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What Is the Fourth Wall?
A typical live theater stage show set has three walls that contain every scene. The fourth wall does not exist in such a set but is suggested by the proscenium—the implied plane that marks the “edge” of the onstage action. The audience sits just beyond that fourth wall. In a Hollywood film or TV show, the fourth wall is where the camera stands. Most of the time, the actors in a scene do not acknowledge the camera or audience; they carry on as though the scene were real life, and they treat the missing wall as if it were there.
What Does It Mean to Break the Fourth Wall?
When plays, television shows, and movies break the fourth wall, they acknowledge the existence of the audience and speak to them directly. When they do this, the fictional world gives way to the literal reality of the medium: A group of actors is putting on a performance for a live audience or a camera. The actors may step out of their imagined reality and address the audience watching them. When this happens, they break the fourth wall break.
Why Do Filmmakers Break the Fourth Wall?
Most films and TV shows never break the fourth wall, but when the imaginary wall does come down and a character speaks to the real-world audience, the filmmaker usually has a specific purpose in mind.
- To offer commentary on the scene: Sometimes actors turn and address the camera to offer commentary on events of the story. Since such a direct address often reads as absurd, this technique almost always occurs in comedy. Breaking the fourth wall jars the audience out of a fictional world, and so it may clash with the heightened state of most dramas, thrillers, and action films.
- To let a character speak an inner monologue: A character may break the fourth wall to offer a glimpse into their inner life. Because this breaks the audience's suspension of disbelief, fiction films rarely attempt this. In documentaries, however, documentary subjects—or even the actual filmmakers—may address the camera and speak on behalf of themselves.
- To highlight the artificiality of the film itself: In the style of the great German theatre artist Bertolt Brecht, some directors like to draw attention to the art form they're presenting. Actors can break the fourth wall and acknowledge they're part of a work of fiction. This draws attention to the symbiotic relationship between the actor and the audience, effectively bringing the audience into the work of art.
6 Iconic Films That Break the Fourth Wall
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Some of the most memorable moments in filmmaking history have come via breaking the fourth wall. Here are some particularly arresting examples:
- Horse Feathers (1932): This Marx Brothers classic features the brothers’ proud tradition of commenting on their films and the film industry in general. Groucho provides direct address throughout the film, even warning the audience of boring parts coming up.
- Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986): In this iconic John Hughes comedy, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) narrates his tale of teenage delinquency and even sings into the camera.
- Spaceballs (1987): Mel Brooks grew up watching Marx Brothers films, and he pushes fourth-wall-breaking beyond what even Groucho and company achieved. In one scene, Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) actually watches a videotape of Spaceballs—the film he is in. This acknowledgment of the fact that the movie is a movie functions as an indirect way of breaking the fourth wall. Brooks broke fourth walls in other films as well, notably Blazing Saddles.
- Wayne's World (1992): In both installments of the Wayne's World film series, screenwriter and lead actor Mike Myers turns to the camera to comment on both the events happening to his character and also the film itself—at one point asking if it's possible to hire a better actor to play opposite him. (His wish is fulfilled.)
- Fight Club (1999): Directed by David Fincher, Fight Club makes use of direct address. At first, the main character played by Edward Norton offers narration about his friend Tyler Durden, but as the film progresses, Norton just begins addressing the camera head-on. This relates to key revelations about the characters toward the climax of the film.
- The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): Director Martin Scorsese rarely breaks the fourth wall in his films, but he chose to have Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Jordan Belfort, address the audience directly in this film. This was particularly bold considering that Belfort is a real person.
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