As my irritated wife can attest, I like to watch at least half a dozen movies at once.
I sift through the cable channels, identify the six movies I want to simulcast, and toggle among them, isolating my favorite scenes.
Often, these scenes involve an actor whose entire contribution may only account for a few minutes of screen time. Case in point: I don’t want to watch all of Meet the Parents, but I want to watch Kali Rocha as the officious flight attendant who tells Ben Stiller he has to wait for his boarding group, even though the terminal is empty.
It’s a fantastic two minutes. And I’ve often thought it’s a shame there isn’t a category for actors whose time on screen is too good to be overlooked but too short to be nominated for anything — a best supporting supporting actor award.
Examples would include just about anything Denis O’Hare has done in movies (TV is a different story, where he’s graduated from supporting supporting actor to full-on supporting actor status). You know O’Hare. He was the arrogant station chief in Charlie Wilson’s War, the arrogant physician in Dallas Buyers Club, the arrogant hit-and-run client in Michael Clayton.
He’s proved repeatedly that a small role can provide important grace notes that improve our understanding of a theme or major character. When O’Hare denounces the title character in Michael Clayton, it prompts Clayton’s memorable moment of brutal self-assessment, and the best monologue of George Clooney’s career (“I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a bag man”).
Perhaps my favorite example: David Thornton in A Civil Action, given one scene as a father who lost his son to disease caused by contaminated water. He gives a deposition describing how he knew his son was ill, how nobody believed him, how the boy died on the way to the hospital. It’s terrific on its own, but it also sets up a wonderful line by Robert Duvall as a corporate lawyer who concludes a trial must be avoided at all costs and mutters to his co-counsel: “These people can never testify.” The legal/narrative framework of the entire movie is established in that one scene.
Worth nominating for something, I say. And though SAG and the Globes and BAFTA and the Academy have bigger fish to fry, I actually have nothing better to do, and so I’ve sorted through this year’s collection of small acting gems and come up with what I think are the best supporting supporting performances of the year.
The nominees are:
Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Curtin is a book editor who has to tell her least favorite and least marketable writer, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), that her career is over. Their scenes together are brief but manage to suggest a lifetime of contentious history — bitterness, understanding, care, and even love.
Steven Roberts, Tully. In this movie, Charlize Theron is an overmatched mother of three whose special-needs son has been expelled from private school, where his behavior is labeled disruptive. She’s taking him through his new public school, and the child becomes inconsolably agitated in this unfamiliar place. In tears, she looks up to see a teacher (Roberts) who grasps the situation immediately, calms the child, and reassures the mother that her son is in good, safe, understanding hands. It’s lovely, moving moment.
Shayna McHayle, Support the Girls. This was a mini-miracle of a comedy, featuring Regina Hall as the manager of a breastaurant called Double Whammies, taking care everything and everyone. She needs a sound system for a party, knows the manager of the neighboring appliance store has a crush on a waitress (McHayle, hilarious) and persuades her to string him along. McHayle’s first role, but I’d be shocked if I didn’t see her again. (Pro tip: Support the Girls just started streaming on Hulu.)
Linda Cardellini, A Simple Favor. It seems unfair to nominate Cardellini in this category, because she has a substantial role in the awardsy Green Book. But she has an indelible two minutes in A Simple Favor, the black comedy about a suburban mom (Anna Kendrick) who begins to suspect her glamorous new friend (Blake Lively) has a hidden past and starts snooping. The trail leads her to a loft occupied by a fiery artist (Cardellini) whose brief scene sends the film spinning off in an intriguing new direction.
Brad Pitt, Deadpool 2. He gets one of the year’s biggest laughs as an invisible guy who becomes visible for single grisly second. Funny, but Pitt is too famous and his “performance” too short even for this category.
Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk. When friends invite his character, fresh out of prison, over for a beer, he chats amiably, then suddenly, still talking, drifts off to another realm of consciousness and starts to speak with chilling candor about the reality of incarceration. Not only a great piece of acting, but a crucial bit of foreshadowing in the film.
And now, the winner …
Philip Ettinger, First Reformed. Ethan Hawke is the bored cleric of a moribund rural church going through the motions until one day he’s asked to counsel a troubled man (Ettinger) who turns out to be contemplating an act of violent terrorism. Hawke and Ettinger have an amazing scene during which we see how the militancy of Ettinger’s character is tied to his despair and depression. That, in turn, informs the transformation we palpably see in Hawke’s preacher, who in the span of a few minutes registers a renewed commitment to his calling and his life.