1. Peter Finch, Network (1976)
Given just two weeks to bring the curtain down on a once-estimable career now in decline, news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) takes a moment during his nightly broadcast to announce that he is “retiring”—a farewell speech so standardized that no one in the production room seems to notice that he ends it by promising to “blow my brains out right on this program a week from today.” He’s fired for it, but manages to talk his way back on the air with promises of a more dignified, de rigueur farewell, and that’s when he really loses it: Beale’s extemporaneous “I’m mad as hell” rant (scripted by gimlet-eyed satirist Paddy Chayefsky) is a wide-ranging excoriation of apathy that rages against the very idea of prepared remarks and pat answers that reduce human suffering to the lulling murmur of dull statistics.
2. Holly Hunter, Broadcast News (1987)
More than 20 years later, the world of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News looks almost heartbreakingly quaint. The boundaries of good taste and responsible television journalism have been so thoroughly violated that the ethical breach committed by William Hurt’s character in the end would now practically be considered SOP, or at worst a forgivable lapse in judgment. (Hurt knows it, too: “It’s hard not to cross [the line] when they keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?”) Giving a convention speech near the beginning of the film, Holly Hunter’s hard-nosed producer sees the future clearly and tries to warn her colleagues of network news’ decline into shallow, frivolous reporting. She has her note cards neatly prepared and illustrative clips at the ready, but she isn’t a good public speaker, and her audience isn’t receptive to her message. In a last-ditch effort to connect, she pushes her microphone aside and addresses them as if they were her friends, hoping they’ll respond to this desperate stab at intimacy. But they can’t stop laughing and clapping at the silly news footage playing behind her, affirming her worst fears.
3. Judd Hirsch, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip: “Pilot” (2006)
Late-night comedy-show producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) believes that being funny necessarily means offending someone, so when network brass force him to cut a sketch that might upset the religious right, and tell him so just before the affected episode goes live, he has a moment of personal crisis. Defeated and embarrassed by his creation’s increasing mediocrity, Mendell interrupts a typically lame George W. Bush segment to urge the audience to change the channel, decrying the fact that they’re all being “lobotomized” by a network that refuses to challenge them or “do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12-year-old boys—and not even the smart 12-year-olds. The idiots, of which there are plenty.” It’s an acrid, honest monologue in the typical Aaron Sorkin style about the pollution of art by commerce and outside committees, and the way it cheapens the entire entertainment industry and culture at large. Unfortunately, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip spent the rest of its short life trying to measure up to the insight and ideals set out in those first unpredictable 10 minutes, and Sorkin’s similarly windy speeches about integrity just felt pompous when applied to a show seemingly built around middling Nicolas Cage impressions.
4. Martin Sheen, The West Wing: “Election Night” (2002)
Going off-script is often seen as a sign of strength, but in its fourth-season episode “Election Night,” The West Wing used the device to give President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) a hint of frailty. Having easily won a second term, Bartlet is addressing a ballroom full of euphoric supporters when he suddenly ignores the words on his teleprompter, instead drawing from his bottomless mental file of soaring rhetoric and bringing the speech to a close. It seems like just another instance of signature Bartlet individualism. Yet the First Lady (Stockard Channing) knows the truth: Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis is flaring up, and he can’t see the prompter. “There are going to be more days like this,” she whispers backstage. Bartlet’s response: “We can still have tonight, though, right?” This was Aaron Sorkin’s last season as West Wing showrunner, and the series missed his skill with poignant, quiet moments like this one.
5. Warren Beatty, Bulworth (1998)
Warren Beatty’s political satire Bulworth concerns a formerly leftist senator grappling with the loss of not only his ’60s-bred idealism, but his own will to live. Having hired an assassin to take himself out, Beatty realizes he has nothing to lose, so he soon begins speaking his mind on the campaign trail. Then, following a wild night in the clubs spent smoking marijuana and commingling with black people, Beatty is overcome with the spirit of hip-hop, and soon progresses to putting his thoughts into the rhythmic language of the streets. After rattling off the same old platitudes about the hope of the future and the American people and “yadda yadda yadda” at a fundraiser, Beatty breaks into an impromptu rap about the influence of corporate lobbyists on supposed democracy. (“Over here are our friends from oil / They don’t give a shit about how much wilderness they spoil.”) The fact that he’s finally not just speaking some truth, he’s spitting it, earns him the respect of young campaigner Halle Berry and her other streetwise friends, and Bulworth eventually rocks the mic all the way to a presidential campaign.
6. Al Pacino, And Justice For All… (1979)
Drafted to defend a judge accused of rape—a judge who’s guilty—Al Pacino rises to give his opening statement, and begins by laying out the facts behind the facts. He tells the jury how the legal system really works, and how everybody in the courtroom is doing their best to win, regardless of the truth. Along the way, he mocks the prosecution’s lack of a case, and seems to be setting up the jury for a slam-dunk acquittal, until he pivots and goes after his own client, saying that “the son of a bitch is guilty” and should “go right to fucking jail.” It’s an electrifying, funny scene, featuring one of Pacino’s best-remembered lines: “You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” And it ends in chaos, with Pacino being dragged out of court as he shouts, “I just completed my opening statement!”
7. Nathan Fillion, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)
Joss Whedon must have a soft spot for charismatic creeps and the speeches they never finish. In “Graduation Day, Part Two,” the finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s third season, the villainous mayor gives a commencement address that’s interrupted by an eclipse that turns him into a giant snake demon. This would be hard to top, but Whedon took things one step further in Dr. Horrible. City hero and general jerkface Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion at his smarmiest) is explaining his latest bit of shallow do-goodery to a grateful crowd when, stymied by “tiny cue cards,” he decides to go off-book and finish his self-congratulation in song. The resulting number, “Everyone’s A Hero,” is the musical’s funniest (“Yeah, we totally had sex”), but even that isn’t enough. Dr. Horrible himself arrives to interrupt the song at its climax, freezing Hammer mid-note. It’s doubtful Hammer’s original speech would’ve been as sincere or as catchy.
8. Kelsey Grammer, Frasier: “Look Before You Leap” (1996)
In the spirit of February 29th—“Leap Day”—radio psychologist Frasier Crane encourages his friends, family, and listeners to “take a leap” and break out of familiar patterns in their lives. For his part, Frasier promises his fans that instead of singing “Buttons And Bows” as he does every year on the PBS pledge drive, he’ll sing an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto. But after he watches everyone else’s “leaps” turn into crashes, Frasier reverses course and decides to go with “Buttons And Bows” after all. Except that he hasn’t prepared, and by the time he gets to the end of the first line, he’s improvising wildly, tossing in lines like, “Let’s all go to a taco show” and “My bones denounce the fearful trounce,” and “dah-dah-dah-dah pantyhose,” all while keeping a grin plastered across his face and gesturing with his arms like a buffoon.
9. George Clooney in Up In The Air (2009)
“Counterintuitive” is one word to describe George Clooney’s de-motivational speech in Up In The Air; “unsustainable” is another. Firing people for a living has Clooney hopscotching around the country from one utterly depressing office building to another, and he’s mastered the soon-to-be-unbearable lightness of being a modern-day nomad. Partly to justify his lifestyle, he gives speeches that posit life as a backpack weighed down by material things, by family members and acquaintances, and worse yet, by meaningful relationships. Up In The Air follows his slow realization that going through life unmoored, with an empty backpack, isn’t as satisfying as it seems. So when he gets his shot at the motivational speech big-time, Clooney predictably cracks, because he no longer believes in what he’s saying. It’s just as well: A speech centered on such a thin and objectionable metaphor probably had a short shelf life anyway.
10. Walter Berglund, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010)
Late in Jonathan Franzen’s epic novel, hero Walter Berglund is asked to give a speech at a new plant in West Virginia that will produce body armor for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His relationship to the business is tellingly tangential: Walter operates an environmental fund supported by the wealthy head of a Halliburton-like omni-corporation, someone who happens to have an interest in the well-being of a songbird called the Cerulean Warbler. A lifelong environmentalist, Walter made the decision to plug his nose and join forces with this dubious character, despite agreeing to massive compromises, like the mountaintop coal excavation set to happen before the land is preserved as a bird sanctuary, and temporarily shelving his concern over population growth. Operating on very little sleep, due to a marriage that has just fallen apart, Walter casts aside a speech that was written for him and lets decades’ worth of anger and disillusionment spill out in a righteous tumble. Sarcastically welcoming his audience to “the middle class,” Walter then blasts them for what being a middle-class person means: a life of thoughtless excess and consumption at the planet’s expense. The speech makes him a hero among anarchist fringe-dwellers when it leaks on YouTube; it also earns him the beating of a lifetime from folks who don’t appreciate his condescension.
11. Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie (1982)
Imagine you’re a persnickety actor with a bad reputation, and you can’t get work with your own name and face, so you dress up in drag in order to try out for a soap-opera role. You get the role and become a big success in your false female guise, but it turns out that life gets complicated when your crush object sees you as a buddy, not a romantic partner. Unfortunately, her father (and other men of his vintage) feels exactly the opposite way. Fortunately, even in the neolithic era of 1982, rom-coms still rely on gimmicky twists, so Dustin Hoffman escapes this situation in Tootsie via an old plot convention: the live television broadcast where he suddenly realizes he can go off-script, and no one will dare stop him. When an editor spills “a bottle of celery tonic” on a reel of Hoffman’s soap opera and ruins it, the cast is unexpectedly forced to do a sequence on live TV, and Hoffman takes the opportunity to rip off his lady-costume, reveal himself as a man, and justify the whole thing with a stumbling, obviously spur-of-the-moment story about how he’s really his own character’s brother in disguise, on a mission of vengeance. The soap opera of his own life goes up in flames, but on the show itself… well, it’s a soap opera. This kind of bizarre twist is par for the course.
12. Bill Murray, Scrooged (1988)
The “it’s live TV, so we can’t interfere with what the crackpot is telling the entire country” gimmick resurfaced in 1988’s Scrooged, yet another take on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” This time, the Scrooge figure is evil, selfish, cynical TV network president Bill Murray, who’s in the middle of touting a treacly, overproduced live TV rendition of “Christmas Carol” when he experiences the real thing himself. (Granted, his spiritual manhandling is hyperbolically more comic and more violent than Dickens’ version.) After facing the third spirit of Christmas and briefly experiencing cremation, he returns to the real world in full-on Bill Murray ’80s crazy-man mode, wrapping up Scrooged by bursting onto the Christmas Carol set mid-broadcast and interrupting it with a lengthy, manic monologue full of one-liners, spontaneous sing-alongs, and stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the meaning of Christmas. “It can happen every day! You’ve just got to want that feeling! You’ll want it every day! It can happen to you!” he yells, sounding like an evangelical TV preacher on coke. Still, no matter how far off-book he goes, it’s absolutely necessary for a small, cute tyke to get that “God bless us, every one” on the record before the film ends.
13. Fredric March, The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
When Fredric March returns from World War II, he resumes his duties as a loan officer at the Corn Belt Savings And Loan in Boone City, where he’s dismayed to find that his boss isn’t as serious about passing out loans to veterans as he’d promised. At a testimonial dinner, March gets drunk, then approaches the podium for his speech as the guest of honor. The speech begins as boozy nonsense (“Our country stands today where it stands today!” he asserts), then spins to a smart-ass anecdote about how when he was in the war, he was ordered to lead his platoon up a hill, but he refused because he felt they didn’t have sufficient collateral. “So we didn’t take the hill, and we lost the war,” March jokes, unsmiling. But just when it looks like March’s speech is going to be a total flop, he starts to speak from the heart about “gambling on the future of this country,” while his wife, Myrna Loy, looks on admiringly. In the end, he gets a standing ovation, though he knows that the victory may be fleeting; his boss claps him on the back, but March is sure that the next time he wants to approve an iffy loan, he’ll have to fight for his neighbors yet again.
14. John Carradine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
An unnamed state in the Old West wants to send someone to Washington to lobby for statehood. It’s a moment that calls for a representative of great stature. But before a speech can be made to nominate Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)—an icon of doing the right thing in an uncivilized, mythical West—the pompous Major Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine) gets up to nominate one Buck Langhorne instead. “Mr. Chairman, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, “I came here with a carefully prepared speech, but this is no time for rhetoric.” Here he takes his speech, crumples it up and tosses it to the ground. “Let me speak to you from the heart,” he announces, before going on to make his extemporaneous speech. There’s only one problem: as the man who picks it up discovers, both sides of the paper are blank. It’s a classically American piece of rhetorical humbug; it’s no surprise that the carefully memorized speech that follows includes flourishes like “fly not in the face of heaven’s handiwork.”
15. Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man (2008)
Many “going off-book” moments are about monumental change in a character. In Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, two moments of press-conference spitballing signal Tony Stark’s transition from billionaire playboy to metal-clad superhero. Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a maverick in designer suits and gold-titanium armor; he shows this first upon his return from captivity in Afghanistan, shocking reporters and Stark Industries brass by announcing the end of the company’s lucrative weapons programs. Of course, that desire to get out of the business doesn’t extend to Stark’s personal arsenal, and his continued work on the Iron Man suit leads to a super-powered, knock-down-drag-out fight with malevolent father figure Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), which trashes Stark headquarters, thus requiring a postmortem clean-up in front of the press. Alibi in hand, Stark is faced with two choices: Follow the statement to the letter, or take responsibility for Iron Man. He takes the heroic option, but not without a bit of playboy swagger, concluding the film by dropping a bombshell: “The truth is—I am Iron Man.”
16. Tina Fey, 30 Rock: “Emanuelle Goes To Dinosaur Land”/“I Do I Do” (2010)
In a cliffhanger scene that bridges the last two episodes of 30 Rock’s fourth season, Liz Lemon (Fey) has inexplicably agreed to read at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, which Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is also attending when he tells one of his two paramours, Nancy Donovan (Julianne Moore), that she’s competing with Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks) for his affections. Nancy is furious and tells Jack she’s headed out. As a faithful Catholic, she can’t leave before mass is over, so Jack texts Lemon to stall as she’s at the pulpit. Most people wouldn’t check their cell phone for text messages while reading at someone’s wedding, but Lemon ends up riffing on Corinthians, performing an “unscheduled reading” by flipping through the Bible and performing an improvised version of Mad Libs, and making up a song on her guitar as Jack tries to explain himself and declares his love to Nancy.
17. Ulrich Thomsen, The Celebration (1998)
At his father’s 60th birthday party, eldest son Ulrich Thomsen offers his dad a choice of color-coded speeches: yellow or green. Dad goes for green, not suspecting his choice will alter the family for good. Instead of a standard-issue testimonial, Thomsen offers up “home truths”: a childhood anecdote that turns into an accusation of sexual abuse. Coming half an hour into the film, his attack (or, more accurately, counter-attack) takes the audience as much by surprise as the invited guests, dealing us a shock from which we, and they, never recover.
18. Nick Offerman, Parks And Recreation: “Woman Of The Year” (2010)
The speech near the end of Parks And Recreation’s “Woman Of The Year” episode begins as an afterthought. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Pawnee, Indiana’s most ambitious government employee by a long shot, is on track to win the town’s annual Woman Of The Year award. Instead, in a bizarre move, the organization chooses to honor Leslie’s boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who devotes most of his energy and thought toward his mustache and breakfast foods. He isn’t heartless, though, and after giving Leslie a hard time, he calls the organization to clear up what he and Leslie perceive to be a mistake. Upon learning that giving the award to a man was actually an intentional, bizarre PR stunt, Leslie and Ron conspire to take down the awards from within. The plan is that Ron’s acceptance speech will berate attendees and call out the inconsequential nature of awards, but at the podium, Ron has a change of heart. He abandons the speech Leslie slaved over and asks the audience to applaud her. Still wanting to embarrass the Woman Of The Year committee, Leslie heads to the stage and attempts to give the award back to Ron, who hands it right back to Leslie, who gives it back to Ron… it goes on for a while. Parks And Rec not only gives its own take on the speech-abandonment trope, it finds the game in it.