Here I go again with another meta-movie list! The phrase “breaking the fourth wall” has been around for over a century. Though as a concept it's been around since before Shakespeare the phrase itself originates from the theater of Bertolt Brecht. It simply meant that a character makes an aside to the audience. Through the invisible wall those watching are addressed, acknowledged and made to feel a little more “in on the joke” so to speak. It’s a device used a lot more in television than on film.
In the '80s it even became fairly fashionable on such shows like Moonlighting and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show – a show that had as its entire premise comedian Shandling talking directly to the studio audience and the viewers at home. The Marx Brothers may have pioneered the concept in cinema with Groucho’s many knowing winks but Bob Hope really nailed it in the seminal road movies he made with Bing Crosby which is where we’ll begin:
1. ROAD TO MOROCCO (Dir. David Butler, 1942) Bob Hope is the reigning king of breaking the 4th wall for this classic alone. His character Oliver ‘Turkey’ Jackson has an immortal momment when he loses his detached wiseacre demeanor when he desperately declares “I can't go on! No food, no water. It's all my fault. We're done for! It's got me. I can't stand it! No food, nothing! No food, no water! No food!” As the voice of reason his friend Jeff (Bing Crosby) says “What's the matter with you, anyway?…We'll be picked up in a few minutes.” Hope in all his irrefutable glory responds “you had to open your big mouth and ruin the only good scene I got in the picture. I might have won the Academy Award!” That’s par for the course in a movie that actually has a camel comment - "This is the screwiest picture I was ever in."
2. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (Dir. Peter R. Hunt, 1969) This is seriously significant because breaking the 4th wall was used to break in the new Bond. George Lazenby had one of the hardest jobs in cinema history – to be the first to fill the shoes of Sean Connery in the iconic role of 007. To make matters even more intimidating this was a Bond adventure with substance – one that he gets married in for Christ’s sake!
Bond's intro had to matter – it had to have him make a mark and it had to acknowledge the audience’s incoming notion that this guy wasn’t the guy they were used to.
So in what every Bond picture has - a cold opening - we see Bond tooling around Portugal in his classic Aston Martin having an instant of near road-rage (we don't see his face in close-up), parking to watch the driver (Diana Rigg) that cut him off attempting suicide by walking into the ocean. He watches through a gun sight mind you. He frantically pulls his car down and runs out to the beach to save her. He drags her out of the water and we get to see his face as he does the customary intro “Bond, James Bond” but immediately adversaries are on his back.
A moon-lit beach fight ensues and of course Bond defeats his attackers but Rigg departs eschewing all pleasantries. After picking up her discarded shoes Lazenby remarks “this never happened to the other fellow”. Priceless for many reasons but chiefly because it acknowledged that there was a much loved “other fellow” and while Lazenby didn’t look directly into the camera ‘til after he said the line – the self consciousness was reigned in. Didn’t save him from being a Bond one-termer but still.
3. ANIMAL HOUSE (Dir. John Landis, 1978) According to IMDb this is a Landis trademark : “He often has his characters look into camera lens to make eye contact with the audience or 'break frame'". It’s true – it is all over his film work but most definitively when the late great John Belushi climbs up a ladder to view naked sorority girls and when getting what he thinks is a “money shot” turns to do his eye brow signature right at us.
As a close tie - the scene in TRADING PLACES when the Duke brothers (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellemy) condescendingly try to school Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) about commodities. Murphy looks directly at us at a key moment in a “how stupid do they think I am?” look.
Another trademark breaking the 4th came a few years later in SPIES LIKE US – this time Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase were trying to do their version of a Hope/Crosby road movie. During a stressful scene when our beloved SNL bumblers were pretending to be medical staff in Soviet Central Asia - the king of 4th wall demolition - Bob Hope himself appears as if in perpetual golfer mode - "Ah! Mind if I play through? (acknowledges Ackroyd and Chase) Doctor.. Doctor.. I'm glad I'm not sick." * While this is indeed a Landis trademark on the TRADING PLACES commentary Eddie Murphy says it came from being so used to mugging at the camera on Saturday Night Live.
4. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (Dir. John Hughes, 1986) There are many instances of Hughes’s characters talking directly to the camera but Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is purely definitive as a narrator, commentator, and chastizer – like Animal in THE MUPPET MOVIE he even tells the audience to go home at the end. Bueller's great moment in breaking the 4th walldom is when he informs us on the best methods of faking sick to get out of going to school (as if you didn't know the premise). I believe this is one of the reasons that this is former Vice President Dan Quayle’s favorite movie.
After his parents exit Ferris looks us in the eye and says “Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second.”
Special mention goes to PRETTY IN PINK (1986) At the prom conclusion Ducky (Jon Cryer) looks directly in the camera and knowingly nods after being given a come-on look by a girl on the dance floor.
5. JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (Dir. Kevin Smith, 2001) As a self pro-claimed Hughes disciple Smith has to work the ‘to camera asides’ but in this movie he may have overdone it a tad. For example – playing themselves Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have a fight on the set of the fictitious GOOD WILL HUNTING 2 : HUNTING SEASON (Yes I know, another film within a film) in which Affleck tries to school Damon : “You're like a child. What've I been telling you? You gotta do the safe picture. Then you can do the art picture. But then sometimes you gotta do the payback picture because your friend says you owe him.” They both turn and look at the camera for an obvious dig at Smith.
The overdoing it comes from this bit in the same film also involving Affleck who this time plays his CHASING AMY character Holden who warns - “I mean, I don't think I'm alone in the world in imagining this flick may be the worst idea since Greedo shooting first. You know it, but... a Jay and Silent Bob movie? Feature length? Who'd pay to see that?” Holden, Jay (Jason Mewes), and Silent Bob (Smith) all look right at us – and to really set things off - Silent Bob gives a smiling double thumbs-up.
6. TOP SECRET (Dir. Jerry Zucker, 1982) There are many audience acknowledging nods throughout the Zucker Brothers canon like the one quoted at the top of this blogpost but this Zucker scene really drives the point home: Val Kilmer’s Elvis derived '50s heart throb singer Nick Rivers pours his heart out: “Listen to me Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground." Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) responds “I know. It all sounds like some bad movie.” They both recoil then look our way as if to say ‘did you get that?’ And speaking of 'getting that':
7. SPACEBALLS (Dir. Mel Brooks, 1987) After being given the plot synopsis Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) looks at the camera and says "Everybody got that?" but most notably is the scene in which he and his minions actually put in a videocasette of SPACEBALLS to see what happens next and see themselves looking at themselves onscreen. Dark Helmet says : “what the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?” Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) responds : “now. You're looking at now sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now.” Too bad this didn’t help this decade too late STAR WARS satire to be more “in the moment.”
8. JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991) I know, I know – every list I make has this film on it. Not only because it’s one of my all time favorite films but it does hold the monopoly on movie extras – deleted scenes, cameos, edits, and cinema contrivances galore confirm that it’s forever bloggable. That aside I really couldn’t leave out the moment that Garrison (Costner) wraps up his lengthy court summation by saying : “We, the people, the jury system sitting in judgement on Clay Shaw represent the hope of humanity against government power. In discharging your duty to bring a first conviction in this house of cards against Clay Shaw ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.’
Do not forget your dying king. Show this world that this is still a government ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’ Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important – it’s up to you.” As the camera goes upward but still holds Costner’s direct camera gaze we get a feeling that this breaking the 4th wall stuff isn’t just comedy kids stuff. Which brings us to:
9. WAYNE’S WORLD (Dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1992) Like Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers has a SNL mugging at the camera background and the characters here come from a cable access show in which they talk directly to the camera so of course they would continue to bash holes in the ever so fraglie fourth wall. Funnily enough they use it to satirize product placement at the same time. Wayne tells sleazy TV exec Rob Lowe that he"will not bow to any sponsor" as he poses with a bag of Doritos, a piece of pizza from Pizza Hut, takes some Nuprin, and tops it all off with a swig of Pepsi. He grins at us and even says the slogan "it's the choice of a new generation."
10. THE MUPPET MOVIE (Dir. James Frawley, 1979) Kermit and the other Muppets (my word program insists this should be capitalized) regularly consult the screenplay on their journey to stardom so it's unsurprising but still hilarious when Floyd Pepper (Jerry Nelson) says "well, if this were the movies..." and Dr. Teeth (Jim Henson) adds "which it is", Floyd continues "...we'd think of a clever plot device" then Scooter (Richard Hunt) energetically finishes "like disguising their car so they won't be recognized!"
Yep, when in doubt just think of how it would be done in the movies. It'll save you every time. Okay! That's enough meta-movie mania for right now - gotta go star in my own movie. Good luck with yours.