Film: Best movie lines deserve Oscars

What is it that makes particular lines of dialogue so irresistible that they become enduring catchphrases?

Sometimes they just have a certain something that makes people want to repeat them. Like, "Stella!!!" Or "Bond. James Bond."

Sometimes they're just endlessly adaptable to myriad life situations. Like, "What a dump!" ("Beyond the Forest"). Or "Houston, we have a problem" ("Apollo 13"). Or "They're ba-ack" ("Poltergeist II"). Or "I can handle things, I'm smart" ("The Godfather II"). Or my favorite, "You're bastard people. That's what you are, you're just bastard people" ("Waiting for Guffman").

Often lines rise to join the collective consciousness because they contain a kernel of truth about life, even if that truth -- the truth of, for example, "Say hello to my leetle friend!" ("Scarface") -- remains elusive. Sometimes their truths are contained in an attitude, sometimes an observation, sometimes a secret desire, but they stay with us.

It's time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized the art and importance of individual lines of dialogue and considered an award for best line. At the very least, critics' groups around the country might test out that awards category and see how it goes.

After all, catchphrases have been a major part of people's enjoyment and contemplation of cinema for almost 100 years. The phenomenon even predates sound. In 1915, millions of Americans went to see Theda Bara as a deadly vamp in the silent film "A Fool There Was." In an intertitle she told her hapless slave, "Kiss me, my fool!," which was immediately adapted as "Kiss me, you fool!" and said by millions of women to their husbands and boyfriends.

What was behind the desire to repeat that? Perhaps it was an aspiration to sexual power, the same thing that launched Jean Harlow's line "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" ("Hell's Angels") in 1930. Or Mae West's "Come up sometime and see me" (improved upon by the public as "Come up and see me sometime") from "She Done Him Wrong" (1933).

The first all-talking picture, "The Lights of New York" (1928), contributed an enduring catchphrase, when a gangster instructed his henchmen: "Take him for ... a ride." Again, we find an assertion of power that, out of context, becomes comical.

We see that same appeal in "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" ("Apocalypse Now"). Or in "You've got to ask yourself, 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?" ("Dirty Harry"). Or in that macabre yet funny moment from "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) when Bette Davis raves at Joan Crawford in her wheelchair, "But ya are, Blanche, ya are in that chair!"

Just imagine the 1939 Oscar competition, with "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" going up against "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." Actually, the "Gone With the Wind" line would have won in a walk, though all these years later, Dorothy's remark in "The Wizard of Oz" seems more routinely applicable to life as we know it.

That's another facet of catchphrases: They go in and out of fashion, tied to the fluctuations in what people value and how they look at the world. "Casablanca" has contributed more indelible lines than any other film besides "The Godfather," but the lines we hear most often have changed over the decades. The misquote "Play it again, Sam" was the most common point of reference for years. In the '80s, you'd often hear "I came to Casablanca for the waters. ... I was misinformed." Today, the shameless hypocrisy of "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here" sounds the familiar chord.

Similarly, we note a change in the public mind in that "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" was the most repeated line of 1972. But today the less crude and even more cold-blooded assertion of power -- "It's not personal. It's strictly business" -- has become the most-often referenced moment from "The Godfather."

These things have to be more than coincidence. They don't just happen. The world doesn't just suddenly stop saying "Show me the money" during a recession and start saying "You had me at hello" from the same movie ("Jerry Maguire"). There are currents in American life. We can't grasp and understand them all, but they're around us, and these catchphrases are little hints that tell us how the winds are blowing.

Think about this. In 1967, at a time when everyone was talking about the importance of communication, of the generation gap and of the cluelessness of authority, we get Strother Martin as a sadistic, delusional warden saying, "What we've got here is failure to communicate" ("Cool Hand Luke").

In the mid-1970s, a very difficult time -- post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, with the economy in the toilet and national confidence sinking -- two lines were heard everywhere: "You talkin' to me?" (spoken by a lunatic soon to go on a rampage in "Taxi Driver") and "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" from "Network." Again, we find assertions

of power, but this time they're beleaguered ones.

Contrast that to the happy aggression and confidence of the booming 1980s, which gave us "It's good to be the king" ("History of the World Part I"), "Go ahead, make my day" ("Sudden Impact"), "I'll be back" ("The Terminator"), "Greed ... is good" ("Wall Street") and "Yippee-ki-yay, mother ..." ("Die Hard").

In the past 20 years -- since "Hasta la vista, baby," from "Terminator 2" (1991) -- we've seen fewer catchphrases penetrate the national consciousness. One could argue that it takes years for lines to enter the lexicon, but no. In 1983, even the president of the United States was going around saying, "Go ahead, make my day."

This is not to say the past 20 years has been a wasteland. But we could use more indelible lines, which is yet another reason for the academy and for critics groups to introduce a catchphrase award -- to foster and encourage this vital yet accidental art form.

(E-mail Mick LaSalle at mlasalle@sfchronicle.com .)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com .)

 

What's your favorite movie line of all time? What about your favorite from the nominees of best film this year? Leave a comment in the section below or on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/WCPONetworks .

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