POSTED February 15 2013

Yippee-ki-yay and other defining movie catchphrases

Bruce Willis, urban cowboy

Bruce Willis, urban cowboy

With the release of A Good Day to Die Hard I’ve been been thinking about Bruce Willis. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which an actor’s persona can be reduced to a catchphrase that he made popular.

Of course Willis, who personifies a kind of no-sweat exasperation, is best known for dropping the Oedipus epithet in the original Die Hard, when Alan Rickman, as archvillian Hans Gruber, taunts Willis’ John McClane by calling him “Cowboy.” McClane’s response,  the memorable “Yippee-Ki-Yay m———–!” nicely distills the profane humor that Willis so often spouts onscreen.

The 1980s and 1990s were a golden age for the movie catchphrase, which works both to define a character and as a movie marketing tool on posters and TV ads.

There was the steely Clint Eastwood taunting a perp in Sudden Impact with “Go ahead, make my day.” And the cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 instructed in the art of the kiss-off: “Hasta la vista, baby!” And Denzel Washington (as the eponymous Malcolm X) rallying congregants by insisting, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

The Eastwood catchphrase is inadequate as a summation of his persona. Not so John Wayne’s sceptical “That’ll be the day!” from The Searchers. Not so Greta Garbo’s world-weary “I want to be alone,” in Grand Hotel as the ballerina Grushinka. Not so Mae West’s bawdy pick-up line to Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”

Are there other defining catchphrases for actors and actresses? How do they summarize a persona?



  1. Carrie, Love this. No surprise that I will vote for “I want to be alone” not only is it Garbo saying it, but she’s playing a Russian ballerina.

  2. Quora says:

    What’s the best movie catchphrase?…

    Yippee-ki-yay, I want to be alone…or:

  3. Given how Garbo eventually did hide herself away, I think her line was fairly prescient.

  4. Miz Val says:

    When ever I think of Carmen Diaz these days I think of her catch phrase in “Bad Teacher” ..”Seriously????” I have replaced the overused four letter word with this one . It sounds so much nicer

  5. Nancy C says:

    Late to the party on this one, but I can’t resist…
    Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE, “Fasten your seatbelts–it’s going to be a bumpy night.” (Plus another of her less well-known films, so it doesn’t quite meet your criteria, but it’s still an iconic line, from

  6. Nancy C says:

    (continued…) BEYOND THE FOREST, “what a dump!” when she surveys her boring little bourgeois home.) Another Terminator line that brands Schwarzenegger is “F–k you, a–hole” (short, sweet?, and to the point). Katharine Hepburn in STAGE DOOR, “The calla lilies are in bloom today.” And who can forget Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”…no title needed.

  7. I enjoy Die Hard a great deal, but have always found that line idiotic, embarrassing and jarring. I wish they could go back and change it.

  8. David Cohen says:

    I am prone to saying “Let’s get the heck out of Dodge,” a great catchphrase, but I have no idea where it came from.

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