Whether on stage, television, or film, a great monologue is one of the best gifts a performer can be given, a showcase for them to focus all their talent and stamina into a page or more of line readings and emotion. Many techniques can be used depending on the piece and scene, as well as the direction given prior to the take. One thing is for sure, having an objective is key for making your monologue stand out. An action verb always serves.
Great inspiration can be found in some of the best acted monologues ever recorded on film, including the following:
Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib
Director George Cukor directs this classic poignant romantic comedy, released in 1949, which tells the story of Amanda and Adam Bonner (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) working as opposite lawyers on the case of a woman who shot her husband. Every word in a key monologue delivered by Hepburn is imbued with meaning, leaving audiences stunned even after the scene has moved on.
Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator
Charlie Chaplin is best known as a silent film star, but in 1940, Chaplin gave a powerful spoken performance in 1940’s The Great Dictator, a dramatic comedy that takes on the Nazi goverment in the midst of the Second World War. The film ends with an incredibly written and gripping speech, where Chaplin’s Jewish Barber speaks in front of national television with tremendous passion and truth that was clearly being directed not just to the audience within the film, but also the one watching it from without.
Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road
Exactly ten years after Titanic, star duo Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were back together as a couple aspiring for a better life in this mid-50s drama from visionary director Sam Mendes. Their chemistry was as strong as ever, despite being a totally different beast from the melodramatic blockbuster. Winslet is a bundle of raw nerves in a powerful monologue where her vulnerability works not just as a shield but as a weapon.
Peter Finch in Network
Winner of four Oscars in 1977, Sydney Lumet’s Network is regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest films, and contains the memorable line, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale is a mentally ill network TV anchor who, instead of struggling privately, is doing so on camera for all the world to see. As a performer, Finch needed to make sure his character’s monologues would move audiences within the movie, so it’s no surprise the audience watching from without were just as moved and riveted.
Viola Davis in FencesThe adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Fences directed by and starring Denzel Washington showed movie audiences that theatre-goers had already known when they saw Washington and Davis play the lead couple on Broadway. Both won Tony Awards for their performance, and Davis won the Academy Award for the film adaptation. Her character Rose Maxson is both a specific person and the embodiment of an entire generation of women of color struggling to take care of their families in the mid-20th century.
Gerard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac
Every actor should know about ‘the nose speech’ from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, written in 1897. It is poetic and dazzling, rejecting conventional notions on physical looks. A superb and acclaimed performance by French star Gerard Depardieu imbues the monologue with subtlety and nuance that earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Ledger famously won an Academy Award posthumously for his iconic performance as Batman’s archnemesis, The Joker. Ledger embodied the role like no other, with even the most subtle facial tics expressions a thousand words. However, when he was given time to give full speeches, Ledger really shines, especially in his final monologue, delivered upside down; his grand scheme has been defeated but Ledger’s Joker doesn’t feel like he’s lost–he’s merely playing his part in an eternal struggle between good and evil, reveling in the chaos as he hangs helplessly stories above the ground.
Glenn Close in Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Glenn Close is considered one of the greatest actresses of her generation, if not ever, and that talent is on full display in a monologue delivered in Stephen Frears’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, co-starring John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, and Keanu Reeves. Close’s mastery of vulnerability, femininity, sexuality, and emotional manipulation make for one of the most incredible monologues ever delivered.
Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting
Good Will Hunting made a star out of writer and actor Matt Damon, who played against a career-defining performance from Robin Williams. Damon plays an emotionally tortured, working-class genius. His “NSA” monologue is a smooth piece of editing as it continues from one scene to another, and showed movie audiences just how talented a performer Matt Damon could be.
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard
Gloria Swanson gave the performance of a lifetime in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, playing a faded silent movie star in the Golden Era of Hollywood sound films. Swanson herself was a silent film star, nominated for Best Actress at the very first Academy Awards, and had a lot of real life experience to draw upon for the role. While on its surface, her character can be seen as a cartoonish version of her real life self, in actuality there is a great deal of dimension and subtlety to the performance, all on display in her final monologue near the end of the film.