One Scene Wonders

A couple of months ago, in a column about “That Guy” character actors, I paid tribute to Frank Vincent, who passed away in September. Vincent’s greatest film role came in Goodfellas, even though he only, for all intents and purposes, appeared in one scene (no I am not counting the ones where he is beaten or is lying in the trunk of a car). As I noted in that column, Vincent had the most pivotal role in the most pivotal scene in the movie, meaning his impact went far beyond his limited screen time. He, and others like him, are like ace relief pitchers, who come in for one inning, strike out the side, and then exit. How do actors such as Vincent make an impact in only a few minutes, without time to develop a character? Brilliant writing helps, but the actor often needs to bring much more than what’s on the page, so we in the audience feel like we know the character more than we really do. I worked my way to the top 10, then added an 11th when I recognized a glaring omission. Speaking of going to 11 ...

11. This is Spinal Tap: Fred Willard as Lt. Hookstratten – “May I start by saying how thrilled we are to have you here. We are such fans of your music and all of your records. I'm not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre of the rock and roll.” Spinal Tap’s American tour rapidly disintegrates, and when their Seattle gig falls through they are stuck playing at a military base. Willard’s Lt. Hookstratten unwittingly adds insult to injury by his well-meaning but clueless comments. As with all of the film’s actors, Willard improvised his dialogue, in his case by drawing on his own military service. Willard explained that military humor he observed was often officers trying to show that they were regular guys in a ham-handed sort of way: “I'm getting a little shaggy myself. I'd better not stand too close to you, people might think I'm part of the band. I'm joking, of course.” In this sense, Willard created the archetype he would use in many future Christopher Guest movies (such as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show): An endearingly oblivious blowhard who tries too hard to be funny and friendly.

10. Kill Bill, Vol. 2: Michael Parks as Esteban Vihaio (NSFW) – Parks, who passed a few months ago, was one of the character actors Quentin Tarantino loved to use. So much so that he cast Parks twice in the Kill Bill series, once as the lawman Earl McGraw, who had a few scenes, and again as Esteban, a pimp who was once Bill’s father figure. Beatrix (Uma Thurman) seeks out Esteban in her quest to find Bill. She describes him as a “retired gentleman of leisure” when he is really anything but. Esteban is flattered by Beatrix’s interest, and begins flirting with her. Parks initially appears charming, but quickly lets you see Esteban’s menace underneath. He’s sizing Beatrix up as he chats and winks at her. His face illustrates that he knows much more than he’s letting on before he eventually reveals that in his words. Parks’ voice changes as Esteban tries to put Beatrix beneath him, saying that at one point she would have been his #1 prostitute and that he would have cut her up instead of shooting her as Bill did. In the end Esteban gives Beatrix the information she needs, but seems more amused than anything else. Just in those few minutes, you understand the man’s character, and by extension, why Bill is who he is.

9. Suffragette: Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst – Streep’s scene has a simple purpose: the leader rallying the troops. The cause is securing women’s right to vote and her speech is meant to be stirring and inspirational. It is both of those, but thanks to Streep, it’s much more. Streep conveys a woman who has already sacrificed much for her cause, which Pankhurst did in real life. She’s not just talking about the struggle; she has lived it. Streep gives an added inflection to the line “We don’t want to be law breakers, we want to be law makers,” showing that Pankhurst knows that the end game goes beyond voting to participation at all levels of government. As the police get closer and Pankhurst knows that her speaking time is ending, Streep’s voice and the resolve she exemplifies only get stronger. Her final line “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” gives her followers what they most need, hope and determination.

8. The Princess Bride: Billy Crystal as Miracle Max and Carol Kane as Valerie – Crystal and Kane might as well have come in from another movie. Up until then the film had been funny, but in a droll way. For Miracle Max, director Rob Reiner reportedly wanted the style of Mel Brooks in the 2000 Year Old Man, and he got it. Crystal and Kane injected their scenes with Borscht belt humor, with Crystal even sneaking in some Yiddish. They ad libbed, reportedly never saying the same line twice. Crystal said he based his performance on his relatives. Kane is every bit his equal, with the two convincing as a bickering couple together for decades. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin recalled struggling to avoid cracking up, with Elwes having to play dead, or as Max explains, “mostly dead.” Fortunately we in the audience can laugh as much as we want.

7. Happiness: Jon Lovitz as Andy Kornbluth (scroll down, NSFW) – Writer-director Todd Solondz daringly began the film right in the middle of a breakup scene, specifically on a close-up of Lovitz. The devastation on Lovitz’s face instantly tells you what you need to know. Joy (Jane Adams), his girlfriend, seemingly blind to the pain she just caused, tries to make banal conversation. Lovitz plays along, but the tremor in his voice gives him away. When Jane replies “It’s just you” to Andy asking if there was someone else, Lovitz responds as though he’s been cut in half. When Andy breaks down, Lovitz cries with such sincerity that it doesn’t seem comic, it seems raw. Lovitz is able to take Andy through different levels of hurt, ending with anger. When Andy lays into Joy, telling her exactly what he thinks of her, everything that happened before, and Lovitz’s performance, make that moment feel earned. Like the movie as a whole, that scene takes what’s under the surface and lays it bare.

6. Boogie Nights: Alfred Molina as Rahad Jackson (NSFW) – By the time we meet Rahad Jackson, Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) life has been deteriorating. He and his friends concoct a hare-brained scheme to rob Jackson, a drug dealer. Quickly Dirk realizes he is in over his head. Much of the suffocating pressure-cooker atmosphere comes from director Paul Thomas Anderson’s staging, but just as much comes from Molina’s riveting turn. Molina instantly makes Jackson a larger-than-life figure, someone you shouldn’t even meet, let alone mess with. The massively coked-up Jackson exists in a different plane as the other characters. First, he’s totally at ease in an open robe and his underwear. He’s friendly, but in a crazed way that makes people less comfortable. He’s constantly moving. When the songs play, first “Sister Christian” and then “Jessie’s Girl,” Molina gets into it so much it’s like the music is the only thing that exists in the world. As Jackson pretends to play Russian roulette, he seems so totally unhinged that he might do it. Most of all, he’s completely used to the constant firecrackers that unnerve Dirk, his friends and the audience. Through Molina, Jackson becomes the perfect figure for Diggler to hit rock bottom.

5. Network: Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen – Close call over Beatrice Straight’s eight minute performance, which won her an Oscar. Beatty also received an Oscar nomination with even less screen time, for a performance that’s more central to the narrative. Howard Beale’s nervous breakdown and on-air rantings are wonderful for ratings until he speaks out against the sale of the network’s parent company to a foreign corporation. After the government blocks the sale, Jensen, the company’s president, explains the world to Beale. Since Beale is convinced he is speaking gospel, Jensen needs to convince Beale that the word of God has changed. Beatty does so powerfully, thundering Jensen’s words if he were Moses on Mt. Sinai. These words, that there’s no countries but only a series of interconnected corporations controlling all life, are even more unsettling now than they were in 1976. Gradually, Beatty lowers his booming voice. Now that he has destroyed Beale’s world, he builds him a new one, more gently describing a “perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality ? one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.” Beatty’s voice turns into honey as Jensen lures Beale in. Beale turns into Jensen’s messenger, bringing about his own demise. That only works because Jensen convinces Beale and Beatty convinces us.

4. Running on Empty: Steven Hill as Donald Patterson (clip not available) – This is almost the mirror image of the Happiness scene, as Hill goes from anger to sadness. Donald Patterson is facing a daughter who had to keep herself and her family away from him when she became a violent radical. Hill conveys so much through just his eyes, which give you a glimpse into Patterson’s ordeal. You get a sense this is a quiet, decent man who has been hurt badly. The internal conflict comes through his modulated voice. As Patterson asks his daughter Abigail (Christine Lahti), “Did you ever think of us?” the pain that he’s been trying to hold in check seeps through. We have never seen this character before, but thanks to Hill, we feel like we know him and his struggle. When Abigail gets up to leave, Hill, who has been sitting completely still throughout, makes a sudden, small move toward her, trying to stop her from going. The anger has parted, leaving a man who misses his daughter. This is a master class in minimalist acting.

3. The Godfather: Alex Rocco as Moe Greene – Yes, technically Rocco was in two scenes, but in the second one Moe doesn’t say anything before he gets shot through the eye, so I am counting it. By this point in the film, we have seen the Corleones and what they are capable of. So it’s refreshing to see a man who is not afraid of them at all, even though he should be. Moe Greene was largely based on Bugsy Siegel. In fact Rocco claimed the producers were going to use the Siegel name until the late gangster’s family demanded $25,000 for the rights. Doesn’t matter. Greene walks into the room as the master of his universe. Rocco gives him the swagger and brashness we would expect from a man who believed he invented Vegas. As Michael (Al Pacino) offers to buy him out, the confidence quickly becomes fury. Thanks to Rocco, Greene becomes relatable during his tirade, even as he is digging his own grave. Who wouldn’t be upset if an interloper tried to push you out of a business you built? In the end words are Greene’s only weapons, and Rocco throws out lines like “I'm Moe Greene! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!” with such relish that it’s hard not to cheer for Greene while knowing he’s doomed.

2. Glengarry Glen Ross: Alec Baldwin as Blake (NSFW) – This was the one I inexplicably left off my original list. Baldwin is the exception here, because he doesn’t exist as a character so much as an idea: dog-eat-dog capitalism at its purest form, in a way that only David Mamet could write it. The AV Club called Blake the “motivational speaker from Hell.” Blake exemplifies the world in which the other characters exist, where a man’s value is determined only by how much money he makes, and if he doesn’t make money he’s just not good enough. He also illustrates the pressure facing these salesmen, which drives them into the ground throughout the film. Blake’s speech has become so iconic, and so quoted, that it’s hard to fathom how much of a risk it was. Baldwin was a relative newcomer compared to Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, and Ed Harris. Yet he owned the room, giving his speech with precision and contempt. Baldwin makes Blake into part drill sergeant, part preacher. Like the other characters, we can’t take our eyes off him. The scene was not even in the original play, but now the story seems incomplete without it. My wife and I saw a revival on stage, and as soon as we came home I played her that scene.

1. Tie between True Romance: Christopher Walken as Vincenzo Coccotti (NSFW) and Pulp Fiction: Christopher Walken as Captain Koons (NSFW) – Walken brings so much to both scenes that I couldn’t pick between these two. His rhythmic, almost musical speech, that piercing stare (I’m sure he does blink, but it seems like he doesn’t) make his characters instantly memorable. Walken’s trademark intensity manifests itself different ways. In True Romance, he’s paired with Dennis Hopper. Seeing the two face off against each other is like a heavyweight championship fight. In the first half Coccotti moves around like a predator stalking its prey. He’s trying to scare Clifford Worley (Hopper) into submission, as he’s no doubt done with so many unfortunate souls before. Walken is naturally intimidating, and his delivery makes Coccoti’s threats chilling. But Walken’s best work comes when Coccotti is listening. For Worley is not going to be intimidated, and he has some choice words of his own. Watch Walken’s face as Hopper starts in. He twitches, gives a nervous laugh and at first can’t really even get words out. Walken’s reactions amplify Hopper’s speech. He makes a great actor even better.

Pulp Fiction presented a different challenge, as Walken had no one to play with. His Captain Koons is talking to a little kid who just sits there. The Walken intensity that conveyed menace in True Romance now conveys sincerity and determination. As Captain Koons recounts the history of the gold watch he was delivering, the camera stays squarely on him. Walken is doing all the work, with perfectly timed pauses for emphasis. He sells the importance of the watch so much that we stay with him as his story veers off into the fantastic. Of course Bruce Willis went back for the watch. Wouldn’t you, if Christopher Walken had told you something was that important?

Adam Spector
January 1, 2018

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