450+ Movie Scenes Where Actors Break the Fourth Wall, Presented in Two Big Supercuts

Do you remember the first time you saw the fourth wall broken? Few of us probably do, but maybe we all should, given how radial a departure from established dramatic convention — specifically, the convention dictating that a work of dramatic art not acknowledge the fact that it is a work of dramatic art — fourth-wall-breakage represents. Then again, a work of art can break the fourth wall subtly, too subtly to make an outsized impact on our consciousness: take, for example, all the brief but knowing glances movie characters have directed at their audiences throughout almost the entire history of cinema.

A fair few of those glances appear in the supercut of 400 breakages of the fourth wall above (which may well contain the first one you ever witnessed). It draws from films from a variety of time periods, Hollywood classics and blockbusters as well as lesser-known pictures.

Together with the Press Play fourth-wall-breakage supercut below, it provides an overview of just how wide a variety of ways filmmakers have found to momentarily breach what Vincent Canby once described as “that invisible scrim that forever separates the audience from the stage.” Most films break the fourth wall for laughs, but others have done it in service of emotional, aesthetic, and even intellectual ends.

None of this is to say that the fourth wall stood perfectly intact before the colossus of cinema came along to smash it. The concept goes at least as far back as 17th-century France, first used as a term by Molière and later more fully defined by Enlightenment icon Denis Diderot. But theatrical performers must have been breaking the fourth wall, or at least poking holes in it, even before the fourth wall was quite up: long ago, we read in historical accounts of theater around the world, audiences even expected a certain degree of interaction with the action onstage — or at least they expressed their thoughts on it, often forcefully, attempting to break the fourth wall from the other direction.

Over time, we, the creators and viewers of drama alike, built the fourth wall, and it has seldom taken us long to expect its protection in every medium we enjoy: theater and film, yes, but television, video games, and even literature as well. “It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often,” writes J.M. Coetzee in Elizabeth Costello, a novel that breaks the fourth wall and a host of other convention besides, “since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction.” A literary storyteller of Coetzee’s caliber would know. But what other art form has been as often compared to a dream, or felt as much like a dream, as film — and what other dreams play out on, literally, a wall?

Related Content:

Watch Them Watch Us: A History of Breaking the “Fourth Wall” in Film

How the French New Wave Changed Cinema: A Video Introduction to the Films of Godard, Truffaut & Their Fellow Rule-Breakers

Take a 16-Week Crash Course on the History of Movies: From the First Moving Pictures to the Rise of Multiplexes & Netflix

Cinema History by Titles & Numbers

We’re Gonna Build a Fourth Wall, and Make the Brechtians Pay for It

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Serenderpity says:

    It’s not that the notion of breaking the fourth wall goes back to 17th-Century France — it’s that the fourth wall did not exist AT ALL prior to that time. Not only are all of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, arguably, addressed face-to-face to the audience, but medieval Vice figures (which the soliloquy-heavy Iago is a riff on) spoke directly to the audience, often mocking the other characters in the play.

    There are two outstanding examples of the fact that early modern theatre had no fourth wall: the induction to John Marston’s _The Malcontent_ (1604), and Beaumont and Fletcher’s criminally under-produced _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_ (1607).

    In Marston’s induction scene, members of the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s company, which produced the play) come out on stage *as themselves*, talk about how they acquired the play, and joke with another member of the company, Christopher Sly, who is pretending to be an audience member. They exit, and then the play “proper” begins (proper in scare quotes because the induction *is* part of the play, but it’s a part entirely free of any imaginary fourth wall).

    _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_ is proof that there was no fourth wall for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As a play called _The London Merchant_ starts, a pair of “audience members,” George and Nell, start talking and complaining loudly about it — it’s not to their taste and they want their apprentice Rafe to have a role in it anyway. A “company member” tries to calm them down, but they insist on Rafe being drafted into the play, and the company relents. From then on, George and Nell comment on the action and continue to suggest improvised scenes for Rafe, while _The London Merchant_ haplessly stumbles along as well. Of course, _The London Merchant_ PLUS George and Nell PLUS Rafe’s improvised scenes of dragon-slaying and damsel-rescuing (which don’t belong in any play set in London) are, all rolled into one, the actual play _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_. It’s an absurdist masterpiece, and when I teach it students invariably pronounce their minds blown by the fact that it was written over four hundred years ago.

    At one point, Nell even urges Rafe to demonstrate his acting skill with a bit of “huffing,” or bombastic ranting and strutting around (i.e., overacting). What does Rafe do? He busts out a bit of SHAKESPEARE — specifically, a slightly misquoted bit from Hotspur:

    By heaven methinks it were an easy leap
    To pluck bright honor from the pale-­faced Moon

    Hey, Rafe, overact a little? Okay, here’s some Shakespeare. SHOTS. FIRED.

    Sorry for the wall o’ text, but all this is to say, the fourth wall is a theatrical anomaly that only existed from the 17th/18th Century up to, roughly, the 20th, and it’s well done away with. And secondly, go read Knight of the Burning Pestle — it’s a delight. You can find a very good edition from the Folger Shakespeare Library here: https://emed.folger.edu/sites/default/files/folger_encodings/pdf/EMED-KBP-reg-3.pdf

  • Brutus2099 says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this! Correct on all counts — certainly didn’t exist before Moliere — been trying to track down a source that proves Moliere coined the term… or even used it at all… but it seems to be apocryphal so far. So infuriating that no one sources material in these articles. If you happen to have a source for this – would love to know. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.