If you ever had a tiny role in a high school play and dared to complain about your meagre number of lines, I suspect there was someone present who smugly put you in your place by quoting Konstantin Stanislavski’s line, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Though those famous words belong to the esteemed Russian pioneer of modern acting styles, they aren’t infallibly true. After all, most two-lines bits are small parts.
Yet Stanislavski’s deeper meaning is clear—that talented performers can do wonders with even their briefest moments in the spotlight. My book, There Are No Small Parts: 100 Outstanding Film Performances with Screen Time of 10 Minutes or Less, marvels at such people, those who can take only ten minutes, or just five, or even two, and create—with no time to waste—a significant screen characterization. Here are ten of my one hundred selections.
#1 Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester is a fascinating start to our list, as her mere seven minutes of screen time is actually split between two distinct characters. At the start of the film, she plays a delightfully perverse Mary Shelley who insists there is more to the story of Frankenstein than is commonly known. For the other four, she portrays the unforgettable title character—suggesting a terrifying duality between author and creation. As the iconic “bride”, Lanchester makes a uniquely astonishing impression: all animal sounds and staccato movement, with a costume as iconic as her neck-bolted groom. She is somehow monster and newborn innocent: both a terrifying and yet pitiful presence on the silver screen.
#2 H.B. Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Remembered fondly (and rightly so) as everybody’s favourite Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life is often underappreciated for its array of brilliant, grounded performances. H.B. Warner appears as Mr. Gower the druggist, in only three-and-a-half minutes of Capra’s holiday classic. Gower rages at the young protagonist George Bailey—having been devastated by the recent news of his own son’s death. When the young boy questions the druggist’s mistaken use of poison in a medicine pill, Gower’s anger becomes violent. But George reacts with compassion, and Warner’s resulting performance flits seamlessly from disbelief to despair to remorse as he cradles the crying boy and begs his forgiveness. It is a masterfully restrained performance, and is among the richest emotional components of a film that will never grow old.
#3 Canada Lee in Body and Soul (1947)
African-American actor and activist Canada Lee gives an impressive performance as Ben, a broken former boxing champ encountered by protagonist Charley (John Garfield). In just nine minutes of screen time, he exhibits an extraordinary range of warmth and strength when acting opposite Garfield. However, his tragic, climactic scene sees him explode with pent-up rage and frustration. Lee, himself, was a successful boxer in his younger years; this perhaps lends his performance a realism still largely foreign to cinema of that age.
#4 Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve (1950)
It’s hard to believe that Monroe is in this theatrical cult favourite for a mere three minutes, because she commands the screen with such distinctive humour, adorability, and all-around sparkle. Monroe is absolutely magnetic: every bit the star we’ll come to know and love. Even alongside heavyweights like Bette Davis and George Sanders, Monroe displays a formidable quality of presence; she confidently nails every one of her laugh lines. It’s clear that this young woman is going places.
#5 Robert Duvall in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Boo Radley is the perfect bogeyman in To Kill A Mockingbird. He is largely unseen, known only through gossip and rumour and the gifts he leaves in a hiding place for protagonist Scout to discover. Radley is the perfect shadow figure, one that the audience learns all about without ever appearing on screen … until he does. Robert Duvall made his screen debut as Boo Radley, and his performance is brilliantly minimalist. Without a trace of actorly self-consciousness, he embodies the role simply and completely, and in just six minutes. It’s as if he’s stepped right out of the book.
#6 Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
She’s just a kid here, but Jodie Foster, in her four-and-a-half-minute role as juvenile delinquent Audrey, shows remarkable poise and potential. As a shoplifting, wine-drinking tomboy, she has an enviably smart-mouthed delivery that hints at the great depth we will later come to expect from this actor. The character could be something quick and cheap to drive the main plot along, and yet there is a complexity to Foster’s performance that makes this characterisation feel so refreshingly real. Alice… isn’t as lauded as her next collaboration with director Martin Scorsese—indeed, 1976’s Taxi Driver would grant her international acclaim. But for the sheer lasting impact of this blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo, Audrey is very much worth your time.
#7 Christopher Walken in Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Pennies From Heaven is the American remake of an acclaimed British mini-series by Dennis Potter; it’s a depressing, tragic tale about a sheet music salesman that punctuates its plot with surreal musical numbers. Critically praised but a commercial bomb, it’s a fair bet you haven’t seen or heard of it. The film is marked by some great performances, but a true standout is Christopher Walken’s gangster Tom who, in eight-and-a-half minutes, dazzles in a fantasy tap-dance rendition of “Let’s Misbehave”. He brings a tawdry, old-Hollywood glamour to the role, plus impeccable precision and panache. For many viewers, this was their first introduction to Walken’s musical theatre and dancing chops (and he’d later remind us of these talents in the timeless music video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice.)
#8 Annette Bening in Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Postcards… is only the fourth on-screen credit for Bening; while she is more widely known for her breakout role in The Grifters (released the same year), it’s this short, three minute scene with Meryl Streep, that marked her as a talent to watch out for. As a mellow actress rather amused by the fact that she and Streep are sleeping with the same guy, Bening is witty and naughtily suggestive, effortlessly lighting up the screen. She’s what happens when versatile acting talent meets movie-star charisma—teaching a lesson to actors everywhere that theatrical training is not just helpful when applied to acting on screen, it’s an absolute asset to one’s craft.
#9 Ruby Dee in American Gangster (2007)
Ruby Dee was a powerhouse artist, activist and actor; it’s no surprise that even five minutes of screen time featuring her work is going to be incredible, and lift the quality of the film around her. Despite her role lasting five minutes, Dee nabbed herself an Oscar nomination as Mama Lucas, particularly for her ninety-second confrontation with Denzel Washington as her criminal son. This veteran performer exhibits the kind of force, spontaneity, and unblemished truth that confirms the legendary status she attained. Her work in this film is a masterclass, and warrants close study by any actor serious about the art form.
#10 Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
In the midst of the McConaissance—Matthew McConaughey’s career resurgence of the 2010s—McConaughey set aside Oscar-baiting, powerhouse performances to show up in Martin Scorsese’s marathon dissection of greed and capitalism. In the eight minutes he spends on screen, he dispense cocaine-and-martini-fuelled wisdom to stockbroking novice Leonardo DiCaprio who, in his own display of acting prowess, has to keep a straight face through the entire ridiculous display of ludicrous philosophy and (literal) chest thumping. Seductively persuasive and insatiably craving more (of everything), McConaughey is an all-out razzle-dazzle personification of excess. But most impressive is the fact that he makes the character seem almost likeable, and an unforgettable figure in the story’s landscape for the two hours of story that follow.
This should encourage you to go and check out some of these amazing performances. Watching great films is one of the best things you can do as an actor. It serves to inspire you and gives you a rich knowledge of the film industry you are hoping to work in. This is also a great reminder that even if you only have a small part in a film or TV show, you can make it count and still offer a three-dimensional character that really adds to the story.
John DiLeo’s There Are No Small Parts: 100 Outstanding Film Performances with Screen Time of 10 Minutes or Less is his seventh book about film. Published by Foliofina, it’s available wherever books are sold.