I really want to quote the obvious quote about small roles and small actors here, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Below are performances by actors who rose above and beyond the part for which they were called upon to play, impacting their films and culture with probably less time than you remember them having.
5. Michael Keaton - Beatle Juice
Despite playing the title character, Keaton spends only 17.5 minutes on screen (according to IMDb). It’s one of the most energetic performances ever captured on film and has to rank close to the top of the list of best comedic performances of the last half century.
4. William Hurt - A History of Violence
For a fir portion of David Cronenberg’s film, Ed Harris plays the bad-guy gangster part. When the film reaches its final moments, though, it’s William Hurt who carries that load, and does so with effortless style and panache for days. The guy seems to revel in his awfulness. He’s too slimy to be real, but too slimy for someone to have imagined as well. Hurt is spot on, and gives you everything you need (which was enough for an Oscar nod).
3. Jack Nicholson - A Few Good MenJack Nicholson is my favorite actor for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because he uses every line to its utmost potential. There’s never a wasted word for him. He plays a small supporting part in an otherwise forgettable Rob Reiner military courtroom drama. Tom Cruise is just fine, but the movies only cooks when Nicholson is on screen. Without Jack, we don’t get one of the most iconic lines in cinema history, because what we forget is that no one else would read that way he does and no one else would create the character that he creates in his scarce time.
2. Viola Davis - Doubt
John Patrick Shanley’s film holds, with no exaggeration, the greatest acting ever recorded anywhere ever (editor’s note: slight exaggeration) and despite the awesome work by the 3 heavy hitters (Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams) it was Viola Davis I was reeling from. She has only a single scene where she walks alongside Streep (probably the greatest actor of her generation) and she is truly breathtaking. She’s painfully restrained, hiding her fear just below the surface, but giving the audience everything we need. The conflict of a mother trying to decide what is best for her son is compelling enough to hold my attention forever and she does it all in a single moment.
1. Vanessa Redgrave - Atonement
Atonement has a number of pretty great performances, but none do so much with so little as Redgrave does. I’ve only seen the film once and it was some time back, but I still have the image of her face, staring into the camera during her monologue at the climax of the film. The film’s final twist hits pretty hard, but would it have been as effective if Redgrave hadn’t been so chilling? Thankfully, you’ll never have to find out, because she delivers with a silent intensity that resonates for a long time after seeing the film.
And just because I do what I want, here’s some more of my favorites:
Alec Baldwin - Glen Gary Glennross; Dennis Hopper - Apocalypse Now; Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Punch Drunk Love; Christopher Walken - Pulp Fiction (and True Romance); Kevin Spacey - Seven