Sunday, March 8, 2009

Short and Sweet

So how ‘bout them Oscars, eh?

There you have seven more syllables of coverage than I planned to impart. Mindful of those hallowed, hollowed words, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” I’ve said precious little on the subject of Hollywood’s preeminent circle jerk. Ah, but if forcibly induced to praise one element of the voters’ conduct, I would point to their uncommonly equitable extraction of two performances that, from a timechecker’s standpoint, lie somewhere between “cameo” and “sub-supporting role.” Doubt’s Viola Davis and Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon had roughly a dozen minutes apiece—the length of time it takes Hugh Grant to clear his throat—yet they managed to generate two of the year’s most galvanizing creations. Davis’s single scene in Doubt was a Big Scene, and was lamentably edited as such, but the volcanic brunt of her talent reaches the screen with near-negligible dilution. Denied the luxury of a character arc, she handily and unfussily does without one, arriving on cue fully formed and formidably layered. For all the sturm and drang over alleged misconduct, the party whose reactions resonate most is neither assailant nor exponent, but attestant. Her scene is a movie in miniature, and it proves to be far richer than the one encasing it.

Shannon’s project is perhaps even more formidable. With two short scenes and no histrionics, he’s required to personify candor in a landscape of self-deception. If the Joker was an agent of chaos, John Givings is an agent of authenticity—a man whose penchant for truth casts him out of the order that aches for his vision. In the same way Givings renounces any compulsion to play a role in life, Shannon eschews crazy-sane mannerisms and extrudes dialogue with the precision and impact of heat-seeking missiles. We believe in the “hopeless emptiness” of postwar suburbia not because the screenwriter spells out its ubiquity, but because Shannon points an impassioned finger in its direction and chillingly asserts his pity for its heirs.

Would these turns have forged deeper impressions if they'd been granted more time in the spotlight? Hardly so; I might even argue the opposite. Sometimes one or two-scene roles reverberate on the grounds of their brevity. Just look at the record. In mere minutes they can be iconic (Alec Baldwin’s corporate motivator in Glengarry Glen Ross) or ironic (Christopher Walken, name your poison), sublime (Gene Hackman’s blind Samaritan in Young Frankenstein) or ridiculous (John Wayne, claiming the last word as the Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told). I confess to a special fondness for Dean Stockwell’s “Ben” in Blue Velvet, a performance that covers all bases in equal measure. Introduced as “suave,” perhaps the one adjective simultaneously vague and redolent enough to convey a sense of his bearing, he delivers an outrageous pantomime to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” projecting the zonked-out vacancy of a man whose delights extend well beyond the drugs he procures from Frank (Dennis Hopper), but also the urgency of one who’s oddly equipped to preside over a moveable feast of debasement. He may look like a clown, but it’s his circus. Brother, suave ain’t the half of it.

So again I open the floor to debate: Which portrayals of limited scope have struck the most clangorous chords?