I’ve decided to introduce a brand new feature here at Southern Vision called Unforgettable Scenes. I’ve noticed a few other blogs that do occasional posts on scenes from movies that stand out as particularly remarkable on their own, so I’ve decided to join the party. This will be a weekly feature with one scene per week, and I’m starting the feature off with a scene from a movie most people should be familiar with, Magnolia (which currently stands as my third favourite movie of all time, and my number one English language film).
This scene stars Jason Robards and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The setup is that Robards is playing Earl Partridge, a TV network tycoon who is dying of cancer, and is cared for by his nurse, played by Hoffman. In this scene, which is easily in the run for the most poignant of all movie scenes, Robards delivers a passionate, beautiful monologue about the regrets he’s had in his lifetime.
There are several great things about this scene. One that particularly stands out (and is to be credited to both Robards and screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson) is that at times Robards seems to muddle up his words or say things that aren’t right. This is a perfect touch because Robards character is elderly and dying of cancer, so of course he’s not going to get all his words right. His stutterings and mumblings are not overused at all, and remain a small but vital detail of what gives the scene its power. Another even more poignant detail is that this was Robards last big screen role before his death a year later. The whole idea is perfect: a dying man plays a dying man.
Robards takes his time delivering the monologue, which is about ten minutes long. At first we focus on him speaking, and then the camera cuts to some of the other characters in the film as Robards continues talking. This editing is also a stroke of genius as we are also shown shots of a character played by Philip Baker Hall. Hall’s character is also elderly and dying of cancer, so Robards’ words seem also to apply to Hall, without this connection ever being made explicit. Another connection is that Robards produced the TV show that Hall’s character hosts, so the two are more deeply related than we – or they – realize.
In the scene there are also cuts to characters including Julianne Moore and Tom Cruise, both of whom are sitting solemnly in a car. Moore is committing suicide, after taking a bunch of pills, and the desperation in her is clearly visible. The final shot of the scene is of Cruise sitting blankly in the car. It is one of the most chilling shots I’ve ever seen, his solemn face obscured by the blur of the rain on his windshield. This is one of the many moments I am struck by Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunning direction.
And again we return to Robards’ monologue which continues uninterrupted throughout this scene. Not only his delivery superb, but the dialogue itself is heartbreaking. His desperate sobbing (“What did I do?”, and a brief cry of “help me,”) is absolutely tearjerking, and he also utters my favourite line in the film: “The biggest regret of my life… I let my love go.”
The scene aches with a loud scream of desperation and regret as Robards cries to the gods his pain inside and outside, and we in the audience are moved to tears by it. It is one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema, and Robards is like a rock, his acting precise and masterful.
I was going to embed the video of the scene on YouTube, but disgustingly, it has been taken down (although other scenes from the movie are still up there!). So I’m going to encourage you to rent this movie, or if you own it, see it again. Even if you don’t watch the whole film and just skip to this scene (which starts just over two hours into the movie), please rent it and see it, or if you have seen it and remember the scene, leave a comment below. Thanks. Hopefully for future instalments of Unforgettable Scenes I am able to find a video online.