“There are no small parts, only small actors” (Constantin Stanislavski)
I’ll bet that when you read the above quote a lot of you had two questions that crossed your mind:
Question One: What does one mean or how does one define a small part or role in the theater, on TV, or in the movies?
Question Two: Who the F&*#k is Constantin Stanislawski?
Well, you are in luck dear reader because I am here to answer these questions for you.
“What does one mean or how does one define a small part or role in the theater, on TV, or in the movies?”
In all three categories (theater, TV, and films) there are, of course, supporting actors to the major actors (in the theater it is called “featured” rather than “supporting” although it is one and the same). Supporting actors are extremely important to a story. They are recognized during awards season under supporting actor categories for the Tony, Emmy and Oscar Award shows. The only time there is a further distinction for supporting categories is due to gender (male or female) or, if it’s in the theater, for either a musical or a drama. However, you will notice that I do not include the “Golden Globe” awards in this analysis which has a number of different award categories in movies and TV which are even more varied than the Emmys or the Oscars. Why you ask? Well it might be because the Golden Globes are basically the awards’ equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Really, they are just publicity awards with their award history full of more corruption than a 3rd world dictatorship (or our current Administration… had to get that in). Hence, I will be discussing just information pertaining to the Tony, Emmy, and Oscar Awards.
Sometimes a supporting actor can make such a strong impression that you remember them rather than the main characters in a story. For instance, Richard Widmark’s terrific performance as the giggling sociopathic killer in the Noir classic, “Kiss of Death” is far better remembered than beefcake Victor Mature in the lead role. Another example is in the Dustin Hoffman thriller, “Marathon Man” (A.K.A. “Benjamin vs. Josef Mengele”) where Roy Scheider, as Hoffman’s smart, tough, sexy, and deadly government agent brother Doc basically steals every scene from Hoffman. When Doc dies half-way through the movie (Ops! Spoiler Alert…) the movie basically dies with him. Does anybody really believe that Hoffman could then take on and defeat Lawrence Oliver and his band of neo-Nazis killers? A three-year old holding a cap pistol looks more menacing than Hoffman ridiculously holding a gun.
Sometimes, a supporting actor’s role can be so powerful, that it’s hard to determine if it’s a supporting rather than a leading role. For the 1944 movie, “Going My Way” actor Barry Fitzgerald was the first and only actor ever to be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (which he won) for the same role in the same movie. Subsequently, the Academy changed their rules so that could never happen again.
Supporting actor roles are not to be confused with actors performing a role either as an extra, in a “bit” part, or in a cameo. An extra is just someone with a non-speaking role filling up a scene. A “bit” part role is when an actor has direct interaction usually with main characters or has importance in the theme or plot of a film/TV/theater production but they are limited to five lines of dialogue or less. The advantage of such a role is that the actor may be paid more than an extra and sometimes even listed in the credits. However, a cameo role is something entirely different.
Usually a cameo role is a small part either spoken or unspoken by a well-known name actor or celebrity. An example of a memorable non-spoken name actor cameo occurred recently in the 2017 Showtime series “Twin Peaks: The Return”. Despite the fact that this series just might have been the absolutely worst thing that I have ever seen on TV (yes, even worse than “My Mother the Car” and “Hello Larry”) and despite the fact that the series had enough cameos, bit roles, and extras to populate a small Caribbean island, there was one cameo that particularly stood out for its sheer ludicrousness. That was a cameo by Richard Chamberlain (Yep, “Dr. Kildare”, “Thorne Birds”, “Shogun” Richard Chamberlain). If you really want to find this gem and do not wish to sit through all 18 hours of this colossal dreck of a series (that’s 18 hours of my life that I will never get back again…) then just check out Episode 4. In it Chamberlain’s performance consists almost entirely of him opening a door to allow a bunch of characters into a room and then closing the door without him either speaking, burping or even farting (which actually might have almost made sitting through this fiasco tolerable). Now that’s an example of a non-spoken cameo. A really bad non-spoken cameo.
However, a far better example of a cameo, and a speaking one at that, and as a lead in to the title of my post, “Showstoppers” is a cameo in the 2013 movie, “American Hustle”. This cameo is by Robert De Niro as feared Mafia boss Victor Tellegio when Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Pena in the midst of a scam unexpectedly have to meet Tellegio at a casino party. Although De Niro’s screen time is less than 5 minutes long and although he has more than 5 lines (some cameos can have more lines) he basically dominates the entire scene. With De Niro just using his body language and icy stare to analyze these three strangers while discussing possible casino plans he creates a character that radiates fear and power. You can see Bale, Cooper, and Pena’s characters start to crumble in his presence during De Niro’s questioning and almost blow their covers. Except for a chance lucky occurrence in this scene, they probably would have been found out and immediately killed. De Niro’s performance ratchets the suspense of this film moment up into the stratosphere.
Which now leads me into discussing what I was getting at with my Blog Post heading of “Showstoppers”. The term means “an act, song, or performer that wins applause so prolonged as to interrupt a performance” (Webster’s Dictionary). This is a term that applies to a theater performance. Usually for a musical, it is a song by a specific actor that makes the scene in a musical especially mesmerizing. An example of this is from the original Broadway musical, “Guys and Dolls” when secondary gangster character Nicely-Nicely belts out the song, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat!” at the Save-a-Soul Mission near the end of the musical. The movie version had actor, Stubby Kaye belt it out and, even after all these years, the actor and the lyrics’ fervor still make you want to take pause. However, what does this have to do with my discussion of supporting actors in movies and TV you may ask? Well, it is my contention that there are “showstopper” moments/performances in movies and TV by actors too and that the term shouldn’t just be relegated to actors in the theater.
Now I’m not going to mention movie or TV musicals here. However, I am going to mention a few showstopping performances in movies and on TV by supporting actors that you may not know or that you may not have noticed before. These examples also are very short supporting performances which also ties back to the original quote just below my Post heading (Yes I also promise I’ll tell you who F&*$king Constantin Stanislawski was).
I already mentioned one previously in Robert De Niro’s performance in “American Hustle”. The Oscars Awards have even recognized a few (although not too often). Two examples that come to mind are first, William Hurt’s Oscar nominated supporting actor performance in 2005’s “A History of Violence.” He doesn’t show up until the end of the movie and he is only on the screen for less than 10 minutes but his performance as a ruthless and murderous Irish mob boss grabs you by the throat. He should have won but he didn’t. However, the actor in the second example did.
For the 1976 movie, “Network,” actress Beatrice Straight as William Holden’s cheated upon wife won the best supporting actress Oscar despite being on the screen for only 5 minutes and 2 seconds which is the shortest on-screen performance to ever win an Oscar in film history. In her scene, she basically vents while reaming Bill Holden’s butt out when he confesses to his affair with ice queen Faye Dunaway. She deserved it as did Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Speaking of a showstopping moment, hearing the words in Chayefsky’s screenplay while watching the movie in a crowded movie theater a long time ago was the only time in all of my years of viewing films that I literally started to applaud during one moment in the film. Why I wasn’t thrown out of the movie theater, I’ll never know. Chayefsky had talent and guts!
Now enough of all of this. Time to list some of my favorite showstopper short supporting actor performances:
1. Fritz Kortner “The Razor’s Edge” (1946)
Somerset Maugham’s novel of WW I veteran Larry Darrell trying to find real meaning in life was adapted into a powerful film with Tyrone Power playing the lead role. During Darrell’s aimless roaming in Europe he finds work in a coal mine in France which is also where he meets and becomes friendly with Kosti, an old fellow coal miner played by Kortner. Kortner was a well-known Austrian stage and film actor who fled his country with Hitler’s rise to power in the thirties and ultimately arrived in the U.S. where he found work as an actor for 10 years. He ultimately returned to Germany in 1947 where he continued to work as an actor while also drawing praise for his stage and film direction.
His on-screen time in this film is short (maybe 5 minutes) and takes place in a dark café where Darrell meets him after seeking shelter from a bad storm outside. Drunk, paranoid, secretive, fake jovial, reeking with inner torment and fear, Kortner gives an acting master class of conflicting emotions while the two characters discuss spirituality and Darrell’s desperate search for meaning. Kosti’s comment, “You sound like a very religious man who does not believe in God, ” has special meaning when Kosti finally reveals his past to Larry in a surprise shocker that causes your mouth to drop open [if you haven’t seen this film, don’t read up on it first before viewing unless you want to risk accidentally finding out the “big” reveal (no Spoiler tips this time)].
2. Wilford Brimley “Absence of Malice” (1981)
Besides his doing Quaker Oats and Liberty Medical commercials Brimley was and still is (at age 84) a fine character actor and most definitely a “character”. One of his best and most memorable performances was as Assistant U.S. Attorney General James A. Wells in the Paul Newman movie, “Absence of Malice”. He comes into the movie at almost the very end and his entire on-screen time is also around 5 to less than 10 minutes and takes place in an enclosed room with most of the principal characters.
The plot-line is too complex to explain briefly (go see the movie, OK!) but he is the big Justice Department boss coming in to clean up a colossal mess that individuals under his ultimate authority made earlier in the film. His Wells is blunt, forthright, no-nonsense, folksy, hysterically funny, and nobody’s fool. He matter-of-factly dresses down just about all of the miscreants and legally dispenses justice like a “Will Kane” without wearing a pair of six-shooters. By the time he’s done talking it’s like all you want to do is say, “Wow!” (that is after you stop laughing).
3. Samara Weaving “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)
First of all, let me get this off my chest right now: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” should have won the Oscar for Best Picture last year instead of some movie with Sally Hawkins ballroom dancing with a “Lizard!” Secondly, for all of the absolutely great performances that were lauded in Three Billboards, not enough praise was directed towards actress, Samara Weaving. Don’t remember what part she played? She played Penelope, the new 19-year-old much younger girlfriend of Frances McDormand’s ex-husband (John Hawkes). The Australian Weaving (another member of the Australian actor pipeline to America) and whose uncle is actor Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, etc.) has maybe, the shortest on-screen time of any of the actors I’ve spotlighted at maybe a little over two minutes. However, what little time she has, she uses to great effect.
Her Penelope, at first glance, may seem like the classic stereotypical bimbo home wrecker. However, you would be wrong. Although Penelope is not terribly bright and at times awkward, she is also sweet, innocent, and unintentionally funny with moments of real unexpected wisdom. One of the many highlights of the movie is when McDormand after hearing her ex say, “Penelope says, Anger begets greater anger,” McDormand confronts the two of them with wine bottle in hand ready to do harm to one or both of them due to her ex previously setting fire to McDormand’s three rented billboards. However, she first asks Penelope if she said that quote. To which Weaving immediately with a smile on her face says something to the effect that she did but (with pure innocent honesty) admitted that it was on her bookmark from a book she was reading about “polio or is it polo…which word is the one about horses?” Besides the scene being hysterically funny, it’s also extremely touching and completely dissipates McDormand’s anger. The scene also works because of Director McDonagh’s brilliant screenplay and because of Weaving nailing the true essence of the character. Somewhere in Heaven Judy Holliday is probably smiling.
Rufus Sewell “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Episode 15: “Look She Made a Hat” (2018)
What!!!! I’m mentioning a TV episode here? Damn right I am. A great short supporting actor performance is not just for movies folks. There have been a lot of them throughout TV history but this is the most recent one that I’ve seen that I have to single out for special praise.
Rufus Sewell is a Welsh/Australian actor whose smoldering good looks have made him perfect for doing sinister and evil roles or individuals that appear to have great complexity and depth behind a brooding outward appearance. In this episode his on-screen time is only about 13 minutes. He plays an early 1960s famous unknown artist” named Declan Howell that Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) meets with her boyfriend in a crowded bar frequented by artists. Drunk, loud, borderline obnoxious, but extremely intelligent, he commands everyone’s attention and proves he is sober enough to command another drink by hopping on top of the bar and going into a long rant reciting quotes from Byron, William Blake, and even the English nursery rhyme, “Hickory, Dickory, Dock.” Even though he never sells his paintings and, rumor has it, has a masterpiece that he never shows to anyone he invites the two of them to stop by his studio (for the boyfriend to buy a painting but for Declan, to possibly seduce Midge).
Ultimately, he gets Midge alone in his studio where she is surprised by his mentioning in detail, her past purchase of a picture of a woman that she was holding when they previously met. When he asks her why she bought it she says something to the effect that the woman in the picture looked like she had a secret, “A joke that I don’t, and maybe if I took her home I’d learn the joke and it would make me smile.” All the while you see Sewell, processing everything she says silently before leading her into a hidden side studio where he shows her his masterpiece (which we never see) that absolutely stuns her before he says, “So tell me, does it make you smile?”
At this point, you see Sewell reveal what he feels and believes in as an artist which is to take everything as far as it would go even if you can’t have everything. In his case he casually says that he gave up his family, his home, everything for his work. His masterpiece is for him and it will never be in a museum or sold. He also slyly asks if she will sleep with him. They both look at each other and leave you wondering if they actually would have if it wasn’t for the fact of Midge’s boyfriend just returned to the studio. Through this whole scene Sewell enhances the performance of Brosnahan (who is also a great actress) while almost forcing you to keep your eyes on him. He leaves you wanting to know more, way more about what makes this person tick.
Well these are a few of my favorites right now. I could list many more but I hope that you get my point, even if we may disagree. However, before I go I’ll finally answer the second question at the beginning of this post:
Who the F&*#k is Constantin Stanislavski?
And the answer is… he’s some Russian guy!