Great movies compel us to shout at the screen, cry our hearts out, and applaud the actions of our fictitious heroes. We also listen with rapt attention when a character has something worth saying, while we roar with laughter at the characters’ strange quirks which tend to pop up at the worst of times.
As a matter of fact, a character’s depth and authenticity is one of the strongest elements that captivate our attention. It is for this reason that plenty of actors spend plenty of time getting to know their characters before a single frame has been shot. Moreover, once the camera starts rolling, actors stay in character for as long as necessary. This commitment by some actors pays off: it’s what stirs us in the first place. In addition, although most of a character’s dialogue and action are scripted, an actor’s devotion to his craft allows him to improvise several scenes that are true to the character while improving on the original script. Some improvised scenes are so good that they go on to be a part of pop culture. Here are four of the most powerful improvised scenes:
Movie Improvisation Serene #1: Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”
In the scene where Tom Cruise is examining Jack Nicholson’s character in court, demanding to know what happened the night Pvt. Santiago died, Cruise asks for the truth to which Nicholson yells, “ YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” The original line was supposed to read: “you already have the truth,” except it didn’t impress Jack Nicholson. So, he decided to change it. Truth be told, the change was brilliant as the new line was far more in tune with Nicholson’s character and showed the extent of his character’s arrogance and ego. It also doesn’t hurt that the line became a classic.
Movie Improvisation Serene #2: Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”
Towards the end of the movie, as Nicholson’s character is chasing his family with an axe, his wife, played by Shelly Duvall, and son lock themselves in a bathroom. Undeterred, Nicholson decides to break down the bathroom door with his axe, while Duvall, cowering in a corner, screams her lungs out. Halfway through demolishing the door, Nicholson sticks his head out and says, “HERE’S JOHNNY!” The line was improvised, yet it became a classic for its ability to be both a comic reference to a game show and a terrifying statement given the context.
Movie Improvisation Serene #3: Harrsion Ford in “Raiders of The Lost Ark”
Most improvised scenes are born from an actor’s commitment to the role, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Originally scripted as a sword fight between Harrison Ford and some baddie, the scene was supposed to be action packed. However, Ford got sick during shooting, which made it difficult for him to perform the necessary stunts. As a result, he decided to change things a bit, giving us a far more memorable scene: as the villain brandishes his sword, Ford looks at him exasperatingly before he produces a revolver and shoots him. That’s it! No fancy choreography and no adrenaline pumping action were necessary, and the scene was better for it.
Movie Improvisation Serene #4: Leonardo Dicaprio in “Django Unchained”
When Leonardo Dicaprio realizes that he’s being swindled by Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx he goes into a tirade about how Foxx and Waltz have an ultimatum: they can either pay 12,000 dollars to buy Kerry Washington’s character, or they can just watch her die right then and there. Although the dialogue was scripted, Dicaprio’s bleeding hand wasn’t. In the beginning of the scene, Dicaprio cuts his hand upon slamming it onto the table. Nevertheless, Dicaprio was so engrossed in his character that he didn’t stop acting and incorporated his bleeding hand into the scene, making for a very unsettling yet terrific 3 minutes. Even the cast and crew all applauded his performance the second the director yelled “cut”.
The above list is in no way exhaustive; there are plenty more improvised scenes worthy of mention. Yet, these are my top 4. To my mind, they stand out from the rest.