More Than a Bit

(Copyright Universal Pictures, Apatow Productions)

It might be clear by now that one outstanding line reading is enough to endear a performer to me forever. A stellar delivery often comes from an emphasis on an unexpected word that might be otherwise downplayed and/or an unusual vocal inflection, combined with controlled body language (broad for comedy, buttoned up for drama). Together, such technique often creates a performance that’s memorable — and an oft-quoted line.

Take Leslie Mann in “The 40 Year Old Virgin”. She has a bit part — so small, I had to look up the character’s name on IMDB. (It’s Nicky, FYI.) She’s in the movie for no more than 15 minutes, I’d guess. But in this compressed amount of time, Mann becomes a master of economy: We learn she’s been betrayed and heartbroken, all confessed during a drunken joyride as she careens Steve Carrell around Los Angeles. We learn the night’s bachelorette party was for Pam, Nicky’s “best” friend, who happens to be marrying Nicky’s ex. Over the course of the evening, words were exchanged between the friends, retold in my favorite line, which Mann delivers at the 1:15-1:20 mark:

“And Pam’s like ‘You are such a B-I-T-C-H, bitch.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re the bitch, bitch!'”

Mann doesn’t say this line so much as growl it. Note how she also stabs the air for emphasis, and Carrell withdraws a little with each movement.

I’ve seen this movie countless times, and it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies. On first viewing, I may not have taken notice of the skill underlying Mann’s performance, of how many laughs she’s able to pack into her brief screen time.

On repeated viewings, I find myself eagerly anticipating this sequence, and all because of Mann. She may not have the biggest role, or even one that’s particularly crucial to the overall plot or character development, but damn if she doesn’t make me guffaw every single time. This scene is a fantastic example of an actor working with whatever time she has on screen, and absolutely making the most of it. Had there been budget or time constraints, one could see this scene potentially ending up on the cutting-room floor. Yet because of Mann’s unique touch, it becomes indispensable.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

The (Perpetual) Kids Are All Right

(Copyright Gramercy Pictures)

Sometimes an actor gets cast in his perfect role early, rather than having to build up his resume first. Such is the case of the much-lauded, now-classic casting of Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused”. This oft-quoted role made McConaughey a star, and cemented his reputation as a laid-back, hysterically funny performer who could straddle sexy and sleazy with ease. On the page alone, Wooderson is repulsive in nature, yet appealing because of his humor. Embodied by McConaughey, though, he becomes inexplicably magnetic.

There are so many iconic McConaughey scenes to choose from in this movie, but my favorite is the one above. The audio comes before the visual, Wooderson’s rallying cry of “all right all right all right”, all in that unmistakable drawl, incites laughter before he even slides into the frame. Then, as the idiot in hot pursuit, he’s sincerely on the make — “Say, you need a ride?” he says to Cynthia, the cute driver of the neighboring car. She almost seems to contemplate taking him up on his unobservant offer. McConaughey plays this straight: Wooderson is the elder slacker here, with utmost authority over the neighborhood and those less experienced in the ways of the town and its entertainments. With this crew, age is enough — and he’s just old enough to still be cool, not yet too old to be a complete loser (in the eyes of these beholders, at least — the audience’s eyes are an entirely different story).

It’s quite a sly performance — McConaughey has to toe the line of ultimate audience awareness, in-progress recognition/development of the character, and the naivete of Wooderson’s fellow characters. Wooderson knows he only has a limited time left before he becomes an all-out joke (nodded to in the infamous I get older, they stay the same age line). Soon, he’ll either have to accept his role as a buffoon or grow up and reinvent himself, with all the risks either option entails.

In the meantime, though, Wooderson knows he’s in his prime, with the perfect trifecta of influence, authority, and respect — in regard to those he cares about impressing, anyway. McConaughey’s performance directly pays tribute to the glee that results from such recognition, and the awareness of  this trifecta’s very limited shelf life. Wooderson relishes the fact that he holds such power, even if it is temporary, and McConaughey expresses that through sheer physical confidence: See it in the mischievous twinkle in his eye (present in nearly every scene), a lazy arm draped out of an open car window, an “I own this place” stroll through a pool hall.

The audience knows this guy is probably going to choose the former option and descend into local joke territory. He’s the ultimate slacker, content to hold steady, with nowhere better to go and no challenge worth pursuing… and damn if one doesn’t want to watch the movie again and again, just to spend more time in the company of this immensely fun dope, in the era when the town was his.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.


(Video copyright MGM)

Back in 1987, Nicolas Cage was a young actor with a relatively thin resume, known primarily for quirky performances in offbeat films. In “Moonstruck”, he appears as Ronnie Cammareri,  one of his now-classic roles, the brother of the fiance of Loretta Castorini (played by Cher).

This film launched Cage as a major actor, and as he got more credits to his name, his reputation grew, culminating in a well-deserved Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas” in 1995. In the nearly 20 years since, however, Cage’s body of work has tended toward the bombastic, scenery chewing, and cartoonish. Countless action flicks and thrillers piled up, and the once-idiosyncratic presence became simply over-the-top.

This complete career shift is partially why the above scene is so special to me: It shows Cage acting with something rarely seen since that Oscar win — subtlety.

In the scene, the two main characters acknowledge that they’ve fallen in love, despite only a short amount of time in each other’s company. (This scene depicts the conclusion of their first official date, having only met the previous day.)

Watch the expression of his face at the 0:23 mark, when Loretta bluntly admits that Ronnie’s The One. Surprise, amazement, and acknowledgment all flicker across his brow, his eyes. Watch his frustration grow as Ronnie realizes, despite Loretta’s admittance, that she still plans to marry his brother. Almost like an orchestra conductor, Cage tempers the ensuing frustration to the character’s advantage as the scene progresses, using inflection, volume, and gesture only when it’s most effective. Knowing what Cage is capable of, energy-wise, it’s almost a physical performance, this speech, ebbing and flowing with tight control.

One cringes to think of what Cage of the late ’90s and ’00s would have done with this scene — maybe treated it like the bakery scene earlier in the film, when Cage (with foreshadowing of his later career) gets to really let loose, both in volume and physicality. Maybe it was director Norman Jewison who reined him in here, maybe Cage’s early instincts were to keep things a little quieter — the viewer doesn’t know. One simply appreciates the overall tone and the choice to go subtle, all the more with the knowledge of Cage’s subsequent performances. In the above three-and-a-half minutes, the viewer gets a glorious throwback, a captured glimpse of the potential of a young, eclectic actor.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.


(Video copyright Republic Pictures/Artisan Entertainment)

Succumb — to give way to superior force; yield (

In my opinion, the above scene is the best depiction of the agony that comes with acknowledging that one is in love, and in doing so, relinquishing one’s independent life.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is all about how the best intentions (such as a five-year plan, a career goal, etc.) can be pure folly. Prior to this scene, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, has been living a life of compromise and delayed gratification. He takes on responsibilities for the family business, among other obligations to friends and neighbors in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York. His true desire is to leave, to explore the larger world and see all that it holds.

And yet, he cannot deny his love for Mary, Donna Reed’s character. His desire for her — and all she represents — is in direct opposition to his lifelong drive to be someone, to voyage out, to be an adventurer.

Watch Jimmy Stewart’s physical performance in this scene. The conflict starts just as George gets within close proximity to Mary. With some distance, George can deny or stifle his attraction, but once he’s in her orbit he is in an all-out struggle of mind over matter, of logic over lust. Note how he can’t help but sniff her hair, how his grip on the telephone receiver alternately loosens and tightens, how his eyes both narrow and relax. The two actors are as close as can be within the frame, their two bodies huddled together around the telephone, and yet George seems to draw impossibly closer to Mary with each breath, as though she were pulling him in with a magnetic force. His facial expressions flutter between determined resistance and inescapable desire. The moment holds two very different versions of George’s future, and his choice will do no less than cement the ultimate course of his life: world explorer bachelor or devoted small-town husband.

The above clip has been edited to eliminate George’s fiery outburst when he makes his decision, but I think we’ve all seen it on countless reruns (and, if you haven’t, the full movie is available here). When his passion erupts and he chooses Mary, it’s such a thrilling display of emotion and physicality — a direct contrast to his struggle to repress his feelings in the scene’s previous few minutes. George will let his initial dream go, but not without a fight. It’s the best depiction I’ve seen of the moment one realizes they’re hopelessly in love, and that they’re about to inhabit a new self, one that may have been previously unrecognizable. It’s the moment one realizes they’ve found their partner, and the acknowledgment of what one is willing to sacrifice in order to stay in that same orbit as their loved one. For George, the decision is huge, life-altering, identity-changing. He succumbs in the true sense of the word — giving way to love, a superior force — and is willing to see who he is (and who he will become) on the other side.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.