Why you should care
Because part of what makes these films memorable is the way they included you in the action.
To break or not to break the fourth wall: That is the question. For the vast majority of filmmakers, the answer is: absolutely not what are you crazy don’t be an idiot. Because breaking the fourth wall (or having a character acknowledge that they are, in fact, in a movie) reminds the audience that what’s on screen isn’t real. And that’s something most filmmakers will do anything to avoid.
And with good reason. Just imagine Michael Corleone winking knowingly at the audience after avenging his father. Or Darth Vader explaining his tragic childhood to the camera: “You see, my only friend was an annoying creature named Jar Jar.”
It’s a risky maneuver, but the gamble can pay off. Here are five cases in which the stars aligned, the fourth wall was smashed to hell and — miracle of miracles — the films were better for it.
Few films broke the fourth wall as repeatedly and as cleverly as Wayne’s World. The 1992 comedy, which starred Mike Myers and Dana Carvey as slightly (OK, very) spacey buddies who love hard rock and their public access TV show, treated the audience like a third member of the cast. Wayne and Garth repeatedly talk to the camera, including them in their suspicions, inside jokes, backstories and dreams. In one memorably meta scene, Myers’ character talks about how he’ll never (NEVER!) sell out with corporate sponsorships, while at the same time endorsing Doritos and Pepsi.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The 1969 James Bond film, starring George Lazenby in his first (and last) appearance as 007, features an inspired bit of fourth wall obliteration. In the opening sequence, Lazenby has just slugged it out with some bad guys only to have a woman steal his car amid the chaos. Lazenby, who was stepping into the mighty big shoes of Sean Connery, looks into the camera and says, “This never happened to the other fellow.” This line wasn’t so much a risk as it was a necessity. For many people, Connery was (and is) 007. The filmmakers had to find a way to acknowledge that things had changed.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
All hail the granddaddy of breaking the fourth wall. Ferris and company didn’t do it first, but they may have done it the best. In the film, Ferris (played, of course, by Matthew Broderick) talks to the camera about his parents, his future and his concern for his buddy. He probably talks to the audience more than he talks to his girlfriend, the ever-patient Sloane. Early in the film, Ferris bitches about getting a computer for his birthday (instead of a car) and lists the best ways a teen can trick their parents into letting them stay home from school. Remember, kids: Lick your palms. If it works for Ferris, it’ll work for you.
David Fincher’s landmark anarchist fantasy employed a lot of wild techniques, not the least of which is the straight shot of real talk Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) gives the audience about the dangers of consumerism. Notice how the camera shakes when Pitt speaks/mumbles? Some believe that represents the fourth wall physically breaking.
Arguably Woody Allen’s most famous film, the 1977 Oscar-winning romantic comedy features a slew of classic scenes. One of the best: Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) ranting to the audience about pretentious jerks who blab about highfalutin topics they clearly know nothing about. Good stuff. Although one can’t help but wonder just how many people have dreamed about telling Woody to shut the hell up.