We’ve been through a long list of all kinds of movie scenes, but I am finally ready to reveal my #1 choice. It is only appropriate that for #1 favorite scene that I talk about, what else, reveals. It’s easy to write a twist, it’s harder to write a good twist, but the biggest challenge is creating a brilliant scene where said twist is revealed. The Usual Suspects and Primal Fear immediately jump to mind with their massive endings that are equally shocking to the viewers and the characters, and both of their final scenes are chilling. There’s the rock dropping through the poster in The Shawshank Redemption, the revealing phone call to Hamilton Bartholomew in Charade, the box scene in Se7en, and of course the final scenes of The Wicker Man and Planet of the Apes (the originals, obviously). The list of great big reveals goes on and on, but my favorite reveal is one that is not really a reveal to the viewer, but only to the characters. It’s my favorite movie scene of all time—”Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother Where Art Thou?
Throughout the entire film, convict Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) has been trying to get home and reunite with his ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter) before she re-marries. To do this, he convinced his fellow prisoners Delmar and Pete (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) to break out and look for hidden treasure that he buried. Along the way, they have come across all kinds of things, including a guitar player who sold his soul (Chris Thomas King) a KKK rally, an evil Bible salesman (John Goodman), and a Sheriff who may or may not be the Devil incarnate (Daniel Von Bargen). They also managed to make a quick buck by stopping to record a song. Now, they are at their last straw, and Everett’s friends have made it clear this is the last time they will trust his scheming. Dressed up as old-timey bluegrass musicians, they enter the rally for gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes.
During the first song, Everett tries to convince his wife to dump her fiancé who works for the Stokes campaign, but she is still unsure. Then, Delmar and Pete begin “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the song they recorded along the way, with Everett on lead vocals. What Everett and the boys don’t know is that “Man of Constant Sorrow” has become the biggest hit single in the state. The crowd goes absolutely wild as Everett steps up to sing.
Watch Clooney’s face in this scene, as he goes from shocked that they’re starting the song, to confused at the enthusiastic applause, to the moment where he finally pieces together what is happening, to his final expression of “Oh yeah, I should probably sing this song.” He even looks like he’s about to start crying tears of joy as he starts singing. It’s such a brilliant little piece of acting, and it’s even more impressive that he can express so much hiding behind a fake beard.
If we the viewers didn’t know “Man of Constant Sorrow” had become a hit, this would still be a great scene, but the fact that we know it lets us completely soak in the joy of something finally going right for Everett. Had we been left in the dark, we would probably run the gamut of emotions that he runs here instead of just being able to watch.
On another level, we get to think about it from the audience’s perspective. O Brother Where Art Thou is set during the Great Depression, so a lot of people probably don’t really know what their favorite musicians look like anyway, but the mysterious Soggy Bottom Boys walked into a studio, recorded a smash hit, and left. The man who produced the song (Stephen Root) was blind. Until this moment, there is not one person in the entire state who knows the full truth about the band. I’ll always love that one random audience member’s enthused delivery of “Hot damn, it’s the Soggy Bottom Boys!” There’s also this great little snapshot where Penny figures out what is going on as well.
The Coen Brothers are big fans of karmic stories, but let’s be honest, a lot of their films deal with bad things happening to people who make mistakes. Here, we get to see one good thing that Everett did come back and reward him. I love the rest of the scene too, where Homer Stokes is forcibly removed from his own campaign rally and incumbent Pappy O’ Daniel pardons the lead characters, but it’s this singular moment where we know for sure things are finally starting to turn around. Everett’s redemption doesn’t even fully come until a later scene, but we know we’re on a good track the second “Man of Constant Sorrow” starts.
It’s a scene I can go back to and watch over and over again, both because of the brilliant acting and the incredible emotion I feel every time I see Everett realize why the audience is cheering for him. The Coen Brothers create a brilliant contrast with the over-the-top antics of the band and the political candidates set against the subtlety and nuance of Clooney’s acting. It’s a truly brilliant moment, and it’s my personal favorite movie scene of all time.
I have really enjoyed working on this special series, and I hope you have enjoyed reading it. Perhaps I will have to do more of these top ten lists in the future.