This line from the film On the Waterfront generally appears on most lists of the greatest or most famous movie lines ever uttered:

You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.

I've never understood this one. From my perspective, it is not especially climactic or elegant; there's no clever wordplay or incredibly original joke; the wording is not particularly memorable or unusual; the scene is not extraordinary and so the line cannot take its fame from the scene; the content of the line is not especially revelatory or disturbing or surprising.

In short, it has none of the attributes of most other famous lines.

Why is this line so famous?

  • 1
    If you think the scene is not extraordinary then you seem to have missed the whole point. rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/…
    – Paulie_D
    Jul 6, 2017 at 17:34
  • 9
    Regardless of its meaning or significance in the film, it can be a great line to throw out in conversation when you've failed at something or been disqualified/passed over. (You chuck a crumpled paper ball at the waste bin and it misses. "Man, I coulda been a contender!") As a pop-culture reference, it carries great weight and can be used to diffuse tension or get laughs. I'm sure this has at least contributed to its popularity.
    – Steve-O
    Jul 6, 2017 at 18:28
  • Apart from that fact that the entire scene is ostensibly about his boxing career, in which 'contender' is a standard expression [contender for the title] & that the entire denouement of the movie hinges on the truths spoken by both protagonists in the cab scene... wasn't it also done mainly as improv?
    – Tetsujin
    Jul 7, 2017 at 10:33

1 Answer 1


It’s not so much the line itself, or even the words. It’s the way Marlon Brando says them, with all the regret anyone has ever felt about not achieving something they dreamed about. It’s that very universality which makes the words so memorable. Who hasn’t felt like that? Sometimes it’s not necessary to be dramatic or disturbing or surprising or any of the other attributes you say these words are lacking; sometime the simplest words carry the greatest emotional weight.

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