Sometimes they're called monologues. Sometimes they're soliloquies. Back when I was acting, we referred to them as either "the place where so-and-so talks a lot" or "…and then I do the big speech".
When I moved to the other side of the camera, I learned they were the pages ADs in production meetings referred to not as "the good stuff" or "the reason we're all here" but -- "the talking part".
Basically, they're the place in the movie, play or TV show where somebody says a lot without being interrupted.
In a monologue, a dramatic character speaks to another character or the audience. In a soliloquy, they're mostly talking to themselves.
A lot of writers who write the big speeches usually end up mostly talking to themselves as well. A producer or director turns a page to find a long chunk of dialogue and you can immediately hear their intellectual brakes slamming on.
That's because the big speeches are dangerous for everybody.
They hold danger for actors because there are not only a lot of words to remember but dozens of intricate shifts in pace and emotion and nuance that require acute concentration. That's on a level with an ice road trucker climbing his rig through a slippery mountain pass during a blizzard.
Studies have shown that actors performing heavy big speech roles like Hamlet or King Lear expend as much energy in the two to three hour runs of those plays as a blast furnace worker does over an eight hour shift.
These things can make actors burned out or bombastic long before their time.
Directors immediately begin blue or red-lining breaks in the big speech, choreographing blocking or camera moves to distract from any possible monotony. The big speech is the point in the movie where a director knows he either holds the audience's attention completely or goes into a skid from which his film might never recover.
For a producer, the big speech says two things. Either, I got a writer with something important to say here that can't be communicated any other way. Or, does this sonovabitch not understand we're working in a visual medium?
A good producer working with a good writer will try to find the money to buy the kind of actor who can make the big speech work. A bad producer (or a good one with a bad writer) will ask for a rewrite with no more than 4 lines per block of dialogue.
"Gotta keep it movin', baby!"
That's because the big speech is hard work for an audience as well. When a character starts talking they don't know how long he's going before he stops. And if what they're listening to doesn't get better and better as it goes along, they're noticing wallpaper patterns or simply ceasing to care.
For every "To be or not to be…" or "This watch I got here was first purchased by your great-grandfather…" there are thousands of big speeches which have simply put audiences to sleep rendering their contents useless in advancing plot, character or anything else they hoped to achieve.
But when they work they are unimaginably powerful.
I remember being in New York one weekend in 1990. I had been working six or eight weeks straight without a day off. I was exhausted and also had the flu. But I was in New York and it was Saturday night and Broadway beckoned.
The theatre closest to my hotel was offering a show I'd never heard of called "A Few Good Men" by a writer I'd never heard of named Aaron Sorkin. I figured that if it was crappy or my energy or insides flagged I was only a few steps from falling back into bed.
But the show was riveting, climaxing in a speech Jack Nicholson later made immortal in the film version while biting down on the words "You can't handle the truth!"
I walked out of that theatre in no need of either sleep or medication. Sometimes the big speech is just that magical.
Luckily, there is now a spot on the Internet where writers can study the successful big speeches and learn what works and why. The site is called American Rhetoric and you can find it here.
That link will take you directly to the movie speech section. But there are also collections of great speeches from other realms from politics to evangelism.
There are a dozen speeches from movies I could close with that exemplify the power of a big speech done well. But what follows is my own personal favorite. It gave me Goosebumps the first time I heard it 30 years ago and still does the same thing today.
Al Pacino's "Opening Statement" from "And Justice For All" written by Valerie Curtain and Barry Levinson.
Enjoy Your Sunday.