Can You Handle The Truth About Hollywood’s Best Movie Lines?

GONE WITH THE WIND, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, 1939.

Clark Gable utters the most memorable line of all in ‘Gone With The Wind’

“You can’t handle the truth!” That’s Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup sneering at Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men.” It’s a film quote that resonates today even though it was said in 1992. We all know it, and many of us use it in everyday conversation. Today, film quotes are the currency of communication that was once held by poetry and literature some 100 years ago. They are cultural touchstones that connect us.

This week The Hollywood Reporter listed their Top 100 Quotes of all time. The AFI has done theirs, and just about every movie website has its own selection. By the way, the default best quote ever is “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (‘Gone With The Wind’).

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in 'the Shawshank Redemption.'

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in ‘the Shawshank Redemption.’

When you gander at these lists, the quotes don’t simply exist as a line of cinematic writing. They have taken on an existence of their own. For example, suppose I were to tell you it’s time to “Get busy living, or get busy dying” (‘Shawshank Redemption’). It is not about whether Andy Dufresne is going to hang himself or escape. No, it means it’s time to get moving.

Or what if I sneeringly said “You talkin’ to me? YOU talkin’ to me!?” (‘Taxi Driver’). It could be a jest or it could be something more sinister. Either way, that quote is embedded in our culture. It is also one of the greatest ad libbed lines ever.

1976, New York, New York, USA --- Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle on the set of Martin Scorsese's . --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’

So while I am writing this, I am stirred, not shaken, by the concept that we do this to make connections with one another. When we share a line from a movie, perfect strangers find an immediate point of association. The line brings us together for a shared moment. We have bonded over a quote. To paraphrase “This Is Spinal Tap’s” Nigel Tufnel, “We’ve gone to 11.”

Some smart folks have put labels on these citations. There are fad quotes like Jim Carry’s “Smokin!” There are niche quotes, the more obscure ones like “Zuzus petals” (‘It’s A Wonderful Life). Then there are the quotes that resonant and capture our cultural zeitgeist like “Bond. James Bond” (“Dr. No’).

Sean Connery as James Bond

Sean Connery as James Bond

I started using movie quotes in my everyday language because those great Hollywood screenwriters were way wittier than I. How could I sound smart? Simple. Use the language from the likes of William Goldman (‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’) or Francis Ford Coppola (‘Leave the gun. Bring the cannoli.’) or The Epstein Brothers (‘Of all the gin joints…’). Lifting lines from these guys made it easier to sound witty. Of course, after the initial vocal volley, things got a tad more difficult.

Mandy Patinkin as inigo Montoya in 'The Princess Bride.'

Mandy Patinkin as inigo Montoya in ‘The Princess Bride.’

And you? Do you have a favorite quote? Is it a classic like “Houston, we have a problem” (‘Apollo 13’). Maybe it’s old school like “You can’t fool me. There is no Sanity Clause” (‘Night At The Opera’). Or maybe more modern like “You’re going to need a bigger boat” (‘Jaws’). “Would you like to play a game?” (‘War Games’), share your favorite movie line with us in the comments section below.

Roy Scheider realizes he needs a bigger boat

Roy Scheider realizes he needs a bigger boat

I’ll leave you with one of the best quotes of all time. Think Meg Ryan in the diner, and Rob Reiner’s mother saying, “I’ll have what she’s having!” (‘When Harry Met Sally’). Good, right?

Garen Daly is the director of the upcoming documentary film, The Orson Welles Complex. ‘Hasta la vista, baby,’ he said in a heavy Austrian accent,’ I’ll be back’ next week.

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