The F-Bomb in Film: Poetry in Profanity

It seems the Conflicted Film Snob is among the smartest people on the planet. How do I know? Because a recent study found that those with “a big vocabulary of curse words [have] higher rhetorical skill, and those that can name the most swear words in one minute tend to have a greater overall vocabulary.” Thus, I’m really fucking smart.

I’m not going to lie to you; of all the swears I sprinkle like so much salt and pepper atop my daily verbal and written communications, the f-bomb is far and away the favorite. And no, not for carnal reasons — get your mind out of the gutter. Rather, it just sounds right to my ear, no doubt because I started using it as a very young lad in the mid-1970s, probably picking it up through my participation in Little League baseball. Then there’s its flexibility, the ability to use it across all eight main parts of English speech, which, as I’m sure you’ll recall from school, include nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. Plus, it has that unique ability to punctuate what one is trying to communicate with the force of a punch to the face.

Maybe I’d feel worse about my overuse of the f-bomb were it not for the aforementioned study indicating I’m a genius and the fact that, like “suck,” the word has lost much of its sexual baggage and thus, to many of us, its ability to shock. How could this be, you ask? Well, when a word becomes commonplace in the lexicon — and, let’s face it, between the internet, rap music, literature, film, even the presidential election, the f-bomb is nothing if not ubiquitous — society begins to react with a big, fat fucking shrug.

Even TV has started to embrace it. Until recently the ceiling for oaths on American basic cable used to be “shit,” something of a Puritanical disconnect considering shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead ladle on unbelievable amounts of adult content and graphic gore. Then, this winter, a radical change —  Taboo, the very strange and very good Tom Hardy vehicle set in early 19th-century London, ran on FX Network and, lo, a new precedent emerged. I’ll let Jonathan Pryce, playing the Chairman of the East India Company in the series, fill you in on the details:

You ask: How does regular TV get away with that kind of language? It’s simple: money. If FX’s advertisers don’t raise a ruckus and threaten to pull their ad dollars, the word stays. Because there’s no FCC regulation against dropping the f-bomb on regular TV. Traditionally, it’s been avoided because advertisers wouldn’t stand for it. As in, they didn’t want to be associated with programs with such graphic language for fear that the easily offended American public would cool to their products. That my favorite swear is starting to carpet bomb the airwaves is yet another example of society’s changing relationship with the mother of all curses.

On the motion picture side, the f-bomb’s regular appearance predates TV by decades, the oath making its debut in 1967’s modestly budgeted British adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In terms of mainstream Hollywood, however, the crown goes to Robert Altman’s 1970 Korean War dramedy, M*A*S*H.

How Hollywood rates films featuring the curse is interesting in its inconsistency. Once upon a time, a single usage of the f-bomb pretty much guaranteed an “R” rating. However, the MPAA’s position has bent somewhat to the zeitgeist — nowadays quite a few PG-13 movies feature a couple (non-sexual) utterances. And then there’s the case of 1983’s The Right Stuff, which, despite dropping the f-bomb a whopping five times, was awarded a “PG” rating. Go figure.

As for those actors actually charged with dropping the f-bomb in film, most have no business uttering this most unique and versatile word. Be it their look, their personality or their range, to hear it drop from their lips is akin to having an anvil fall from the sky onto your head. They make the word so ugly, so artless, that one finds oneself craving the good old days of Tipper Gore’s “Parental Advisory” push. Luckily, there are a handful thespians with an innate ability to add nuance to the word, their every utterance as mellifluous as a Shakespeare sonnet.

Let’s take a look at these f-bomb geniuses and see if we can determine if one shines just a bit fucking brighter than the others.

For Your Consideration — Robert De Niro

What can one say? Mr. De Niro is the Michelangelo of the f-bomb, delivering each with just the right amount menace. It’s as if an angel came down, touched a chubby pink cherub finger to his lips and said, “Go forth and curse with abandon, motherfucker.” I chose this particular clip from Goodfellas (1990) because it makes me laugh. But there are dozens more where that came from — Mean StreetsTaxi DriverThe Deer HunterRaging BullMidnight RunCape FearCasinoHeat — any one of them delivers the goods. Listening to De Niro swear is like Christmas morning.

Score: 9.7/10

For Your Consideration — Jamie Foxx

Due to his more recent ascension to superstardom, Mr. Foxx doesn’t have quite the pedigree as a De Niro. But in the few years he’s graced the silver screen, he’s made quite the favorable impression. Note his performance in this scene from Jarhead (2005), his somewhat high-pitched voice sticking the landing of each f-bomb with the skill of a Nadia Comăneci, especially the line “You sizzle-dick motherfucker!” More recently, he knocked quite a few f-bombs out of the park in this summer’s Baby Driver. I know this writer is looking forward to many more years of his unique delivery.

Score: 9.2/10

For Your Consideration — Dennis Farina

A CFS hometown favorite. As you may know, the late Mr. Farina was a Chicago cop for almost two decades before director Michael Mann asked him to be a consultant on Thief (1981). Given a minor role in the same, Farina was bitten by the acting bug and the rest is history, with him going on to co-star in such films as Manhunter, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Saving Private Ryan, among many other. However, it was his role as ganster Jimmy Serrano in 1988’s Midnight Run that proved to be his most indelible (well, that and Ray “Bones” Barboni in Get Shorty). In this clip, please note his matter-of-fact delivery of “…or I’m gonna stab you through the heart with a fuckin’ pencil, do you understand me?” That’s Midwestern-inflected swearing at its finest. RIP!

Score: 9.1/10

For Your Consideration — Al Pacino

Mr. Pacino doesn’t let rip with the f-bomb with the frequency of, say, a Sam Jackson, but when he does, as in Scarface or Glengarry Glen Ross or The Insider, the results are glorious. What is it about New Yorkers and their ability to put such a poetic spin on a curse? Then there’s this clip from 1995’s Heat, in which Pacino, in full Scent of a Woman huzzah! mode, drops this classic. Full disclosure: I’m considering making this my ringtone. (Ed. note: we’ll discuss Pacino’s f-bomb talents a bit more in a later section — stay tuned!)

Score: 9.1/10

For Your Consideration — Morgan Freeman

The honeyed-voice Freeman is not a big swearer, at least not in terms of the f-bomb, which might stem from his humble and highly moral beginnings as the “Easy Reader” on PBS’ The Electric Company. As a matter of fact, other than his breakthrough role as the menacing pimp “Fast Black” in 1985’s little-seen Street Smart, a role for which no less than The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael asked, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?”, I can’t think of more than a few times I’ve heard the f-bomb drop from this great thespian’s lips. (Ed. note: just watched Shawshank again and he goes to town with it quite often. Mea culpa.) Our loss is also our gain — the infrequency makes those rare occurrences all the more memorable. Just take a listen to his smooth-jazz delivery in this scene from 2008’s Wanted to get a feel for what I’m talking about:

Score: 9.5/10

For Your Consideration — Ving Rhames

He may be the voice of Arby’s (“We have the meats!”), but Mr. Rhames isn’t above dropping the f-bomb with abandon in some of his more indelible movie roles. Take Marcellus Wallace from 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Is it just me or does the somnolent way he delivers the oath make it all the more menacing?

Score: 9.2/10

For Your Consideration — Joe Pesci

If De Niro is the Michelangelo of the f-bomb, then Mr. Pesci is the Raphael. After storming onto the f-bomb scene with a virtuoso swearing performance as Jake LaMotta’s brother, Joey, in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), Pesci refined his craft in such memorable roles as Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2 (“They fuck you at the drivethru!”), Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas and David Ferrie in JFK. For those familiar with Pesci’s body of work, you’re probably assuming I’ll choose a clip from Goodfellas, specfically the notorious “Do I amuse you?” scene. However, being the Conflicted Film Snob I’m going with a deeper cut off Pesci’s f-bomb album, this from 1995’s Casino in which he co-starred as Nicky Santoro, a gangster based on the scarily unhinged Chicago gangster, Anthony Spilotro. Listening to him spill the f-bomb 20 times in the course of 120 seconds is tantamount to watching Baryshnikov dancing in his prime. (Bonus: we get a few De Niro f-bombs mixed in, too!) Although retired since 1999, rumor has it he’s returning to the big screen for Martin Scorsese’s future gangster saga, The Irishman. The world rejoices!

Score: 9.8/10

For Your Consideration — Samuel L. Jackson

If De Niro is the Michelangelo of the f-bomb, and Pesci is the Raphael, then Mr. Jackson is the da Vinci. The nonchalant, conversational way in which he carpet-bombs a scene with it truly is something to behold. It comes to him as naturally as breathing it seems. Thanks to a very prolific career, not to mention being Quentin Tarantino’s muse, we have copious clips to choose from, all tasty like a Big Kahuna Burger in their own unique way. But while I could’ve gone with something from Pulp Fiction or Snakes on a Plane or True Romance, I’ve chosen a scene which never fails to amuse me from from 1997’s Jackie Brown:

Score: 9.9/10

For Your Consideration — The Entire Cast of Glengarry Glen Ross

If one were to seek out the greatest display of the raw power, comedic or otherwise, of the f-bomb, one needs to look no further than 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross. All hail David Mamet, who not only adapted his play of the same name, but also added a brand new scene featuring a straight-shooting representative from downtown, from Mitch and Murray. Just savor the way Alec Baldwin digs into the profane dialogue:

But that’s nothing compared to the later standoff between cocky Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) and the down-on-his-luck, Hyundai-driving Dave Moss (Ed Harris). Never has so much verbal filth been spilled with such spittle-flecked grace!

And finally, let’s let Mr. Pacino take center stage one last time. Because, in the course of his prolific career, it’s unlikely he’s ever scaled the heights of this f-bomb tour de force. A lesser talent’s head would explode.

Score: 11/10

Summing Up

Although I hoped to pick the best of the best, the exercise proved as difficult as choosing a favorite child. After all, the whole lot is brilliant and, what’s more, they all fall within a point of each other using my proprietary and highly complicated rating algorithm.

Therefore, I’m declaring them all motherfucking winners!

3 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    I hate to question the scientific acumen of people who spend their time studying these things, but . . . . if the rest of their vocabulary is so awesome, how come they don’t have more variety in their expressions of frustration/displeasure/anger/disgust/dismay/etc.? Just asking.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sometimes I weep for the simplistic amongst us.

  • Sarah says:

    I love this. Brilliant work, Crilly.

Leave a Reply