Great Brief Movie Performances
There is a saying in shown business that there are no small parts only small actors. While we can sit here and debate the accuracy of this, there have been a number of actors throughout film history who have taken mere minutes of screentime and owned every second.
Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein): Though she was in the greatest horror film of the classic era for a few minutes, one of the most notorious scene stealer in Hollywood history did what she did best. Initially she set the tone for the movie from the start portraying Mary Shelley. But it is stunning performance as the Bride which turned her into an icon of pop culture. She stumbles around with a shocked expression rebuffing the monster she was intended but tries in her limited understanding to pursue her creator Dr. Frankenstein. Though she perishes shortly after her creation Elsa Lanchester’s performance ensured this character would be instantly memorable.
Anthony Hopkin (Silence of the Lambs): With a mere 10 minutes of screentime, Anthony Hopkins delivered one of the most iconic villains in cinema history. A brilliant serial killer with a tendency to eat his victims, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is kept locked away in a dungeon. Once he meets young FBI Agent Clarice Starling, Lecter finds someone who keeps his interest and spend the rest of the movies playing mind games with her to help catch a serial killer. It does not matter how much he is actually onscreen, Hannibal looms over the entire film and he remains in your memory long after the credits roll.
John Turturro (The Big Lebowski): In a film filled with instantly memorable characters, it is difficult to forget The Dude, Walter and Donny’s greatest bowling rival Jesus. While they already have enough on their plate, this bravado filled recently-released from Chino bowler happily adds to their problems. Bowling a strike in front of his trio of rivals is not enough but he stares them down while sashaying to a cover of “Hotel California”. While his boasts may be his opinion man, Jesus fits perfectly in this offbeat and fantastic flick.
Natalie Wood (The Searchers): As a young child Debbie was abducted by the Comanche, leaving her grizzled world-weary uncle, Ethan Edwards, with the task of finding her. At the climax of what is recognized as the greatest Western ever, she is now a young woman who has grown up among this tribe. Having completely adopted their ways Debbie has even taken on a Comanche husband. Her entire world is upended as her brother, Martin wants to rescue her, but her racist uncle would rather see her dead than “the leavin’s of a Comanche”. The legendary actress nails to perfection the complicated emotions anyone would have in her shoes at that moment. Her facial expressions alone betray the fact that she remembers these men but has to hide her emotions as she has now accepted a new way of life.
Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now and To Kill a Mockingbird): This particularly entry is a two-fer for one of the all-time great actors. Even if you have never heard of the Francis Ford Coppola war classic Apocalypse Now, you know how he feels about the smell of napalm in the morning. During a mere 15 minutes of screentime we clear a clear picture that Lt. Col. Kilgore is a man truly in his element in the heat of war. He is a proud dehumanized product of the American war machine. ln the classic adaptation of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, children Jim and Scout have been learning the world is a far more complex and dangerous place than they once believed. It all culminates in them discovering that for all the bad there was there is good hiding as well. In this case, Boo, the troubled man they have made into their monster in their own minds is discovered to be a sweet individual who risked his own life to save them. In his film debut, Duvall immediately elicits the sympathy from the audience and without saying a word wins you over.
Beatrice Straight (Network): A nice little bit of movie trivia is who won an Oscar with the shortest amount of screentime? The answer is Beatrice Straight as the Louise Schumacher, the wife of philandering TV news division president Max Schumacher. In a single five minute scene shot over three days she delivered a blistering performance confronting her cheating husband. While she briefly pops up twice previously this is where she truly delivers playing off the legendary William Holden. Straight finds the perfect combination of rage and sadness in the face of Max’s being “obsessed” with the new programming chief Diana Christensen.
Alec Baldwin (Glengarry Glen Ross): In the original stage production of Glengarry Glen Ross, the character of Blake did not have any lines. But when the studio wanted famed director David Mamet to add an “explosion” or some other marketable pop, he gave Blake one of the greatest speeches in cinema which was plenty of explosion. Immediately establishing a no-nonsense attitude by making it clear coffee is for closers and if you can not close you need to go ahead and pack it in. In the real world when acronyms are thrown around in a sales meeting it is dull as dirt, but Baldwin ensures you remember ABC stands for Always Be Closing.
Viola Davis (Doubt): In a single 8 minute scene Viola Davis established herself as an absolute acting force. As Mrs. Miller, she is the single mother of the sole black student at the Bronx-based Catholic school who has become the subject of interest to the new priest. When Sister Beauvier tries to discuss the issue with her, Mrs. Miller she finds a mother who has accepted that the world is far from good to her son, but she just hopes that if he makes it to graduation in June things will get a little bit better. Her performance is riveting and in a matter of a few minutes she holds the audience in the palm of her hands.