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The Greatest Single-Scene Performances In Movie History

July 29, 2020 11.5k votes 2.0k voters 69.2k views23 items

List RulesVote up the single-scene performances that almost ran away with the whole movie.

It takes a great actor to make a brief movie appearance memorable. The best single-scene performances provide a lesson in how it's done. For such a thing to work, the actor has to have a clear read on the character they're playing while simultaneously understanding the function of their role in the overall film. Typically, showing up for just one scene means the moment is important, so the performer is under a lot of pressure to accomplish the mission of that particular sequence.

This list will look at some of the scene-stealing actors who only needed a few minutes to deliver something unforgettable. Some, like Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors and Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein, were already established stars when they had their show-stopping scene. Others, like Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop, saw their careers get a major boost. Regardless of where they were professionally at the time, their work had a strong lasting impression.

In each of the following cases, we'll look at how the best one-scene performances made an indelible impact upon the movies in which they appeared. These are full-fledged scenes, not just cameos, and they are pure movie magic.

  • The Scene: Young Butch Coolidge receives a visit from Air Force veteran Captain Koons, who gives the boy a gold watch that belonged to his father. Koons explains that he hid the watch in a very uncomfortable place just so that he could keep his promise by delivering it to Butch.

    The Role: Koons is a man with great purpose - a fact he reveals in a monologue describing his experience as a POW. He clearly took the mission to deliver the watch as seriously as any combat mission.

    The Performance: Walken has always been known for his quirkiness, but Pulp Fiction raised that to a new level. The story Koons tells is absurd, as it involves hiding the watch up his posterior. Nevertheless, Walken tells it with such sincerity that it becomes intoxicating. The sequence was so effective that it somewhat altered Walken's career. Many of his post-Pulp Fiction movies allow him to have some oddball out-of-nowhere speech. Such things have become his unofficial trademark.

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  • The Scene: The film's hero, Westley (Cary Elwes), is "mostly dead but still slightly alive." He is revived by two miracle workers.

    The Roles: Billy Crystal is Miracle Max and Carol Kane is Valerie. Both are gray-haired, wrinkled, and a little nutty - despite their very specific skills. 

    The Performance: Buried under old-age make-up, Crystal and Kane improvised a lot of their lines, including the oft-quoted, "Have fun storming the castle!" Aside from their scene being naturally funny, this is a case in which the comedic voices of two different actors blend together perfectly. They suggest a long-lasting relationship between Max and Valerie that has seen ups and downs. The way they feed off one another offers a master class in how to build comedy.

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  • The Scene: Frankenstein's Monster (Peter Boyle) is let loose from the laboratory. While wandering around the countryside, he encounters a blind man who offers him kindness.

    The Role: Gene Hackman plays that blind man, a lonely guy named Harold who prays for companionship, only to get it in a most unlikely form.

    The Performance: When Young Frankenstein was released in 1974, Hackman was known primarily for hard-edged dramas like The Conversation and The French Connection. Seeing him in a Mel Brooks comedy came as a complete shock. His four-minute scene is filled with jokes about the sightless Harold not knowing he's talking to a monster and inadvertently causing him harm. Those are made funnier because Hackman was smart enough to play it all straight. He doesn't let on that he's in a comedy. That gives every already well-crafted gag an extra kick.

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  • The Scene: Neal Page (Steve Martin) has been trying to get from New York to his home in Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. The trip has had one misfortune after another. He attempts to rent a car, only to discover that the one he's been assigned isn't in the lot. Edie McClurg plays the car rental agent who's on the receiving end of Neal's profanity-laden tirade.

    The Role: "Car Rental Agent," as the character is credited, initially seems excessively chipper as she absent-mindedly yaps on the phone to a friend, ignoring the angry customer standing in front of her. But after Neal's outburst, she shows a willingness to give it right back to him. 

    The Performance: McClurg demonstrates her pitch-perfect comic timing in her one scene, which is arguably the funniest in the whole film. She takes the character from disinterested to obnoxiously perky to defiant - without ever losing credibility. Martin may get laughs from dropping the F-bomb on her 18 times, but McClurg earns the biggest laugh with her two-word reply: "You're f*cked." The delivery is masterful, turning an already funny scene into an unforgettable one.

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