The 10 Best Film Performance Moments Involving Recognition

I was conflicted about what to call this post because this is not the easiest thing to describe. Recently, I have come to realize that some of my favorite performance moments in the films I have seen and admired involve some moment of recognition by a character at a pivotal point in the narrative. For me, the ten moments described below are some of the finest screen acting moments I have yet witnessed, and all of them are profound moments of recognition for a given character. These moments of recognition propel the stories forward in truly marvelous ways and resonate so profoundly in terms of our emotional intake of the given movie. Keep in mind that all the moments I intend to examine are nonverbal and be forewarned that spoilers lie below. Whenever possible, I have included a video clip of the actual moment to which I am referring.

City Lights: At the end, when the blind flower-girl lays her now-working eyes on the Tramp for the first time. ‘Nuff said. Very little else, if nothing, can top this moment of recognition. In the video below, drag the YouTube timeline cursor to around 2:50.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: The ending of this classic Powell and Pressburger film is one of the most moving I can think of. We have followed the life of career-soldier General Clive Wynn Candy through three major wars. He has just been rebuked and insulted by a young, impetuous, firebrand officer and is adrift in a world gone mad, lost somewhere in between a long life and a looming death. He is an old man with methods that seem to be growing more and more antiquated in a war that requires enterprise and new ways of thinking about how to achieve victory. Amidst all these quandaries, he observes a single leaf adrift in the pond where his house once stood. He flashes back to an exchange between himself and his late wife. He utters to himself, “Now here is the lake, and I still haven’t changed.” This isn’t going to mean much until you have seen the film, but this moment, where Candy recognizes himself and the years that have passed him by (and years that, at the same time, have made him the great man he has become), gets me every time. It is hard to talk about this sequence. You need to see it to feel the depth of its emotion. In the video below, drag the YouTube timeline cursor to around 7:20.

Rushmore: In this film, I am referring to the moment when the lead character Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a compulsively lying teenage diletante, confesses to his friend Herman Bloom (Bill Murray), a friend more than thirty years his senior, that his father (Seymour Cassel) is not the world-class brain surgeon he has claimed him to be but is instead a simple, old-fashioned, Thermos-wielding barber. Throughout the movie, Max has gone to great lengths to describe his father as a doctor (“The old man’s on call”) in order to impress the Rushmore Academy population and to elevate his status — one might say to successfully blend in. The moment really marks the second plot-point of the film, the beginning of the third act and the beginning of Max’s moral awakening. But, it is the look on Bill Murray’s face upon hearing this confession and absorbing its truth that is simultaneously heartbreaking, exhilarating and, most of all, hopeful. He recognizes Max’s attempt to right the trail of wrongs he has strewn throughout the story’s duration, and he thus grows to really and truly understand the friend he simply thought he understood. He, for one thing, recognizes that he never truly did and that he is just beginning to. His verbal response, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Fischer,” is, simply put, a perfect reading following a moment of viseral but gentle nonverbal acting. Look at Bill Murray’s reaction to the confession. “Dat’s ecting!”

Being There: There is a scene well towards the end of this film when Chance the Gardener, after a long run of being called Chauncey Gardiner by the chorus line of dignitaries, talk-show hosts, politicians and journalists he meets, is called once again by his real-name Chance. The doctor (Richard Dysart), who is perhaps the first and last to refer to Chance by his real name again, is the only one who knows that Chance is a simpleton. This moment comes directly after the death of Melvyn Douglas’ character Ben. Chance is very clearly mourning the death of his friend at the same time he . I have seen this film many, many times (it is something of a family favorite) and every time this scene plays, my emotions are titanic and they so easily overtake me. Peter Sellers’ excited nod as the tears well up in his eyes nearly brings me to tears. The moment is exquisitely simple and, at the same time, highly charged. By the same token, the moment very early in the film when Chance bids a laconic but nonetheless emotionally fraught farewell to the maid who has taken care of him throughout his life is another excellent moment of recognition well worth mentioning. For the first time, and very early in the film mind you, he recognizes (at long last) the gravity of a moment that will entail change, thus shattering much of the vision he has of his world. In the video below, drag the YouTube timeline cursor to around 7:30.

There Will Be Blood: I am referring to the scene in the middle of the film when Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) first realizes that the man who claims to be his brother is not his brother at all. Daniel and “Henry” Plainview have just finished chatting together at a beachfront. “Henry” has, in some way, given himself away and Daniel suspects something. Daniel leaves “Henry” on the shore and decides to take a dip in the ocean. The look that Daniel gives toward the shore as a wave arrives to ride him back to shore is among the most frightening I can recall in cinema. At the moment, Daniel recognizes that “Henry” is not his brother and we, in turn, recognize that what we the audience had originally perceived as a gifted thimblerigger with his eye on greed and Machiavellian ambition is instead a perversely deep-seated ruthlessness. It is at this moment that we begin to perceive our lead character, an anti-hero, for who he really is. The clip below immediately follows the moment I speak of. Unfortunately, I could not find the precise clip on YouTube.

Cruel But Necessary: This film might perhaps be slightly lesser known than the others on this list. Take my word for it and see it (it’s on Netflix, folks) because it is among the most original and fascinating films of the decade that I can recall seeing (I recently included it on my Best of the Decade list), and I am not just saying that because a friend of mine wrote and starred in it. The moment I am going to discuss is no less stirring than any of the other "well-known works" examined on this list. The scene in the film I wish to discuss captures the first ever moment of understanding between a mother and son, and comes at the film's denouement. The film is unique in that it is fictional but the family it portrays is played by a real family. Wendel Meldrum plays Betty Munson, her son Luke Humphrey plays her son Darwin and her ex-husband Mark Humphrey plays her ex-husband Doug in the film. Ostensibly, the film is about a recently divorced woman who takes to videotaping every moment of her waking life, sometimes in a David Holzman's Diary style (Betty's direct-to-camera musings about a wide range of topics are as provocative and intellectually compelling as they are humanly funny) and other times as an eavesdropping device. What is central to the story, it seems, is the extremely strained but still somewhat civil relationship she shares with her son Darwin. The film's final moment, an exchange of looks between mother and son, carries a great deal of emotional resonance because these are characters about which we have learned to care a great deal. To many, reflexive filmmaking is a conceit that is growing more and more tired with each passing year. This film transcends and defies that in innumerable ways. Do your best to see's not hard to find!

Dear Mr. Wonderful: Yes, this film gets yet another mention on the blog. There is a moment towards the end of the film when the now wiser Ruby Dennis (Joe Pesci) is leaving his sister’s and nephew’s apartment. As he approaches the door to leave, about to forge an entirely new life, the look on his face is perfect, well-timed and beautifully acted in that his character, at long last, recognizes the beauty of his limitations in this world, as opposed to the drawbacks of those same limitations. There is also the look of appreciation of something he had always been numb to truly appreciating. As a yearning, disheartened man with big dreams who has long been immune to the inherent charms of his daily life as one of life's "little people", he awakens for the first time to experience life's smaller pleasures, recognizing them and reaching a self-acceptance.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “You fooled ‘em, Chief! You fooled ‘em! You fooled ‘em all!” By now, you probably know I am referring to the moment when R.P. McMurphy hands Chief (Will Sampson) a stick of gum as they both await electroshock treatment. The Chief, an alleged catatonic, replies “Thank you” when he accepts McMurphy’s offer of Juicy-Fruit. Nicholson’s confused and downright amazed wild-eyed initial reaction to the Chief’s unexpected verbal gratitude is classic. His double-take followed by a second accepted offer which confirms what he just heard is a priceless moment. He recognizes that he, after much ado, has a true “partner in crime” in the institution…someone else in there with him who isn’t really “crazy” but is a slickster very much like himself, and one who has fooled virtually everyone in the hospital, even the supposedly brilliant doctors. In the video below, drag the YouTube timeline cursor to around 3:15.

Soldier of Orange: I am referring in this film to the “tango scene”. Rutger Hauer has escaped Nazi-occupied Holland to the safety of England and has returned to Holland in the film's last third for a bit of cloak-and-dagger work. In a crowded dance hall, he spies upon an old, dear college friend and Nazi sympathizer (Derek De Lint) tangoing with another man as onlookers watch. As his friend's face tango-turns, he sees Hauer in front of him. This moment of recognition is played entirely without dialogue, but you can see the look that comes over De Lint's face. Oh, the wonders of YouTube! There is a clip of just the isolated "tango scene" below. The scene must be better known than I had originally deduced.

Midnight Cowboy: Joe Buck's moment of recognition comes towards the end of the film when he pitches his cowboy get-up in the trash while en route to Florida. He has shed the pretense of assuming this other persona and is now to free to shed the illusion.


  1. I love that moment in Colonel Blimp as well...damn...

  2. City lights is the best movie that I have ever seen.
    Thanks for sharing