My Favorite Single-Scene Performances

Dave Bautista – Blade Runner 2049 –

You might think Dave Bautista, clearly notable in 2017 for his role as Drax in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, would have a more prominent role in this Blade Runner sequel. Instead, he only appears in one scene, but his performance and character are the crucial hooks that get the story going. Sapper Morton is a Nexus-8 replicant hiding as a protein farmer on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Officer K shows up one day and disrupts the quiet life he’s created. There’s such a heavy sadness to Sapper, who just wanted to live their life in solitude. Their quiet conversation leads to a brief but brutal fight. As a result, this scene showcases the depth of Bautista’s acting ability and physical combat prowess, all while putting Officer K on his path of self-discovery.

Edie McClurg – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles –

As Neal Page (Steve Martin) thinks he’s about to rent a car and make his way home for Thanksgiving, more travel plans fall apart. When he finally arrives at the Marathon Rent-A-Car counter, he’s met with Edie McClurg playing one of the most iconic service workers in film history. She does a lot of talking upfront, then Martin delivers a monologue only to be cut down by a single sentence. McClurg was a comedy icon of the 1980s and honed her skills as part of The Groundlings improv troupe. Today, she’s 77 and has dementia, having retired from acting a few years ago. However, I can’t imagine she or this scene will ever be forgotten, and it’s an incredible piece of comic acting to be remembered.

Alfre Woodard – 12 Years A Slave –

12 Years a Slave is a masterwork exploring the horrors of chattel slavery in the United States. It attempts to examine this barbaric practice from multiple angles, and Alfre Woodard’s one-scene appearance as Mistress Shaw speaks volumes. She’s a woman who has been sexually assaulted by her master and becomes his concubine. This affords her certain luxuries the other enslaved people do not have. The scene consists of Mistress Shaw explaining herself, pointing out a very destructive American mindset. For a long time, she suffered, then through sheer luck, the master chooses her to rape and then provide comfort to her, and she feels no guilt being the one the slaves wait on now. It’s a mundane sense of evil, the “I got my bag” mentality of Americans, and made even worse as she is betraying her own people. The slave masters ensured all sense of solidarity was erased to stifle uprisings, and Mistress Shaw is a perfect example of how cold & cruel that mindset has been.

John Carroll Lynch – Zodiac –

Yes, he technically appears one last time at the end of the film, but this is the only scene where he has real dialogue and gets to give a performance. Director David Fincher has done everything he can to set the table for a great scene and then hands it off to John Carroll Lynch, who has complete control of the stage. His scene partners (Mark Ruffalo, Elias Koteas, and Anthony Edwards) react perfectly as he toys with them, providing alibis, even dropping information they might not have known, teasing them by walking right up to the edge but not tripping over any of their traps. Or maybe he’s just an innocent guy caught in the wild goose chase for the Zodiac Killer. That ambiguity is what propels this scene and the entire film, making it one of the few movies of the last twenty years that I find I can rewatch endlessly.

Martin Scorsese – Taxi Driver –

It’s not often a director appearing in their own film leaves such a strong impression. Scorsese, who is not an actor, delivers a remarkable performance that serves a fundamental purpose in driving Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle even further down his dark path. The actor who was supposed to play this small role never showed up, so Scorsese stepped in to do the scene. It’s a harsh moment in a movie full of bleakness. A nameless man shares his homicidal fantasies with Travis about his cheating wife, using racial slurs to talk about her lover. The critical element here is how the camera lingers on Travis’s face while we hear the man insanely rant about wanting to murder his wife. Travis looks genuinely disturbed, yet as the film progresses, he slides into this exact breakdown. We see here the terror he feels over what happens to him. One of the darkest & most potent moments in American cinema.

Barry Corbin – No Country For Old Men –

They seem like a pair of good ol’ boys, but so much more is happening in this exchange. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) visits his Uncle Ellis (Corbin) in the third act after Bell has failed to save the film’s protagonist from death. The wind whistles in the background, pushing the notion of desolation & ruin to the forefront of our minds. Their conversation centers on Ed Tom contemplating retiring from law enforcement, looking back on how he imagined his life versus what it has become. There are long stretches of silence, both men simply contemplating. Ellis is a man who has already passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and his way of assuring his nephew is to agree with him that the world has always been a violent, awful place and seems to be spiraling deeper into that evil. These aren’t reactionaries but men haunted by the violence they have seen others do to each other. This verges on cosmic horror, a sensation of existential dread that, with every step, we are plodding closer to oblivion, a vast void just over the horizon waiting for us to plunge inside.

Brian Tyree Henry – If Beale Street Could Talk –

While If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t resonate as strongly with me as Moonlight, it is still an incredible film. In the years that have followed since my first viewing, I have come to appreciate it more and more. However, on my first viewing, one scene stood out so powerfully to me: Brian Tyree Henry’s appearance as Daniel Carty, a friend of Fonny’s. Fonny invites Daniel back to his and Tish’s place, Tish is annoyed and prepares dinner, and then the scene happens. The conversation seems casual at first, but then it wanders into talking about time in prison, and here Daniel’s deep-seated traumas come to the forefront. Henry delivers his lines, and how Jenkins allows the mood to go incredibly dark turns his story about prison violence into a horror film. Daniel isn’t physically locked up anymore, but they fucked his head up enough to ensure his mind never escapes; he will forever be haunted by what he saw & experienced, which in the end, is the purpose of the carceral system, never to rehabilitate but always to wound deeper.

Steve Park – Fargo –

Possibly the most famous single-scene character, Mike Yanagita’s appearance seems to have confounded some viewers. Even actor Steve Park has said he didn’t understand Mike in the context of the whole film. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is in the middle of a murder investigation when she has lunch with an old high school friend in town, Mike. The lunch quickly falls apart as Mike blubbers and cries; he had anticipated seducing Marge despite both being married and is overcome with guilt. What Mike Yanagita does is serve as the awakening moment for Marge, causing her to strip away the Minnesota Nice vibes and realize one of the suspects has been lying to her face this whole time. For the Coen Brothers, this is such a masterfully written scene that can stand entirely on its own; in the context of the film, it is a masterpiece. And comedian Steve Park completely sells it.

Viola Davis – Doubt –

Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for a scene that clocks in just under ten minutes. She plays Mrs. Miller, the mother of Donald. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has made it her crusade to take down Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who she suspects of possibly molesting Donald. It’s a bit more complicated as the sister also has personal animosity towards the priest. In this scene, she meets with Donald’s mother to find proof of what has happened, but it doesn’t go how she would like it to. Davis delivers a fantastic performance as a Black woman who wants the best for her child, is also worried about aspects of Donald that go against her beliefs, and seemingly gives in to the system she lives within. She looks at Streep with eyes that say, “What am I supposed to do, anyway?” This is one of the best examples of how a single scene can shape & define an entire story.

Ned Beatty – Network –

My personal favorite single-scene performance is Ned Beatty as corporate overlord Arthur Jensen. Network, written by the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is an often misunderstood movie. I see people who think the audience is meant to agree with the ranting & aging news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) when it’s the opposite. The film is about how the American media industry and its corporate owners have ruined any chance of authentic discourse about the state of the world. Beale pushes too aggressively against the corporate bottom line and is brought in for a talk with the big boss. Jensen delivers a sermon that tops anything Beale says the whole runtime and even explicitly shows us he is talking this way to “get on Beale’s level.” The words of Chayefsky are chillingly prescient, indicating that the current state of things was easily predictable even in 1976. Finch’s stunned reactions underline the immensity of Beatty’s performance. One of the most incredible scenes ever in cinema.


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