Friday, February 10, 2006


It's not the size of the role...

By Edward Copeland
With William Hurt's much-deserved (in my opinion) nomination for A History of Violence this year, my thoughts have turned to some of the great single-scene or particularly small roles that were able to grab the viewer's attention in unprecedented ways.

Hurt's brief bit is by no means the Oscar's only instance of short scene-stealers — Beatrice Straight won for basically one monologue in Network and Judi Dench won with very limited screen time in Shakespeare in Love.

Geraldine Page also snagged a nomination for essentially one scene in The Pope of Greenwich Village. Network also produced a great monologue for Ned Beatty that earned him an Oscar nomination. All those nominees were fine by me except for Dench, who was really just getting makeup Oscar love for losing for Mrs. Brown the year before to the wandering accent of Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. Then there were also some brief nominations that were a complete puzzlement like Ethel Barrymore's nomination for The Paradine Case, one of Alfred Hitchcock's worst films.

So, as they come to me, some of my favorite brief roles.

Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights. When you get right down to it, the scene is completely extraneous to the movie — the climax of a film about the evolution of the porn industry well into the 1980s should have involved AIDS, not a standard drug deal. Still, Molina is masterful with his drug-addled dialogue set to the tune of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian."

One of my favorite single sequence tour-de-forces is Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors. His masochist wouldn't come off as great without Steve Martin's sadistic dentist to play off, but he's great.

Christopher Walken is a master of the monologue, but his one scene telling a child-size version of Bruce Willis about the journey of a gold watch in Pulp Fiction is priceless.

Another role that is essentially a single monologue, Jack Lemmon in Short Cuts. A brief but great role that few besides me remember is Swoosie Kurtz in Against All Odds where she is delightfully flaky as the secretary of a crooked lawyer who decides to help Jeff Bridges.

The year Frances McDormand won lead actress (for what in my opinion was a supporting role, but that's an argument for another time) for Fargo, she also gave a great single scene performance in Lone Star. Throughout the film, Chris Cooper's character's unstable ex-wife is referred to and when the situation requires Cooper to visit her late in the film, McDormand nails the character in a way that brings earlier references to vivid life.

Michael Mann's Collateral offered two great one scene performances: Barry Shabaka Henley as a jazz musician targeted for elimination and Javier Bardem as a crime lord. In another Tom Cruise vehicle, Lois Smith had a memorable one-scene turn in a greenhouse in Minority Report.

For a while last year, there was buzz that Lynn Redgrave might get nominated for her great single-scene at the climax of Kinsey as a woman whose life was profoundly affected by the sex researcher, but when that film folded, only Laura Linney was left standing.

It's more than one scene, but Tony Shalhoub's cab driver of indeterminate origin in Quick Change is a riot. Another short one that cracked me up was Maximilian Schell in The Freshman. "Carmine said one boy, here are two."

The original version of Love Affair and its remake by Warren Beatty produced two great short turns by Maria Ouspenskaya and Katharine Hepburn, respectively. Ouspenskaya even managed an Oscar nomination for her performance. Another one scene wonder that earned an Oscar nomination was Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy, though it's been a long time since I've seen that one.

Most of the ones that are springing to my mind right now are more recent ones, but I'm sure brief turns in older films will come to my mind once the conversation gets going. The ones that immediately occur to me are Leslie Howard, Anton Walbrook and Raymond Massey's brief bits in the Powell/Pressburger masterpiece 49th Parallel aka The Invaders.

I'll leave you with this one: while certainly not a nomination-worthy performance, Garry Marshall's turn as the manager of the Desert Inn in Lost in America always cracks me up. "We're through talking now."

He may be through, but I hope you aren't.

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Edward: I have a couple. I really felt Shawnee Smith's single scene in Saw was worthy of praise, and I also thought William Sadler in Kinsey dseserved to be noticed too. Alas, Sadler was ignored, and Saw was generally viewed as beneath consideration, so Smith suffered by disregard as well.
"The Desert Inn has heart... the Desert Inn has heart..."

As long as you mentioned Bill Murray in the remake of "Little Shop of Horrors," you can't leave out Jack Nicholson in the original.

On the subject of brief but memorable roles, don't forget Beatrice Straight in "Network." She won best supporting actress for what was essentially one scene.
I really liked Ludacis for Hustle & flow one 15 minute scene which was very memorable. Also just for fun I really enjoyed Will Ferrell for Wedding Crashers, hilarious.
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