When it comes to screenwriting, the prevailing wisdom is to show, not tell. Characters should show who they are by their actions and behavior, rather than flat-out telling the audience.
But in the right place and at the right time, an expository monologue can be powerful, illustrative, and awesome.
When a monologue is crafted by masterful screenwriters and placed in the hands of a masterful actor, the results are often legendary—and end up being iconic scenes in movie history.
Here are some of the greatest movie monologues that have ever been put on the big screen, written by talented scripters and delivered by capable acting talent.
10. Hannibal Lecter: “Fly, fly, fly”
Ever since this iconic scene hit the big screen, it set the bar for how a movie should introduce a character like Hannibal Lecter.
The slow pacing builds toward an explosive chaotic conclusion. The camera is uncomfortably close to Anthony Hopkin’s face, forcing an intimacy that you really don’t want to have with someone like Hannibal Lecter.
By the time Clarice Starling runs out, you’re right there with her, unable to escape the dungeon quickly enough. It’s the kind of scene you can’t help but return to, again and again.
9. There Will Be Blood: “I have a competition in me”
There Will Be Blood’s milkshake scene is its most known, but this scene is the one that defines Daniel Plainview as a character.
It reveals him as a complete misanthrope who’s motivated purely y greed and lust for power. He sees people only as obstacles and tools to manipulate, control, or do away with. As we come to learn, this applies even to his own son.
8. Inglourious Basterds: “100 Nazi scalps”
Quentin Tarantino knows how to make exposition entertaining, and this scene from Inglourious Basterds is a prime example.
This is how you introduce a character while filling the audience in on what’s happening in a movie. This is “show, don’t tell”—but it’s also not. He just comes right out and says it, but it’s wrapped in fantastic dialogue and an epic performance.
Many writers treat exposition as a necessary evil that just needs to happen so the movie can continue. Tarantino turns exposition into one of the best scenes of the movie.
7. Fargo: “And it’s a beautiful day”
This scene really wraps up Fargo perfectly. Two opposite worlds collide, and neither can comprehend the other. It’s good and evil engaging in one-sided Midwestern small talk on the way to the police station.
Frances McDormand’s character can’t understand how a man could do such horrible things—and on a beautiful day, no less! Meanwhile, the concept of a “beautiful day” is probably something that does not exist for him.
6. Glengarry Glen Ross: “Coffee is for closers”
Glengarry Glen Ross only has one scene with Alec Baldwin in it, but that one scene is the most iconic scene of the entire movie—and possibly the most iconic scene of Baldwin’s acting career.
Sure, he played Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock—a strong contender for his most defining acting role—which is funny because you can almost see Glengarry Glen Ross and 30 Rock existing in the same universe, with Jack Donaghy being an older version of Blake.
But Jack Donaghy would never have delivered a monologue as powerful, humiliating, and frightening as this one.
5. Godfather II: “Fredo is smart, not like everybody says”
John Cazale is the actor who plays Fredo in the first two Godfather movies. He only made five feature films in his career, yet every one of those five movies is a timeless classic.
Cazale was a fantastic actor and I can only imagine what kind of performances the world missed out on due to his death at a relatively young age.
But if you judge his batting average against his Godfather co-stars, he clearly comes out on top in the end.
4. Apocalypse Now: “Someday, this war’s going to end”
No other actor appears in American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 American Movies more times than Robert Duvall. He’s great in everything he does—and Apocalypse Now is no exception.
Like the movie itself, this scene is often misunderstood. It has, unfortunately, excited as many people toward the idea of war as it has away from it.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s own words: “An anti-war film cannot glorify war, and Apocalypse Now arguably does. Certain sequences have been used to rev up people to be war-like.”
3. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery: Dr. Evil’s Origin Story
This isn’t just one of the greatest monologues of all time—it’s also one of the funniest movie monologues ever. This might be the greatest moment in Mike Myers’ acting career.
This scene hasn’t lost any of the mojo it had when it first came out. He had a lot of great material before this, but sadly not much after.
2. Pulp Fiction: “The watch”
This scene accomplishes more than just being a self-contained piece of brilliant acting and writing. It also fills out the character of Butch in an interesting way, while providing another MacGuffin to tie into Pulp Fiction’s already unconventional plot.
1. Blade Runner: “Tears in the rain”
The ending scene from Blade Runner—of the lead Replicant bad guy waxing philosophical in the rain—is still one of the most iconic scenes in movie history.
Apparently, Rutger Hauer wrote this speech on the fly in his trailer. He convinced director Ridley Scott, who wanted nothing to do with it, to sit down and give it a listen. Ridley Scott was, of course, blown away… and the rest is history.