Even in the face of competition from TV, movies have provided more of our truly enduring cultural touchstones than any other medium. Sixty some years after “Gone With the Wind” (1939), everyone — well, let’s play it safe and say the great majority of Americans — know the line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
TV has occasionally come close to the movies’ track record of magic moments seared in the collective consciousness, and “The Simpsons” alone has had immeasurable impact on our common culture, not to mention our language. But earlier TV shows whose impact initially seemed immortal have frequently faded. If you yell “Makeup!” not one person in 50 will immediately think of Milton Berle. The name of Napoleon Solo was revered among high school kids 40 years ago, but that — or any reference to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” — is likely to draw blank stares from those who weren’t there at the time.
There are, in fact, so many film moments that have entered our culture — and so many different ways that those moments have become iconic — that it’s hard to know where to begin. (As for any titles from the last 10 years or so: It’s simply too early to know whether, even with the advantage of constant repetition on video and cable, this year’s catchphrase will be identifiable in 20 years.)
Some films have such monstrous impact that, in a sense, the entire movie becomes iconic without having a single standout line or moment.
The last half of the 1970s is permanently (as far as one can tell from the distance of a quarter-century) associated with “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) — the white polyester suit and the dancing have stayed alive in our minds, both through association with the music and through endless parodies.
In a similar way, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) has never been bested as a portrait of the era’s Cold War angst. It’s so full of memorable moments that no particular one is dominant (although the phrase “precious bodily fluids” is probably the prime contender).
Kubrick has tweaked the culture as much as any other filmmaker, but, again, movies such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “The Shining” (1979) are so full of famous moments that the films themselves have achieved iconic status.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939) is head of the class in terms of overall impact, but it doesn’t say as much about its period as it does about America in general. Perhaps the moment of the shift to color — with the line “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” — or the unmasking of “the man behind the curtain” is the most universally remembered of its scenes, but no single movie is more assumed to be known by everyone everywhere.
“Citizen Kane” (1941) is, of course, filled with memorable images, but none has more power than the final sequence, as Welles tracks in and dissolves to show us the logo on the sled. It’s a technically dazzling moment, but it’s the context that gives it such power. Alfred Hitchcock had used an almost identical shot at the end of his 1940 “Rebecca,” but it didn’t become emblazoned on our consciousness in nearly the same way.
Then there are the films that have contributed very little outside of one great moment. Two perfect examples come from the Charlton Heston canon: 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” (the image of the Statue of Liberty on the beach) and the reveal from “Soylent Green” (1973): “You’ve gotta tell them! Soylent Green is people!”
Billy Wilder has had more than his share of impact. The title of “The Lost Weekend” (1945), for a start, has become synonymous with a severe binge, even for people who don’t remember the source. (Yeah, the novel came first, but the film gets most of the credit for disseminating it.)
No single scene has come to represent the tragic consequences of Hollywood’s dream factory than Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) ghoulishly descending the stairs, giving her little speech to an imaginary audience and ending with the immortal words, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
“The Seven Year Itch” (1955) — not one of Wilder’s strongest films — lives forever through a single image: Marilyn Monroe’s skirt billowing up as she stands over a subway grating.
But the most significant Wilder moment is the final scene of “Some Like It Hot” (1959). It’s not merely that Joe E. Brown’s capper, “Nobody’s perfect,” is so screamingly funny as the payoff to a uniformly hilarious film and a rhythmically perfect exchange with Jack Lemmon’s Daphne (nee Jerry). It’s the way that his coming out of the closet as a man proved to be a decade or two ahead of the cultural curve. Who knew at the time that the overturning of traditional gender concepts was going to become a central theme, not just of movies, but of politics in general?
Perhaps no single director created more indelible moments than Hitchcock. Some of the best — say, Raymond Burr’s gaze straight into the camera as he realizes that Jimmy Stewart has found him out in “Rear Window” (1953) — haven’t been admitted to the popular pantheon, but the number that have, particularly from the one-two-three release of “North by Northwest” (1959), “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963), is immense. Any filmmaker who shoots a shower scene or a gathering of birds or anything set at any national monument better take into account the Hitchcock associations that 90% of the audience bring with them into the theater.
Given how limited foreign-film distribution has always been in the U.S., it’s surprising that any subtitled movies would have entered the common consciousness. But when “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) included the boys playing a game of Twister with William Sadler’s Death, the filmmakers had to be counting on at least some of the audience recognizing it as a reference to Death playing chess in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957). When the gang at “The Simpsons” can toss in a reference to “Rashomon” (Marge: “Homer, you liked ‘Rashomon.’ ” Homer: “That’s not the way I remember it.”), the title has resonance that goes beyond the number of the show’s viewers who have actually seen Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film.
Finally, there are scenes that can be labeled iconic even without entering the public mind, simply on the basis of how perfectly they capture their cultural moment. In the midst of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) — which as a whole is almost as universally recognized as “The Wizard of Oz” — is a bit of dialogue that says more about the dark side of postwar America than the darkest of film noirs.
When James Stewart’s terminally discouraged George Bailey utters the words, “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?” it’s as chilling a moment as can be found in all of American cinema. Coming from one of Humphrey Bogart’s slickly cynical heroes, it would mean little; but, in that period, coming from an actor known largely for playing wholesome types, in the midst of a Capra film, no less, it captures the heart of American darkness more than forcefully than anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese could come up with.