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The Case for Adding an Oscar for Best Scene Stealer

6 minute read
Thomson is a film historian and the author of more than 25 books, including How to Watch a Movie, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, The Whole Equation, and biographies of Orson Welles and David O. Selznick. His new book is Acting Naturally: The Magic in Great Performances.

Are you going to watch the Oscars this year? The Academy doesn’t like to talk about this, but it’s nervous you’ll be doing something else. So I have a modest booster suggestion—and it concerns the little things, moments in a movie that may seem marginal, or something that could have been cut. I’m thinking about a few scenes that come and go when you see a film, but which stay in the mind, no matter that no one at the time—not even the actors—dreamed they could be nominated, let alone given a statuette.

Would an example help? I daresay you recall Apocalypse Now. If I asked you to describe it, you might say, well, it’s the hell of Vietnam, with a young officer going upriver to eliminate a rogue officer so maddened by the war that he is fighting on his own terms. Put like that, you might even recognize a kind of story nonsense. Why would the military bother finding a madman rotting in the jungle? Of course, this is Martin Sheen as the young officer and Marlon Brando as the jungle outcast. No one can argue the case, they are both very striking, if a little confused. As if Francis Coppola, the director, had never fully worked out what they were meant to be doing.

But when I talk to anyone about that picture, they hardly mention Sheen or Brando. In fact, they all treasure Kilgore, the bristlingly radiant cavalry colonel who has come to Vietnam for surfing. You know who he is: Robert Duvall, stripped to the waist, wearing a Stetson, and standing up and ranting as if he has determined that no bullet will hit him. In the background, U.S. aircraft lay down a line of napalm bombs and the jungle blooms in hellish prettiness. You probably even remember what he says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning … smells like … victory.”

In a film of 153 minutes, Kilgore gets about 10. But he is the picture. Better and more swiftly done than anything else in Apocalypse, this scene delivers the wanton arrogance of America in Vietnam. And it does it with a panache that is endearing. It’s hard to dislike Duvall in anything, but in the very gloomy and guilt-ridden Apocalypse Now, here is a scene—the scene—that is unashamed of our terrible assurance in that jungle. We love the air of confidence in a movie—and Kilgore is there forever.

Here’s my point: For a long while now, we have been wary of star or leading roles in movies. We feel our stories should be about large untidy groups in which there is more allowance made for egalitarianism, and all people being alike or on the same level. So the old tradition of read roles and supporting types is suspect now. Long-form television series have educated us in relishing parts that seem beyond the level of official support. They’re just there for a few moments: think of Mark Margolis’s Salamanca in Breaking Bad, or Lisa Emery’s Darlene in Ozark.

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There is something magical in bystanders that come and go, without ever putting down the roots of being loyal “supporting” figures, like buttresses for the house. Brief lives on film can make us wonder about more: I want to see Kilgore at home, playing golf, taking tango lessons, or surfing at seventy-five. I yearn to see more of John Cazale’s Fredo in The Godfather Part II, a picture where no less than Robert De Niro, Michael V. Gazzo, and Lee Strasberg were all nominated for the supporting Oscar (De Niro won as the young Vito). They are brilliant, but why not a nod for sad Fredo?

It’s not right, and it’s not smart for the Academy. Because we the people love those characters who remind us of us, those who are not properly attended to. So I’m proposing a new category—Oscars for what you might call bit parts: a single scene maybe; no more than ten minutes; a scene that might be dropped from the picture on strict plot terms—but scenes we wait for whenever the picture comes up on TV.

You’re going to ask, well, what performances are like that this year? I can think of a few that have not been nominated because the business reckoned they were not large enough. But how about Zethphan Smith-Gneist in that Julliard class in Tar? How about Samantha Morton in She Said, or Anthony Hopkins in The Son? In one scene, talking at a table, Morton is so piercing and outraged she comes close to making the rest of She Said redundant. And in The Son (a rather clunky film, I have to say), in one scene Hopkins lays down the fearful weather system for a whole family. Of course, give Hopkins two minutes, and you can have your whole movie stolen. You may remember he got the lead Oscar in 1991 with not much more than 16 minutes of Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. He is 85 now, but there isn’t a quicker actor at work, or one more likely to turn a morsel into a feast.

There are actors at their best in an unexpected minute. This year Bill Nighy gets his due with a lead actor nomination for Living. He does fine work, but as his long-time follower, I treasure Nighy for bits and pieces. He resonates in his casual or apologetic presence, the way he can seem to have stepped inadvertently into a movie about lead characters. He did an interview once at London’s National Theatre where he said that as a beginner doing Chekhov on stage, with Judi Dench, he had waited in the wings, trying to become impressive. Then he had felt a need to scratch, and so he wandered on stage, scratching. This was not in the script, or the direction. But he was set up as a scratch actor.

The last order of business: This new award needs a name. Let’s call it the Dorothy Malone award. In 1946, in The Big Sleep, the 22-year-old Malone played an unnamed clerk in a Los Angeles bookstore, the Acme. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe drifts in off the street with a bibliographical query. In a moment or two, she has closed for the afternoon, found a bottle of scotch and, well, it’s up to us to see how much life there can be in an instant. Years later, in Written on the Wind, Malone got a supporting actress Oscar for a lush set-piece from the annals of melodrama. But it doesn’t stand a chance next to those three or four minutes at the Acme.

Talk about victory.

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