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.


(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.