As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I had jury duty for two days last week (
#kimdoesjuryduty). I was pulled for one panel, but luckily wasn’t chosen for the jury (I’ve never been so happy that my dad is a physician in my LIFE), so I spent most of my time in the holding room watching movies and reading and watching videos on my iPad. While I was bored out of my mind, I do admit that when it was all said and done, aside from having to trek way out to Jamaica Queens, I had it pretty easy.
Any reader of this blog knows that we love making lists, so while I was in the holding room, I started pondering all time great courtroom scenes from pop culture. While I would love to include TV in this list (The trial of Leslie Knope and Community‘s “Basic Lupine Urology” come to mind), I decided there was just TOO MUCH TV so I kept it to movies. A good movie trial offers all sorts of opportunities for inspiring speeches, tears, and scenery chewing by actors (hence the number of Oscar winning or nominated roles here). Essentially a well done courtroom drama (or comedy) has everything I love about the movies. Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?
10) Andrew takes the stand – Philadelphia
Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer infected with AIDS suing his former firm for wrongful termination. Denzel Washington is also fantastic as his lawyer, who wrestles with his own issues of homophobia. This is a movie that was ahead of its time. It said things about AIDS and homosexuality before it was commonplace and accepted. This scene is so incredibly moving and heart-breaking.
9) Cross Examining George – Pleasantville
This movie really is a gem. The cast is all around great (Joan Allen! William H. Macy! Reese!) and I really love the script and how it uses the Black and White vs. Color issue as a metaphor for race relations. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Joan Allen has turned into color, and she is trying to put her make-up on to hide it, and is assisted by David (Tobey Maguire). Will they just give her an Oscar already?! (No seriously, where has her career gone? It’s distressing.) This scene is great too, when at the town meeting, George is being questioned by David. You have to love how by the end of the speech, George becomes colorized.
David: I know you miss her, I mean, you told me you did. But maybe it’s not just the cooking or the cleaning you miss. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe you can’t even describe it. Maybe you only know it when it’s gone. Maybe it’s like there’s whole piece of you that’s missing too. Look at her, dad. Doesn’t she look pretty like that? Doesn’t she look just as beautiful as the first time you met her? Do you really want her back the way she was? Doesn’t she just look wonderful? Now don’t you wish you could tell her that?
8) Carl Lee Hailey testifies – A Time to Kill
Remember when there was a John Grisham movie every year, if not twice a year? He was totally the Nicholas Sparks of the 1990’s. A Time to Kill was Grisham’s first novel, and it is definitely the best movie adaptation (I have NEVER forgiven The Firm for CHANGING THE ENDING, but that is a subject for another post). This was a toss-up between this scene and Matthew McConaughey’s fantastic closing statement (“Now imagine she’s white”) but I went with this one as it is the more well-known scene…and it’s nice being reminded that Samuel L. Jackson can be a brilliant actor when he chooses to be. What father would have felt differently had they been in Carl Lee’s situation? The answer is NO FATHER. Which is why even though Carl Lee is BEYOND guilty of this crime, you cheer for him to be acquitted.
Buckley: Mr. Haley, before you *stepped outside of yourself* and watched yourself shoot Mr. Willard and Mr. Cobb, were you aware that’ if convicted, they could be free in ten years?
Carl Lee: Yes sir. I’ve heard some people say that. Yes sir.
Buckley: Do you think men who kidnap a child should be free in 10 years?
Carl Lee: No sir.
Buckley: Do you think two men who rape a child should be free in 10 years?
Carl Lee: No sir.
Buckley: Do you think two men who hang a child should be free in 10 years?
Carl Lee: No sir.
Buckley: Well what do you think should happen? What would be a fair sentence?
Buckley: Did they deserve to die, Mr. Hailey? Answer that!
Brigance: Don’t answer that Carl Lee!
Buckley: Do you think they should deserve to die?
Carl Lee: Yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!
7) Roy emerges – Primal Fear
Primal Fear would have been a complete run-of-the-mill legal thriller had it not been for the BRILLIANT (and Oscar Nominated) performance of Edward Norton. It’s mind blowing that this was his motion picture debut! If you did not jump out of your skin when meek and stuttering Aaron suddenly becomes Roy, and then physically attacks Janet, then something is wrong with you.
6) Mona is an expert witness – My Cousin Vinny
I still don’t understand the supposed controversy over Marisa Tomei winning the Oscar for this role. Why was this considered such an upset? Is it because this is such a lightweight film? (Oh remember when the Academy rewarded performances not in Oscar bait movies? Those were the days!) When you watch the film again, you see it really is the performance of a lifetime, and a perfect supporting actress showcase. What a great character!
Mona Lisa Vito: The car that made these two, equal-length tire marks had positraction. You can’t make these marks without positraction, which was not available on the ’64 Buick Skylark!
Vinny Gambini: And why not? What is positraction?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a limited slip differential which distributes power equally to both the right and left tires. The ’64 Skylark had a regular differential, which, anyone who’s been stuck in the mud in Alabama knows, you step on the gas, one tire spins, the other tire does nothing.
Vinny Gambini: Is that it?
Mona Lisa Vito: No, there’s more! You see where the left tire mark goes up on the curb and the right tire mark stays flat and even? Well, the ’64 Skylark had a solid rear axle, so when the left tire would go up on the curb, the right tire would tilt out and ride along its edge. But that didn’t happen here. The tire mark stayed flat and even. This car had an independent rear suspension. Now, in the ’60’s, there were only two other cars made in America that had positraction, and independent rear suspension, and enough power to make these marks. One was the Corvette, which could never be confused with the Buick Skylark. The other had the same body length, height, weight, wheel base, and wheel track as the ’64 Skylark, and that was the 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
Vinny Gambini: And because both cars were made by GM, were both cars available in metallic mint green paint?
Mona Lisa Vito: They were!
Vinny Gambini: Thank you, Ms. Vito. No more questions. Thank you very much.
5) Ted pleads for Fathers – Kramer vs Kramer
Kramer vs. Kramer won 5 of the major Oscar categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay) and with good reason. This movie is nothing short of a punch to the gut, and if it doesn’t make you feel anything, then you have no soul. Ted Kramer’s impassioned plea for the rights of fathers is one of the finest moments of Dustin Hoffman’s career.
4) Atticus Finch’s closing statement – To Kill a Mockingbird
Okay, seriously, why do they make us read this book when we are in 8th grade, when we are WAY too young to fully appreciate it? I remember being bored by it when I was that age. And now I think it is brilliant. Gregory Peck is nothing short of perfection (and has an Oscar to prove it) as Atticus Finch and Horton Foote’s screenplay adaptation is spectacular.
Atticus Finch: Now gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality. Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.
3) Elle cracks the case – Legally Blonde
Add Elle Woods to my list of fictional life heroes. She’s right up there with Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon. The thing that is amazing about Elle is that while she got into law school to chase a man , she works hard and discovers her self-worth and her passion. And she does it all by staying true to herself…and looking fabulous. This is definitely one of Reese Witherspoon’s all time great performances and I will, without fail, always watch this movie on cable when I’m flipping through channels on a rainy Saturday. Even though I own it on DVD. It’s one of my ultimate comfort movies.
2) Postal Service Defense – Miracle on 34th Street
The court ruling that Kris Kringle really is Santa Claus never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Confession: I almost went with the remake for this scene principally because Dylan McDermott is a dreamboat in it. But I think the image of all of the letters on the judge’s pulpit is a more effective one than simply reading “In God We Trust” circled on a dollar bill.
1) Jessup on the stand – A Few Good Men
First of all, how did Aaron Sorkin not get an Oscar Nomination for his brilliant screenplay adaptation of his play? That, my friends, is a travesty. Also Jack Nicholson should have won the Supporting Actor Oscar for this role (Sorry, Gene Hackman, Unforgiven bored me to TEARS). This is THE definitive courtroom scene and all of your arguments are invalid.
Oh, and remember when we all liked Tom Cruise? Those were the days.
Is your favorite courtroom scene missing from this list? Disagree with my choices? Let me know in the comments! Till then…court is adjourned.