Movie quotes for every occasion

The recent appearance of a new vending machine in the offices of WAtoday – tall, gleaming, stacked with row after row of salty and sweet goodies – stirred so much excitment among the staff I was reminded of arrival of the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When I quipped to a young co-worker that I was surprised people were not jumping around and beating their chest in front of the towering food dispenser followed by Also Sprach Zarathustra rising on the PA she greeted me with a blank stare. I might have been quoting from the Gnostic gospels.

Left to right: Bettte Davis in All About Eve, Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

Left to right: Bettte Davis in All About Eve, Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

I did my best to remind her of the scene, which I assumed everyone knew as it’s so often parodied (most famously in Zoolander), even beating my chest and doing an “ooh, ooh, ooh, aah, aah, aah” simian shriek. She smiled at me sympathetically, as if beefy men with straightjackets were on their way.

I then realised that the gag failed because my colleague had not seen the movie, or any movie by Stanley Kubrick even though for years he was routinely referenced on The Simpsons. I also realised that it was not people in their twenties who were weaned on The Simpsons but their parents (that should make you feel old).

Does it matter that millennials don’t share the same body of knowledge as their elders? After all, they have their own pop culture lexicon. But when you have films as interesting as 2001 and scenes as funny as Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and Owen Wilson’s Hansel pounding on a computer to get the files out it’s a shame to consign it to the pile of useless boomer stuff, along with tape recorders and drive-ins.

So, in the interest of the public good I have assembled a list of 20 movie quotes that have escaped the film buff orbit and entered wider universe along with a few suggestions about how they may be used.

Of course, I’m teaching an older generation to suck eggs, be they the eggs eaten by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, pulled out of a passenger’s mouth by Leslie Nielsen in Flying High or downed by Rocky in the 1976 Oscar winner. But its worth the risk in the cause of cross-generational communication.

The wit and cynicism of American mid-century pop culture is vividly encapsulated by Dorothy’s reaction to surviving the tornado and landing in Oz with her dog Toto. The phrase has such a wonderful hard-boiled quality little wonder that it’s trotted out every time a movie or TV character lands in an unusual place, which is a lot in this age of the sci-fi movie. Perfect for Perth people when they step off a plane to anywhere.

The most famous single word in movie history also has the most intriguing backstory. Legend has it Rosebud was the pet name used by the movie’s inspiration, media mogul Randolph Hearst, for his mistress Marion Davies’ clitoris, a juicy factoid known by the film co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, who was a regular guest at Hearst’s castle. It’s also one of the most contentious lines in film history. If there was nobody around to hear Kane’s dying last word, how could it trigger the investigation into its meaning that is the heart of the story? Feel free to summarise you with a cliché. “You’re just like your mother … Rosebud!”

There a dozen quotable lines in Michael Curtiz’s wartime classic (“Round up the usual suspects”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”). But Rick’s reassurance to Isla that no matter what happens in love and war they will always have their happy time together is one of the great romantic lines. Have it in your back pocket when you are being buffeted by a break-up, and you’ll ensure a soft landing. And it’s very adaptable. Replace Paris with your old stomping ground. “We’ll always have Bunbury, Mandurah, Gidgegannaup . . . ”

Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket’s ultimate Hollywood expose delivers plenty of killer lines, including Norma Desmond’s dismissal of modern movies (“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small”). But this is the one that has entered the language, allowing all of us to at once embrace and ridicule our own vanity. Have the line ready for your next selfie. Nowadays, everyone everywhere, like the delusional Norma Desmond, is ready for their close-up.

Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz (brother of the guy who gave the world Rosebud) was one of Golden Age Hollywood’s silver-tongues. He was at his best with this fizzy back-stage comedy-drama, gifting the great Bette Davis with the role of lifetime as the viper-ish fading Broadway queen Margo Channing. Pull this zinger out at a dinner party, and you’ll have everyone topping up their glasses.

Ever since Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger climbed into the back of the fake taxi in Eli Kazan’s great McCarthy-era harbour front drama and conjured one of the greatest ever movie scenes the various parties involved have been arguing about how much was written and how much was improvised. However it came to be, Waterfront’s taxi cab scene is the most heartbreaking fraternal confrontation committed to celluloid, rivalled only by the scenes from The Godfather Part II involving Michael and Fredo. Have it ready when you want to guilt-trip anyone you think has held you back.

Wilder again, this time with his other great co-writer, I. A.L Diamond. Even though their tale of two musicians disguising themselves as women would be embraced as America’s greatest comedy Wider and Diamond were unsure about their final line, which they regarded as a placeholder until they could think of something better. It got a huge laugh at the preview and the rest is history. Two words of unassailable wisdom that can be used in occasion where you stuff up (“It’s your birthday? Sorry! Nobody’s perfect”).

All the madness and irony of nuclear war is contained in this one line delivered by Peter Sellers’ hapless American president Merkin Muffley, who is trying to hold back George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson and his own Nazi-saluting Dr Strangelove from triggering World War III. Kubrick is eminently quotable – “Here’s Johnny!” – but this is one that cuts deepest and ripe for reuse. Drop it at the next family gathering. Nothing like a little Kurbrickian irony to keep the troops in line.

This line delivered by Dustin Hoffman’s recent university graduate Benjamin to Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson in face of her amorous assault resonates because it is funny and sexy and, most importantly, captures a dilemma faced by every generation. Should young people make their own way in the world, despite the challenges, or should they succumb the promise of the easy but the empty and unprincipled life of their parents? Have the line ready if you’re about to take off on your travel adventure and your boss offers you a pay rise.

There is nothing too clever about Charlton Heston’s first words to his captors, but for anyone grew up in the 1970s this was a great line to have in your knapsack when confronted by school bullies, which was a regular occurrence back then. Of course, its potency has been ruined by The Simpsons immortal musical parody (“He can talk! He can talk! He can talk! I can siiiing!“). But every time I watch the movie I sit there anticipation of Chuck’s famous command on behalf of all mankind. It’s also readymade for women in the face of unwanted advances.

For men of a certain vintage Francis Ford Coppola’s mobster masterpiece is more than a movie: it is a collection of maxims about how to live your life (even if you are not a mafioso but a dentist or a chartered accountant). But which one rises above the rest? When the film was released it would have been “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” But “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, which was ad-libbed by the actor who played the Corleone clan foot-soldier Clemenza, Richard S. Castellano, in the scene in which Paulie gets whacked, is now the film’s most cherished line. It is, according to Godfather scholars, a distillation of the meaning of the entire movie – death and domesticity – and points to our deep appreciation of the movie. Nice line when you need to emphasise work-life balance.

One of those classic lines delivered not by the hero or the villain but a minor character (see When Harry Met Sally for another). It comes in that tragic moment when Jack Nicholson’s detective Jake Gittes realises that everything he thought he knew about the world evaporates in a spray of blood, a reminder reality will always elude our grasp. Another great throwaway line that embodies a film’s meaning and one ripe for being slipped into conversations. Perfect for yet another confounding Dockers season.

Like so many of the greatest quotes in movie history is a startlingly short. But in those three words, used by Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat during those shadowy discussions with Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward, tell you as much about the inner workings of capitalism than a voluminous tome by Karl Marx. Whenever we tumble into the warm embrace of idealism, when we let down our guard and think the best of mankind, we should remember screenwriter William Goldman’s axiom. It’s the perfect line for cynics.

News anchor Howard Beale’s on-camera crack-up has put its hooks into the culture because we’ve all had our “mad as hell” moment. While most of the lines listed are the cherry atop to the tale Beale’s break-down is the story, with the great Paddy Chayefsky using his dissection of television to look at the ills of American society and culture. Use it wisely: you don’t want to be mistaken for a MAGA maniac.

It’s not the sexiest or funniest quote in movie history, but it has really entered the culture – so much so that many people use it not knowing where it comes from. It is spoken by Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson to Kevin Costner’s baseball nut Ray Kinsella, encouraging him to carve a baseball diamond out of his corn field. Soon players connected to a 1919 baseball scandal appear and replay the infamous game. It is now a maxim to live by. Don’t wait around for things to happen, is the message. Stick your shovel in the dirt and good things will come.

Sometimes a movie looms large in the consciousness because of a single line. Such is the case with this quip after Meg Ryan serves up the most famous fake orgasm in history. While the film is revered because of Nora Ephron’s witticism-filled script this line was cooked up by Ryan’s co-star Billy Crystal and director Rob Reiner and delivered by Reiner’s mother Estelle. It’s now impossible hard to look around a restaurant and not think about Meg’s faux explosion of delight.

The line – penned by future Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin – is nothing special in itself and probably uttered before in film history. What sent it into the pop-cultural stratosphere is the way Jack Nicholson’s hard-arse colonel delivers it to Tom Cruise’s greenhorn naval lawyer, a chillingly contemptuous sneer that allows us to peer into the heart of darkness that is the American military. If you find yourself in a tense situation in which your methods are being questioned – if, for example, your wife or girlfriend grills you about her missing Love, Actually DVD – just slip into your best Nicholson. You’ll be forgiven.

Cameron Crowe’s other great quote from his hit sports movie/rom-com – “Show me the money!” – is here to stay, but it Renée Zellweger’s heart-melting response to Tom Cruise’s declaration of love in front of her family that is his most significant contribution to the language. Crowe wrote an important book on Wilder and knows there’s nothing lamer than a straight “I love you”. So, he gave us a gag that at once funny and romantic (it rivals Wilder’s wonderful “Shut up and deal” at the end of The Apartment) and an indispensable addition to lexicon of all lovers.

Like so many of the lines on this list Fight Club’s dictum is both a perfect summary of the movie – it nails masculinity under siege – and eminently adaptable. Who hasn’t been part of a tight-knit circle and want to keep it that way? Just recently I overheard an elderly member of a book club imploring the others to not allow a mutual friend to join and going full Tyler Durden on their arses. “The first rule of book club . . .”

These two words hissed by Smeagol/Gollum at the beginning of Peter Jackson’s epic Tolkien adaptation is arguably the most quoted movie line of the new millennium, with almost every comedy series latching on to a “my precious” moment. It is now so all-pervasive that in 2021 former NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet quoted the line in describing WA premier Mark McGowan as “the Gollum of Australian politics”. Keep it close to call out the Gollum’s in your life.

Jaclyn Diaz

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