad – they’re crazy.”
“It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re 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 going to leave you alone.”
“I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.”
“All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve gotta say, ‘I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!’ So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”
3. Glengarry Glen Ross
Glengarry Glen Ross is a powerful movie adapted from the terrific David Mamet play of the same name. Alec Baldwin plays Blake, a hotshot salesman brought in to whip some failing sales staff into shape.
“Fuck you! That’s my name! You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name. And your name is you’re wanting. You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them – go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life. Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.”
“You hear me, you fucking faggots? A-B-C. A, Always. B, Be. C, Closing. Always be closing. Always be closing! A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention: do I have your attention? Interest: are you interested? I know you are, ‘cause it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks. Decision: have you made your decision for Christ?”
“And Action. A-I-D-A. Get out there – you got the prospects coming in. You think they came in to get out of the rain? A guy don’t walk on the lot lest he wants to buy. They’re sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it? What’s the problem, pal? You, Moss.”
Then Dave Moss says, “You’re such a hero, you’re so rich, how come you’re coming down here wasting your time with such a bunch of bums?”
Then Blake fires back. “You see this watch? You see this watch? That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much’d you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here – close!”
“You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don’t like it, leave. I can go out there tonight with the materials you’ve got and make myself $15,000. Tonight! In two hours! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise.”
“A-I-D-A. Get mad, you son of a bitches, get mad. You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate. Go and do likewise, gents. Money’s out there. You pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t, I got no sympathy for you. You wanna go out on those sits tonight and close, close! It’s yours. If not, you’re gonna be shining my shoes.”
“And you know what you’ll be saying – a bunch of losers sittin’ around in a bar. ‘Oh, yeah, I used to be a salesman. It’s a tough racket.’ These are the new leads. These are the Glengarry leads. And to you, they’re gold, and you don’t get them. Why? Because to give them to you is just throwing them away. They’re for closers.”
“I’d wish you good luck, but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. And to answer your question, pal, why am I here? I came here because Mitch and Murray asked me to. They asked me for a favor. I said the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass, because a loser is a loser.”
2. Pulp Fiction
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children.”
“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”
Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel 25:17 recital in Pulp Fiction is one of the most memorable moments in cinema history. Jackson’s electric delivery keeps you hooked from “The path of the righteous man…” to “…when I lay my vengeance upon thee,” and as a director, Tarantino punctuates it with a murder.
It’s the perfect gangster movie moment. And what’s even better is how it links together the whole Tarantino universe. This passage is not actually in the real Bible – but that misquote is on purpose. The world of Tarantino’s films exists so completely on its own that not only was Hitler killed by vengeful Jews in its World War II, but it actually has its own translation of Bible.
Ah, yes, it’s that “particular set of skills” phone call from Taken. Liam Neeson has made such a splash in action movies, despite being geriatric, because he brings a severe intensity to his action roles. In Taken, he plays ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills, whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by sex traffickers while on vacation in Paris.
Not on his watch. Kidnapping Liam Neeson’s daughter is a big mistake, and that becomes clear from the way he talks to the guys that did it on the phone.
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
“If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”