Sometimes, it doesn’t take a whole lot of screentime for an actor to deliver a movie-stealing performance. In fact, some of them can do it in a single scene – which is exactly what we’re looking at today. Let’s talk about the very best of one-scene performances from actors who came very close to running off with the whole movie – and let us know your favourites below too!
- Terry Notary – The Square
It’s hard to describe exactly what this scene is, but God, it’s so fucking good. Terry Notary plays Oleg, a performance artist whose latest piece involves him turning up at a fancy event in character as an actual ape and generally causing no end of chaos, discomfort, and confusion. Notary is best known for his motion capture work in the Planet of the Apes movies, and it shows here – his movement, his physicality, and his presence as Oleg leans in to the increasing awkwardness of this extended scene is a genuine delight. It’s the centrepiece of the movie, and Notary sells it so unbelievably well that you find yourself wishing we got a whole film about him, even if you’d have to watch most of it through your fingers.
- Viola Davis – Doubt
Legally, I cannot write an article like this without including Viola Davis’ performance in Doubt. And shit, I wouldn’t want to, either – this performance is one of those dazzling examples of the craft delivered by someone who really is – and has been – at the top of their game for at least the last fifteen years. Davis is one of those actors who forces everyone else to push themselves to meet her, and Meryl Streep does just that in their one shared scene in 2008’s Doubt. Davis plays the mother of a boy Streep’s character suspects of being abused at the school she runs, and Viola Davis finds this incredible vulnerability underneath the carefully-curated shell and somehow convinces in it with less than ten minutes of screen time. Downright extraordinary.
- Drew Barrymore – Scream
I’m a horror fan. I was never going to leave this off the list, was I? Drew Barrymore’s turn in the first Scream film isn’t just a really solid performance in and of itself, it’s an invocation of the meta-narratives at play in the movie as a whole: Barrymore’s starlet status at the time led everyone to believe she’d make it through unscathed, and then she winds up on the wrong end of Ghostface’s kitchen knife instead. It’s one of the great set-up-subversions in cinema history, and even now, it still packs one hell of a stab.
- Dave Bautista – Blade Runner 2049
I might be the one writing this article, but Kevin and his love for Blade Runner 2049 are never far behind. And honestly, I’m not going to complain when it comes to Dave Bautista in the opening of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner sequel. I’ve enjoyed Dave Bautista as an actor for a while now, but it was this that totally convinced me of his talent: it’s a simmering, noir-ish scene that relies more on Bautista’s impressive inter-character performance rather than his stature, that then explodes into this chaotic and genuinely thrilling fight sequence. Look, if Denis Villeneuve trusts this man to open arguably the most significant film of his career, Dave Bautista must have something going for him, right?
5. Paz Vega – Talk To Her
See, I understand why people get hung up on the giant-vagina-that-a-tiny-man-crawls-inside aspect of Talk To Her, but what they’re really overlooking is the performance, you know? Vega, in Almodovar’s iconic 2002 classic, plays a silent movie star whose work provides an uneasy, dreamlike parallel to the events in the real world of the film; she captures the vibe of the early-cinema performances perfectly, as well as adapting to Almodovar’s specific and melodramatic style. It’s unforgettably strange, but more than that, brilliantly performed, too.
What actors have turned in your favourite single-scene performances? Let us know in the comments!
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via WWFoldschool)