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The 25 Best Scene-Stealing Movie Performances of All Time

28 January 2015 | Features, Other Lists | by Woodson Hughes


There are no small parts, only small actors, or so the old saying goes. However, it contains a grain of truth. Many actors want to be the star but some are born to have a few moments in the spotlight. Some talents and some roles are just too concentrated to be sustained or tolerated over the entire length of picture. Sometimes even a star wishes, for whatever reason, to take a small role and provides a major jolt to a film.

Below are twenty-five performances short in duration, some from stars or stars in the making, some from those who only had a minute or two on stage. All ended up stealing the show, however, if only for a few moments.


25. Lynn Redgrave in Kinsey (2004)

Lynn Redgrave in Kinsey

Lynn Redgrave was a great talent without a great career. Her renowned acting family is apparently genetically incapable of producing a bad actor but where her exalted father and sister seemed to have descended from Olympus, Lynn was plump, pleasant and too accessible for her own good—and it didn’t help that her first big film, 1966’s Georgy Girl overshadowed the rest of her career.

In what turned out to be the last years of her life, she decided to restart as a character actress in indie films. She didn’t live to completely pull it off but gave fine performances in Shine (1996), Gods and Monsters (1998) and a small role wrangled for her by her nephew by marriage, Liam Neeson, the star of the film, Kinsey.

This bio-pic of the noted sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, ends on a triumphant note, though Kinsey’s work is being shut down. Kinsey is visited by the last of many subjects he has interviewed for his studies, an intelligent, classy, warm lady in late middle age. She tells the doctor that his work gave her the courage to stop living the heterosexual lie that had been her life for so many years. It inspired her to declare herself to the woman she had long loved… and who turned out to love her in return. Redgrave’s character is portrayed as normal and natural, not a freak, and Lynn Redgrave was the perfect one to pull it all off, a small final victory.


24. Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

asphalt jungle marilyn monroe

If there was a female actor as iconic as Brando during the era of his greatest fame it was surely Marilyn Monroe. Though she would study the Method later, she was strictly a studio-trained actress in her early career. She was never on stage and was thought of mostly as an empty sex symbol for much of her own lifetime. However, death has been somewhat kinder to her than life. Now she’s thought of as a great instinctive actress, one tragically exploited for her sensual image and beauty. Whatever one may think of her actual acting abilities, it is without doubt a fact that she possessed the magnetism that is labeled “star quality.”

A good example of where she might have gone is seen in the film that launched her career, the classic film noir-heist picture The Asphalt Jungle. This memorable John Huston production features a stunning cast and the fact that any minor player was noticed at all is a miracle. However she has a fine two-scene role as the nubile young plaything of the older, supposedly solid citizen (Louis Calhern) who is secretly the sponsor of the criminal plot that goes wildly wrong. Her second scene, when she first tries to lie and defend her patron then, out of fear, betrays him remains one of her best pieces of acting (and she herself always felt this was so).


23. Viola Davis in Doubt (2008)

Viola Davis in Doubt

African-American actress Viola Davis is riding high today thanks to her gritty work in lead roles in The Help (2011) and the TV series “How to Get Away With Murder” but two small roles put her on the map: a touching, wordless part in Antwone Fisher (2002) and the role for which she received her first Oscar nomination: Doubt, although she only appeared briefly.

The plot of the film, set in a parochial school in the early 1960s, has self-righteous old nun Sister Ignatius (Meryl Streep) out to bring down popular young Father Flynn due to her genuine belief that he is up to some bad stuff, especially with an effeminate young black man. She attempts to enlist his mother (Davis) and gets one big shock.

In the face of a difficult situation, the mother is neither stupid nor weak but is sad and filled with rage with the knowledge that her child was born for a life of misery. He is despised by almost all, including his own father. The only exceptions are his mother and Father Flynn, the man who has befriended him, a man his mother considers educated, cultured and fine despite the possible cost of his friendship with her son. Davis’ mighty performance supplies the real doubt: is the nun doing the right thing even if her suspicions are correct?


22. Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)


It was a modern screen miracle: after years of mediocre performances, Matthew McConaughey suddenly started taking his career seriously and was…really good. He started this roll with Magic Mike and Mud in 2012, his eventual Oscar winner, The Dallas Buyer’s Club, and the HBO series, “True Detective” (both 2013) and he sealed it with a cameo role in a Martin Scorsese film.

The picture was The Wolf of Wall Street, a fact-based study of ultra-corrupt stock market wheeler-dealer Jordan Belford (Leonardo DeCaprio). McConaughey is in the film for one big scene at the beginning playing Mark Hanna, Belford’s dubious role model. That one scene imparts the DNA of all that will follow and the actor pulls it off effortlessly and with his usual charisma.


21. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous (2000)

psh almost famous

The late Mr. Hoffman was a tragic loss to the cinematic world. Not classically handsome and not quite a star, he was a huge talent and more than a usual character actor (it’s an irony that he won his Oscar for a rare lead role). He added texture and quality to many films, some deserving of it, some not.

One that did deserve him was Almost Famous, a tale of the rock scene of the 1970s, based on a true story. He has a scene as legendary rock journalism editor Lester Bangs. Here the viewer can tell that the sharp-witted, subtle Bangs knows exactly what he’s doing in hiring the improbably young but talented protagonist for his publication. He also knows that the group he’s sending the boy to cover, Sweetwater, is only just talented enough to play in the big leagues and no more. They are a perfect training ground for the kid. Bangs is so believable because Hoffman is so believable and that’s why the audience accepts the story.


20. Julie Christie in Billy Liar (1963)

Julie Christie in Billy Liar

One of the 1960s answers to Marilyn Monroe was Julie Christie, a strikingly beautiful British actress who seemed to personify the “swinging 60s.” While Christie didn’t struggle to be taken seriously as an actress as Monroe had, her star quality was, as with Monroe, evident from a very early point. Coming from television and one forgettable film, Christie got her first big break when director John Schlesinger, then new to film himself, chose her for a small but crucial role in his upcoming film, Billy Liar.

The film details how a shiftless lower-middle class young man who is daydreaming and lying his life away is given one big chance to change it all thanks to a lively, lovely, free-spirited young woman he’s admired from afar for years. The young woman is only on screen for eleven minutes and whoever played her had to make a big impression in a short time or the film’s somewhat sad punch line wouldn’t work. She pulled it off in great style and even lead Tom Courtney’s fine performance didn’t bury her.


19. Donald Sutherland in JFK (1991)

Donald Sutherland in JFK

Oliver Stone is surely the big political pot stirrer of modern cinema and one of the biggest pots he ever stirred was his investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Among the many well-known faces is one that really hits pay dirt: Canadian born actor Donald Sutherland, who shows up in the center of the film as an enigmatic gentleman known only as X. Meeting only with New Orleans DA Jim Garrison in a public but secluded place, X weaves a long story about the events leading up to the assassination and those that took place afterwards.

It is obvious that X is highly placed and, though he doesn’t know the whole story, he does know much. Was there ever such a person in real life? No one now living can say but thanks to Sutherland’s skill and fine narrating of this crucial sequence, X does live for a few vital moments on film.


18. Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet (1986)

BLUE VELVET, Dean Stockwell,

While Dennis Hopper’s unforgettable performance as the villain (and what a villain!) of David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet is his monument, he didn’t quite steal the show. Dean Stockwell has been an actor most of his life.

As a child he danced on screen with Gene Kelly, was the movie son of William Powell and Myrna Loy and starred in the 1948 film The Boy with Green Hair. He also had a good little run in the late 1950s and early 60s with such films as Compulsion (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). The first of these co-won him best actor at Cannes. However, his indifferent looks and demeanor (best described as “boy most likely to be neurotic”) limited his career.

By the 1980s he was mostly doing nothing but little films and TV. However, Lynch, who loves using forgotten actors of an earlier era, first cast him in the sci-fi epic Dune (1984) and then invited him back to play a one-scene character role in his next film, Blue Velvet. In this film’s storyline, a callow young man (Kyle McLaughlin) foolishly involves himself in a small town mystery that gets him in way over his head and maturity level.

The worst part of it is the nasty drug kingpin Frank Booth (Hopper). The nadir of the young man’s odyssey is when Frank coerces him into going along on a visit to a brothel owned by Frank’s drug supplier, Ben (Stockwell), the one person who impresses the ultra-extreme Frank. Lynch’s script contains no description of Ben and Lynch gave Stockwell no ideas, just the freedom of his imagination. And, boy, what he came up with! The wildly effeminate Ben mighty be best described as Little Richard’s long lost evil white twin, only much more fey.

The moment when he performs Frank’s favorite, a lip-sync version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with a make-shift spotlight in his face, will remain a high point in cinema surrealism.



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