Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2023 Nat Segaloff
It’s the oldest trick in the Method actor’s kit, and it serves screenwriters pretty well, too. It’s part confessional, part exposition, and all emotion. It can also be the most annoying aspect of any performance and the most hackneyed monologue of any script. It goes by several names, but they all boil down to the same derisive nickname “I Once Had a Dog.”
You’ve heard it. You may even have been suckered by it. It’s a point in the play or film when the action stops dead so a character can tell a story about a wonderful dog that he once that he loved very much but it died or was killed or was taken away and that’s why he acts the way he does. It doesn’t have to be a dog, of course. It can be any psychological trauma just as long as talking about it explains why the character does what he does.
The “I Once Had a Dog” speech is both obvious and useful. It answers everybody’s questions about why the super-villain wants to take over the world, why the kidnapper kidnapped the victim, why the bank president embezzled the funds, why the kid shot up his high school -- you name it. It crosses all the Ts, dots all the Is, and pretty much sucks the mystery and enigma from the work.
Great dramatic works don’t need that kind of gimmick. Think about Citizen Kane. At the end, the filmmakers show “Rosebud” to let the audience in on the joke, but they keep the characters in the dark. Would the movie be better if Orson Welles had a “I Once Had a Sled” speech? Would Raiders of the Lost Ark be better if, at the end, Harrison Ford said, “Holy cow, they put the Ark of the Covenant, which contains pieces of The Ten Commandments, in a big warehouse.” (In fact, that’s pretty much what he said in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and look what happened to the movie.)
Clear answers are for SATs and driving tests. They are not always necessary in drama. When Anton Chekhov wrote that bringing a gun on stage compels you to fire it by the end of the play, he didn’t mean the audience had to learn who built it or what the bullets cost. And it should be noted that Shakespeare’s soliloquies were designed to advance plot, not explain a character’s backstory.
Why do dog speeches persist? For starters, actors love them. They believe they draw sympathy from the audience. They may indeed be useful as character history while actors are researching their roles, although there is a risk that story-specific details may conflict with the actor’s personal sense memory. Studios like them them because they think the public wants everything tied up in nice little bundles (except when leaving room for the sequel). Producers like them because a really good “I Once Had a Dog” speech can lure a star to agree to appear in a film (after which the savvy producer cuts the pandering speech before the film is released).
The only people who seem to resist “I Once Had a Dog” speeches are directors and writers who see them as a contrivance, and critics, who roll their eyes when they narrative stops cold to make way for gratuitous performance.
The first time I noticed a “I Once Had a Dog” speech (before knowing that’s what they were called) was in Frank and Eleanor Perry’s 1969 film Last Summer about four aimless teenagers on a beach vacation. Actress Catherine Burns – cast as the unglamorous outsider against Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Bruce Davison -- has a monologue in which she describes the death of her mother. I recall Frank’s camera trucking in very slowly on Burns’s face as she delivered Eleanor’s words (adapting Evan Hunter’s book) and wondering why she was taking so long to tell us something that had nothing to do with the plot. If action is character, why was everybody just sitting there? And yet you couldn’t take your eyes off her, and it probably earned her an Oscar® nomination.
It was film editor Ralph Rosenblum who finally told me about this convention. Ralph cut one of my favorite films, A Thousand Clowns (1965) (as well as Woody Allen’s and Mel Brooks’s early work). Discussing Clowns, he offered, almost as an afterthought, “Did you notice that every character has a self-justification speech?” He went through the list. The comedy by Herb Gardner is about the efforts of a nonconformist TV writer (Murray Burns) to keep custody of his 12-year-old nephew (Nick) by persuading two social workers (Albert Amundson and Sandra Markowitz) that he is a fit guardian. Two other characters – his agent-brother (Arnold Burns) and his former boss, an obnoxious TV kiddie show host (Leo Herman) – fill out the cast. I watched it again and Rosenblum was right; each character stops the plot to explain himself or herself. The saving grace is that Gardner was such a brilliant writer that everybody’s “I Once Had a Dog” speech is also a comedy monologue.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a character explaining himself, but you have to admit it gets hackneyed. How many times have we seen the villain holding the hero at gunpoint and saying, “Since you’re going to die anyway, I thought I’d tell you how I committed the crime.” I thought we’d got past this after Matt Damon tricked Brian Cox into confessing in one of the Bourne films, but, sure enough, Benedict Cumberbatch did it to a villain in the latest Sherlock series. My favorite “I Once Had a Dog” speech is the exact opposite of one. It’s in Manhunter (1986), Michael Mann’s peerless adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. Will Graham visits Hannibal Lecktor (my gosh, Brian Cox again!) in prison for help finding a serial killer. Lecktor asks if Graham thinks he’s smarter than Lecktor because he caught him. “I know that I’m not smarter than you,” Graham says.
“Then how did you catch me?” Lecktor asks.
“You had disadvantages.”
And that is a dog speech in five no-nonsense lines.
For some twenty turbulent years serious filmmakers have been struggling through a changing cinema world in which depth of character has been reduced to stereotype and textured conflict has been inflated to Armageddon. A screenwriter I know says that he once had an action script rejected by a studio with the note, “Your characters are too complex for a budget this big.” Could a single “I Once Had a Dog” speech have saved him? If Alan Rickman were still alive and Die Hard were made today could he have gotten away with his fake motivation story? Can anyone any more say, “I lied about having a dog. I just enjoy stealing and killing people.”?
Next time you see a movie, watch for the dog speech. You won’t be disappointed. It may have been cut down to a sentence or two in the editing, but at some point someone in the hierarchy of commercial filmmaking said that the test audience wanted answers, so forget about the enigma of the story, let’s give it to them. In other words, have Rick leave Casablanca with Ilsa and make Victor run off to join the Free French with Louis Renault. Oh, and instead of the flashbacks, save money and have Rick tell Sam, “I once knew this girl in Paris.”
Here’s looking at you, Rover.
(©Photo of Thunder, age eight weeks, by the Author)