The best actors and the best movies convince us that what we’re seeing is real, even if we know it’s not. Sure, many of us have come to enjoy the fictional movie world more than reality because it’s orderly, preplanned and methodical. Yet even in these scripted worlds, we often get glimpses of reality, moments that are unscripted, unplanned and authentic. These moments happen all the time but they’re usually so small that we don’t care to notice. But what happens when really big moments are unscripted, ad libbed or even accidental? What does it do to the viewing experience?
Reality TV has become so popular because it’s the closest thing to reality we get to see on screen. Yes, much of it is scripted and the people filmed are conscious of the filming, turning themselves into characters rather than acting as normal people, but there are moments of reality scattered about. We, the film-savvy audiences of today, are groomed to distinguish between reality and fiction, even if we don’t consciously know we’re doing it. Reality looks and feels different to us. Moments of real laughter on film make us laugh because it’s real. People crying in real life are a lot more convincing than most actors, but the really good ones, the actors who really can cry, make us feel what they’re feeling.
The movie moments on this list were all unplanned, meaning they are all real, or at least they showcase real reactions to a moment. Some of them are spur of the moment decisions made by actors, others are just little surprises that led to priceless reactions. They’re all recognizable scenes, too. Many of these are some of the most iconic scenes in film. Maybe the reason that they’re so recognizable is because we saw something in them, something of ourselves and our reality. Or maybe they’re just really good scenes. I don’t know. I was being dramatic. Either way, here they are; 15 movie moments that happened by accident.
15. Hard Helmet – The Lord of the Rings
In Two Towers, after Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come across the burned remains of the traveling Uruk-hai party that took Merry and Pippin, all the signs point to an untimely demise for the Hobbits as well. When Gimli pulls one of the Hobbits’ charred knife sheaths from the ashes of a fire, Aragorn loses it, kicks a helmet full of anger and grief, screams and falls to his knees in anguish. Well, it turns out that the scream of anguish was aided by his physical pain because, when Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) kicked the helmet prop, he broke his toe. Remember kids, steel-toed boots save toes.
14. The Lineup – The Usual Suspects
When the gang of misfits in The Usual Suspects stands in the police lineup to read a line out, the group is giggling and laughing the entire time. The laughter looks and sounds genuine, and from the quality of the cast you might expect it to look that way, but the story goes that Benicio del Toro had a bad case of the rumbly guts that day and had been farting in the closed off room. As he steps forward, you can almost see the exact moment he farts, triggering the others’ laughter. The director Bryan Singer, liked the playful banter so much that he kept that scene in the final cut. That or the rest of the cast refused to go back into that room with del Toro to film it again.
13. I’m Walkin’ Here – Midnight Cowboy
Dustin Hoffman explains that the famous “I’m Walkin’ Here” line in Midnight Cowboy was never in the script and happened only because a New York cab happened to drive like a New York cab. Without the budget or the time to block off 6th Avenue entirely and stock it full of extras, the team of Midnight Cowboy did what’s called a stolen shot. Basically, they have the actors mic’d up and have someone ahead of them walking with a hidden camera. So as Hoffman and Jon Voight are walking and talking, filming away, they start to cross the street. As they do, a taxi blows a red light and almost smashes into them, startling the cigarette right out Hoffman’s mouth. Even while his life flashed before his eyes, the consummate professional kept his character and screamed at the taxi, beating on the hood, “I’m walkin’ here. I’m walkin’ here.” The director argues that this was in the script, but who knows?
12. The Hospital Explosion – The Dark Knight
As the hospital explodes and the gleeful Joker (Heath Ledger) walks out with his detonator in The Dark Knight, there’s an unplanned moment in which the Joker fiddles around with the detonator because the explosions stopped going off. It’s said that this was not supposed to happen, that the Joker was meant to push the button and the explosion was supposed to go off without a hitch, but, in classic Joker style, it doesn’t go quite as planned. The little hiccup causes enough of a delay that we get to see the Joker prodding and shaking the detonator, all the while staying in character, until the rest of the explosions go off, startling him ever so slightly before he runs onto the bus.
11. Most Annoying Sound In The World – Dumb and Dumber
So much of Dumb and Dumber was ad libbed, so I could make an entire list dedicated only to Lloyd (Jim Carrey) and Harry (Jeff Daniels), but there is one moment in particular that deserves to be singled out. While riding in the Mutts Cutts Shaggin Waggin with Mike Starr’s character, Jim Carrey asks if the guys want to hear the most annoying sound in the world and lets out a chuckle. He then makes a weird noise, similar to a baby blended with a pterodactyl, and it makes Starr go crazy. The whole scene is improvised really, just Lloyd and Harry trying to outdo each other with how annoying they can be. You can tell that the guys had fun with it and that’s why it was such a funny scene in the end.
10. Cinderella Story – Caddyshack
Rumor has it that when Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) narrates his own “Cinderella Story” of him winning the Masters tournament, all the while smashing off the tops of the clubhouse flowers with his imaginary golf shots, the whole thing was improvised. The director, Harold Ramis, had nothing scripted in terms of dialogue for that scene and asked Murray to ad lib it a bit. It turns out that Murray, the Cinderella story himself, was able to make that ad lib into one of the funnier scenes in the entire movie. Maybe Ramis knew that whatever he drew up would not be as funny and natural as just letting Murray do Murray.
9. Warriors, Come Out To Play – Warriors
When Luther (David Patrick Kelly) pulls up to call out the Warriors to come and duke it out, the script direction was only to clink empty bottles together rhythmically. To add a little more sugar and spice to the scene, Luther decided to add in the line “Warriors, come out to play.” The decision turned out to be a great one because it has stuck with the movie ever since its release. It’s true that this is not really an accident, but this moment still was a series of fortunate and unconnected decisions that added up to greatness, and a now rather iconic line.
8. Leo’s Bloody Hand – Django Unchained
Everyone’s probably heard this one by now. Leonardo DiCaprio, in a fit of rage, crushed a bear with his bare hands and finished shooting the scene. Ahh, never mind. I think we’ve got a case of broken telephone. The real story is that Calvin Candie (Leo), slammed his hand on the table during the dinner scene in Django Unchained, accidentally smashing a glass and cutting his hand open. Rather than scream and cry for help, as I would have done, Leo soldiered on, finishing the scene, even using the blood for dramatic effect like only a man with acting coursing in his veins would do. I’m not sure that the scene would be so recognizable without this story leaking out. With the accident attached to it, the scene seems a little more dramatic and lot more awesome.
7. Hotel Room – Apocalypse Now
When Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is drunk dancing, or doing yoga, or Wing Chun or whatever in the world Willard is doing in that hotel room in Apocalypse Now, the actor, Sheen, was really drunk and was really dancing. Director Francis Ford Coppola told his film crew to continue filming Sheen and Sheen was into it. It got a bit weird when Sheen punched and smashed his room mirror, cutting his hand quite badly and rubbing it all over his face. With cameras still rolling, Sheen broke down and began sobbing in the middle of the room, right before he tried fighting Coppola. The whole thing was unplanned, obviously, because you can’t plan that kind of crazy.
6. Snapping Box – Pretty Woman
When Pretty Woman (Julia Roberts) reaches into the box holding her necklace, Richard Gere slams the lid onto her fingers, crushing them. Or am I remembering this all wrong? No, wait. When Gere lightly closes the lid on her fingers and she lets out the insanely iconic “woo” and laughter, the director Garry Marshall, made a decision that the scene had to stay in the final cut of the film. Originally, however, that scene was meant only for the gag reel, something Marshall and Gere had planned as a prank for Roberts. Her response was so genuine and sincere that it stuck and became one of the most recognizable scenes of 20th century film.
5. The Ripped Flag – Lord of the Rings
Back to Two Towers, when Éowyn (Miranda Otto) steps out on the front walk of Edoras, looking out gracefully at Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they approach on their horses, the flag of Rohan rips off one of the poles and flies through the air, seemingly on command. We would be forgiven for thinking this moment was planned, the flag of Rohan rips and tears from its support and flies away, symbolizing the crumbling of the once mighty nation. It’s perfect symbolism, but it wasn’t planned. It happened completely by accident, albeit a fortuitous accident. In reality, the poor prop guy who mucked this job up probably got canned, but honestly it looks beautiful and added so much to the scene that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. The more I think about it the more I don’t believe that this was an accident. It’s just too good.
4. Stumbling Luca Brasi – The Godfather
The lovable character of Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) has a memorable scene in The Godfather in which he thanks Don Vito Corleone for inviting him to Corleone’s daughter’s wedding. During the scene, Brasi fumbles and chokes on his words throughout his very planned and prepared speech, making for a sweet and earnest thank you. This speech is said to be real because Brasi, a totally brand new actor, was so intimidated by the great Marlon Brando that he struggled to get through the scene. Francis Ford Coppola loved the performance so much that he even shot a sequence of Brasi preparing that speech over and over again while waiting outside the Godfather’s door. This style of preparation was almost identical to what the actor Montana actually had to do because he was not a trained actor. In fact, he was hired by Coppola because he was a real life Mafia enforcer/bodyguard who was seen hanging around on set, as many mafia members were known to do during filming the controversial film.
3. You’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat – Jaws
Sitting there on the edge of the boat, the small boat, come to think of it, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) chums the waters trying to draw out the shark we like to call Jaws. Do we call it that? Well, Steven Spielberg kept his stars in the dark about the shark, how big and how realistic it was, to try and get the most genuine responses from them when they first saw it. This is that scene for Scheider, so when he recoils and stands up, turning to Quint, saying “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” it was all unplanned and unscripted. Not an accident in Spielberg’s eyes but, for Scheider, he didn’t know what to expect and it led to pure genius. Scheider is a great actor but I doubt he evokes the same reaction if he knew what to expect.
2. You Talkin to Me? – Taxi Driver
Arguably the most famous monologue in the history of film was not even planned. When Robert De Niro stands in front of his mirror practicing his tough guy act with his gun in Taxi Driver, the entire speech, his banter to himself, was all ad libbed. The only stage direction he was given was to talk to himself, which he does. But in that speech, he happens to include the wildly famous question, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin to me?” For an unplanned line, I’d say it did pretty good. It is, after all, Robert De Niro, a man who sweats excellence. I suppose that in the end, since Martin Scorsese never expected this moment to be so monumental—otherwise he would have scripted it—the results were completely accidental, an accident that made everyone involved into a living legend.
1. Beer Can – Being John Malkovich
When John Malkovich is thrown out from his own head and into the ditch on the side of the freeway in Being John Malkovich, he gets into a yelling match with John Cusack about the rights and wrongs of the whole situation. Malkovich isn’t happy. His personal space is being attacked and his mind is being violated. Malkovich’s acting ability is in another stratosphere, but he really dials it up as he walks away in a complete huff. Then in a moment of pure and unadulterated beauty, a passenger in a passing car leans out and chucks an empty beer can into the side of Malkovich’s head. The pain and scream are said to be real, but the line “hey Malkovich, think fast” was probably put in afterward. No matter what though, the scene is hysterical.