Greatest Performances by Actors in Just One Scene
There are many movies that showcase scene-stealing performances by actors who make the most of their limited screen time. However, it takes a rare performer to completely take over a film with just one scene. When a great actor gets the chance to deliver brilliant dialogue in a standout moment, it leaves the audience breathless and completely engaged. These types of performances are unforgettable and will stay with you long after the movie is over.
One example of a one-scene performance that left a lasting impression is Ned Beatty’s portrayal of Arthur Jensen in the 1976 film Network. Beatty’s fiery dressing down of Peter Finch’s crusading anchorman in a dramatically-lit boardroom earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Another example is Viola Davis’ powerful performance as the mother of a suspected victim of an abusive priest in the 2008 film Doubt. Davis’ extended conversation with Meryl Streep earned her an Oscar nomination and showcased her commanding screen presence.
Some one-scene performances provide comic relief and energy to their movies, like Billy Crystal and Carol Kane’s sidesplitting turns in The Princess Bride (1987) as Miracle Max and Valerie. These characters stand out among the movie’s iconic scenes and are unforgettable to viewers.
Christopher Walken’s performance as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction (1994) starts off somber but takes a hilariously profane turn halfway through, making it a perfect bridge between segments of the groundbreaking film. Robert Downey Jr. also delivered a memorable one-scene performance in Chef (2014) as the ultimate pompous blowhard ex-husband of the chef’s ex-wife.
Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Rahad Jackson, a zany drug dealer who psychologically terrorizes Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and his friends in Boogie Nights (1997), is another example of a nerve-fraying scene that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.
Dean Stockwell’s thoroughly creepy scene in Blue Velvet (1986), lip-syncing Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, adds an ironic soundtrack to a violent kidnapping and showcases his unforgettable performance.
Gloria Foster’s calming presence and emotional heft as The Oracle in The Matrix (1999) adds depth to the movie’s high-flying ideas and visuals, making her one-scene performance unforgettable. Vanessa Redgrave’s haunting coup de grâce in Atonement (2007), detailing the main characters’ fates against a black backdrop, is also a standout one-scene performance.
Brian Tyree Henry’s extended monologue in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) prepares the audience for the film’s devastating conclusion and showcases his chilling portrayal of being a Black man in prison. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s clownish, arrogant gambler in Hard Eight (1996) creates an indelible character in a short amount of time.
Alfre Woodard’s powerful defense of her decision to marry a slave owner in 12 Years a Slave (2013) transforms her few minutes of screen time into one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. Finally, Alec Baldwin’s iconic opening monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) showcases his expert delivery of David Mamet’s tense and funny dialogue.
In conclusion, these one-scene performances are unforgettable and leave a lasting impression on viewers. They showcase the talent and range of actors who can completely take over a film with just a few minutes of screen time.
Many movies feature scene-stealing performances by actors who make the most of limited screen time. But it’s the rare performer who can take over a film given just one scene. When a great actor gets a chance to chew on brilliant dialogue in a standout moment, all you can do is hold your breath and soak it in. If you’ve seen these films, you’ll definitely remember these performances.
When a single scene results in an Oscar nomination, you know the actor made an impression. Ned Beatty received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance as Arthur Jensen in 1976’s Network. Corporate chairman Jensen gives crusading anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) a fiery dressing down in a dramatically-lit boardroom and Beatty has a field day with writer Paddy Chayefsky’s meaty dialogue.
Viola Davis received her first Oscar nomination for a single scene in 2008’s Doubt. She plays the mother of a boy who is the suspected victim of an abusive priest. Davis commands the screen in an extended conversation with none other than Meryl Streep. The actress has since gone on to be nominated for three additional Oscars, even winning one. In 2023, Davis became an EGOT winner.
Billy Crystal and Carole Kane
Some of the best one-scene performances provide their movies with a jolt of energy in the form of comic relief. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane deliver sidesplitting turns in The Princess Bride (1987) as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie. Who among us hasn’t seen a friend off with a chipper “Have fun storming the castle!?” While there are plenty of iconic scenes in the movie, these two stand out.
Christopher Walken starts off quite somber as Captain Koons in 1994’s Pulp Fictiontelling a young boy the story of his late father’s gold watch. But halfway through, the story takes a hilariously profane turn and Walken sells every line beautifully. The scene serves as a perfect bridge between segments of Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking film.
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. delivered for his Iron Man boss Jon Favreau in the writer/director’s passion project, Chef (2014). As the ex-husband of chef Carl Casper’s ex-wife, Downey portrays the ultimate pompous blowhard, speculating about the father of his pregnant assistant’s baby while asking for Casper’s opinion on carpet samples.
Some scenes drop you in the middle of a nerve-fraying situation and increase the pressure until you’re ready to burst. In 1997’s Boogie Nights, Alfred Molina plays Rahad Jackson, a zany drug dealer who loves ’80s mixtapes. To the tune of Sister Christian, Jesse’s Girland 99 balloonshe psychologically terrorizes Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and his friends.
Roy Orbison’s In Dreams provides the backdrop to Dean Stockwell’s thoroughly creepy scene in Blue Velvet (1986). He plays an associate of Dennis Hopper’s deranged Frank Booth, and his lip-synced rendition of the ’60s tune offers an ironic soundtrack to a violent kidnapping.
Gloria Fosteras The Oracle in The Matrix (1999), tells Neo exactly what he needs to hear over a plate of homemade cookies. Her calming presence lends emotional heft to a movie flying high on its ideas and its visuals. There is plenty to look at in the film, but your eyes will be glued to her when she’s on screen.
Vanessa Redgrave delivers the haunting coup de grâce in Atonement (2007), detailing the main characters’ fates against a black backdrop. Her co-star Saoirse Ronan earned an Oscar nomination for playing a younger version of the character, and Redgrave lives up to that performance in her brief scene.
Brian Tyree Henry
Brian Tyree Henry recalls the chilling experience of being a Black man in prison in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk. His extended monologue prepares the audience for the film’s devastating conclusion.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffmanin one of his earliest roles, plays a clownish, arrogant gambler shooting craps in Hard Eight (1996). He goes from taunting a veteran gambler played by Philip Baker Hall to offering him a measure of respect and creates an indelible character in the process.
Alfre Woodard has only a few minutes of screen time in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave but transforms them into one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. Her character defends her decision to marry a slave owner, assuring her enslaved guests that “the curse of the pharaohs is but a poor example of what waits for the plantation class.”
Alec Baldwin’s opening monologue in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross is funny, tense, and expertly written by David Mamet, who adapted his play for the big screen and added Baldwin’s character to start things off with a bang.
Glengarry Glen Ross follows a quartet of desperate real estate salesmen fighting to hold on to their jobs and their dignity. Baldwin plays a successful salesman sent from the head office to humiliate them into action. Baldwin was 34, just five years into his film career, when he was asked to verbally abuse the likes of Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, and Ed Harris.
Baldwin’s acting in this scene is so memorable it overshadows career-defining work by an ensemble that also includes Kevin Spacey and Al Pacino. To be best in show among a group of actors that talented is no small feat.