Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Little more than a cameo: 19 stellar cinematic one-scene wonders

1. Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross

Alec Baldwin's performance in Glengarry Glen Ross is the quintessential one-scene wonder. As an oily emissary from "downtown," Baldwin introduces a justly famous twist on the monthly sales contest for a contingent of sad-sack, Willy Loman-esque hucksters shilling dubious real-estate shares in Florida: First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize on down is, you're fired. Baldwin transforms one of David Mamet's most memorable monologues into a glorious symphony of verbal abuse, self-aggrandizement, shameless appeals to greed, and naked cruelty. He's capitalism's seething black heart, an economic hitman who enjoys his job way more than any non-sociopath should. Though he only appears in a single thundering, instantly iconic scene, he steals Glengarry Glen Ross from the lofty, Oscar-laden likes of Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon (in the role that inspired The Simpsons' Gil Gunderson), Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, and Jonathan Pryce. Baldwin sinks his fangs into Mamet's brutally funny lines—added to the play especially for the movie—gleaning every last ounce of dick-swinging menace out of them.

2. Ray Charles, The Blues Brothers

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's 1980 musical is buoyed by a host of celebrity cameos from the likes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway, who appears in several scenes as the Blues brothers' aged mentor. But none of them owns their cameo quite like Ray Charles, who not only provides a spirited version of "Shake A Tail Feather," but unlike Brown or Franklin, actually gets in some funny lines of his own. The soul legend immediately dominates his short scene as the cantankerous owner of the pawnshop Ray's Music Exchange. He's blind, but he has the uncanny ability to sense everything going on in his shop, and deals with a little kid who's about to shoplift a guitar with a sharp word and two pistol shots—"Breaks my heart, a boy that young going bad," he deadpans.

3. Pamela Anderson, Borat

True to form for a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, Pamela Anderson's cameo in Borat had many viewers scratching their heads over whether the satirical mockumentary actually ambushed Pamela Anderson at an autograph signing in a Virgin Megastore. Common sense suggests that if that had actually happened, America probably would have heard news reports about the Baywatch star being mysteriously abducted in a Kazakh-style "traditional marriage sack" long before the movie's release—or she would have unsuccessfully taken legal action against Cohen, like so many other of the film's incidental characters. Though the entire sequence is staged, it's impossible to tell from Anderson and Cohen's performances: She politely/uncomfortably declines his requests to get married, cusses him out for trying to seize her, and runs shrieking into the parking lot, never to be seen again.

4. Dean Stockwell, Blue Velvet

It takes skill to steal scenes from Dennis Hopper's terrifying Blue Velvet bad guy Frank Booth. But Dean Stockwell's quiet turn as Ben, a delicate pimp whose home looks like one of John Waters' nightmares, provides one of the movie's eeriest highlights. Meeting Ben is only one part of Kyle MacLachlan's nightmare initiation into the dark side of American suburbia. After watching the man Booth describes as "one suave fucker" deliver a spookily heartbreaking lip-sync to Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," Booth has little choice but to beat MacLachlan's character to a bloody pulp. Suave doesn't quite cover it.

5. Janeane Garofalo, The Cable Guy

The centerpiece of the Medieval Times sequence in Ben Stiller's flop-turned-minor-cult-film The Cable Guy is a brutal sword-and-mace battle and joust between Jim "I come here twice a week" Carrey's psychotic cable installer and Everymope Matthew Broderick. But the scene is stolen by the smartass line readings and withering sarcasm of Janeane Garofalo as "your serving wench Melinda," a wage serf whose sad lot in life entails explaining to customers that there are no utensils at Medieval Times because there were no utensils in the days of old, though that somehow doesn't prevent Garofalo from offering her guests refills of Pepsi. She's a slacker in ye olde time medieval garb. The clothes and Old English say "Meet me at the Renaissance Faire, my good lord," but the nose ring and eye-rolling Gen-X attitude say, "I would so rather be smoking a bowl and listening to The Clash."


6. David Letterman, Cabin Boy

David Letterman rarely leaves his late-night desk to act in movies, but he understandably made an exception for his former writers Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, who co-wrote Cabin Boy. Letterman also essentially brings his late-night desk shtick to his brief, hilarious role as a crusty fishing-village sock-monkey salesman who dresses down Elliott's titular cabin boy Nathanial Mayweather. Mayweather is a character who easily invites derision, a snobby, spoiled, wig-wearing "fancy lad." Rather than call out any of the fancy lad's obvious shortcomings, Letterman instead rips on him with a series of bizarre quips, including "You remind me of my niece Sally, lovely girl: She's a dietician," "Gosh, what a sweet little outfit. Is it your little spring outfit?", and "Don't let them give you any of that flank-steak bullshit. Try the London broil: Yeah! Sure! Pamper yourself!" It's easy to imagine Letterman at his desk harassing bandleader Paul Shaffer with these lines, though especially his most memorable line from this scene: "Hey, would you like to buy a monkey?"

7. Billy Ray Cyrus, Mulholland Dr.

Yes, Billy Ray Cyrus is a cheeseball country singer with a bushy mullet. But his cameo in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. is good for more than a cheap laugh. Yes, it's funny to see the "Achy Breaky Heart" singer play an amorous pool man sleeping with the wife of film director Justin Theroux. Cyrus already looks like he walked off the cover of a cheapie romance novel, and, c'mon, that mullet is unreal. But like all things Lynch, Cyrus's brief appearance manages to be simultaneously comic and dreamy, a representation of idealized, oversized all-American male sexuality that's silly, yet undeniably potent and even threatening when brought into "real life."


8. Ned Beatty, Network

Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's potent, prophetic satire of television and the caustic nature of celebrity culture is dominated by Peter Finch's unforgettably wild-eyed performance as a news anchor whose descent into madness sparks a new hit show, as his rantings strike a chord with the viewing public. But while ratings are skyrocketing, Finch causes his bosses no small amount of discomfort with his propensity to utter uncomfortable truths about corporate power. Until, that is, he meets Ned Beatty, the chairman of the company that owns the network, who calmly strolls in, greets Finch affably, and leads him into the boardroom for a quick chat. Before Finch knows what's going on, Beatty has suddenly hit him with a speech about how corporations are "the primal forces of nature," delivered with the roaring thunder of an angry God on a mountaintop. He inspires Finch to preach a new evangel—not about democracy this time, but about the coming perfect world of "one vast and ecumenical holding company," featuring "all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused." It's impossible to tell how much of the chairman's speech is truly felt and how much is cold, cynical manipulation of Finch's religious mania, but the barely five-minute scene was compelling enough to pick up an Oscar nomination for Beatty.


9. Chris Rock, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka

Chris Rock was but a fresh-faced unknown when he popped up in 1988's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka as "Rib Joint Customer," a hungry young patron at Isaac Hayes and Jim Brown's "Hammer And Slammer" diner. Rather than springing for an entire order, Rock wants to know how much it would cost to buy one rib. He then asks whether he can buy a sip of soda for 15 cents, or, at the very least, have some soda poured into his cupped hands for a dime. For the punchline, Rock's tight-fisted haggler asks Hayes if he can break a $100 bill. Cue rim shot. It's a brilliant piece of standalone, almost vaudevillian funny business that foreshadowed Rock's ascent to the World's Funniest Man slot, and it provides a poignant reminder of an age when the phrase "funny Wayans brothers spoof" wasn't an inherent oxymoron.

10. Topher Grace, Ocean's Eleven

Steven Soderbergh's secret theme for Ocean's Eleven—movie-star cool—finds its most pointed exposition in the sequence where Brad Pitt teaches a group of overeager would-be Brat-Packers (Joshua Jackson, Holly Marie Combs, Shane West, Barry Watson) to play poker. Walking in, Topher Grace chatters nervously about how their stake could count as research for tax purposes, but his agent insists that Pitt be paid by check. (It only takes a few seconds of Pitt's level stare to make Grace back down.) Even when George Clooney, with his just-got-out-of-prison street cred, joins them, the rookies care a lot more about looking like big men making big bets than about learning the game. And when they leave the club, Grace stops to sign autographs for a queue of adoring fans, while Pitt and Clooney slip unnoticed through the crowd, exchange smiles, and walk away. For a moment, the banked charisma of Soderbergh's stars is something that only we can see. Topher's dig at his own mini-celebrity was so much fun that he reprised the role in Ocean's Twelve, going all Frankie Muniz over a girl and confessing that he "totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie."

11. David Spade, Reality Bites

"Miss Pierce, do you have any idea what it means to be a cashier [here] at Wiener Schnitzel?" David Spade's unctuous fast-food shift manager asks Winona Ryder's clueless newbie with just the right note of condescension, smug superiority, creepy formality, and utterly disproportionate seriousness in the best scene in Ben Stiller's otherwise muddled Gen-X slackathon Reality Bites. Like fellow Saturday Night Live alum Jay Mohr, Spade has a supremely limited range, but within those narrow restrictions, he can be unbelievably awesome. The poster boy for "everything sucks"-ism's neat little bit in Reality Bites is the perfect role for Spade. In just over a minute, he perfectly embodies the soul-crushing banality of fast-food hell and the unearned power trips of the petty tyrants who thrive there. Who else could deliver a line like "Have a 'tude, weiner dude!" with such creepy conviction? It's just too bad Spade didn't stick with character parts instead of flailing around in lead roles in duds like Joe Dirt, The Benchwarmers, and Dickie Roberts, Former Child Star.

12. Sammy Davis Jr., Sweet Charity

Short, effete, one-eyed, homely, yet deeply groovy and really swinging, babe, Sammy Davis Jr. was far too singular and weird for leading roles. But as a cinematic pinch-hitter, he was seldom less than fab. In 1969's Sweet Charity, Davis is brilliantly cast as a counterculture cult leader whose half-assed religion puts a hippified spin on conventional morality with dictates like "Thou shalt not indulge thyselves in the evil marijuana leaf commonly known as pot, grass, Mary Jane, Acapulco Gold… It is sinful, it is harmful, it is also very expensive!" In round granny glasses, tight leather pants that leave little to the imagination, gaudy jewelry, and a psychedelic shirt, Davis is a hepcat fake messiah who babbles on in stream-of-consciousness hipster-speak about "that big LP called Life" while leading his dead-eyed, unmistakably zombie-like minions through a rousing take on "Rhythm Of Life." It's a knockout scene that adroitly satirizes New Age cults, the commoditization of religion, the interconnectedness of showbiz and bogus spirituality, and the mindless conformity underlying the ostensible anti-conformity at the heart of '60s counterculture. Also, in the hackneyed parlance of American Bandstand, it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.

13. Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement

Joe Wright's haunting, swooningly romantic Atonement is a moody meditation on storytelling, the power of lies, and the role they play in the tragic romance between a moody, intense working-class young man (James McAvoy) and the high-strung, upper-class young woman he loves (Keira Knightley) as seen through the eyes of a precocious young writer (played as a child by Saoirse Ronan) whose words have the power to destroy as well as entertain. Regular shifts between reality and storytelling, as well as eras and perspectives, combine to keep audiences in a state of mild discombobulation, until a heartbreaking climactic scene with Vanessa Redgrave as Ronan's elderly, dying incarnation separates fact from fiction with breathtaking power. Redgrave delivers the film's knockout blow as an old woman who finds in her fiction the kind of happy endings that are all too often impossible in real life. Redgrave radiates quiet authority and unspeakable sadness in a scene that's simultaneously hushed and overrun with heightened emotion.


14. Charlie Sheen, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

For those who don't enjoy the foibles of the Charlie Sheen of the present, there's always the baby-faced, James-Dean-ish Charlie Sheen of 1986's Ferris Bueller's Day Off. As Ferris' scowling sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is hauled into the police station for making false 911 calls, she encounters Sheen, billed only as "Boy In Police Station"; he's apparently been arrested for "drugs." With his punky philosophical attitude, he advises Grey to get her own life and quit hating on her brother. Even though they only encounter each other for a few minutes, Sheen's character reduces Grey to a giggling mess. Unfortunately, he didn't have the same effect on Denise Richards.


15. David Bowie, Zoolander

From Paris Hilton to Fabio to Fred Durst, random cameos make up nearly half the cast of 2001's Zoolander. Of all of them, however, David Bowie steals the show. (But when doesn't he?) Needing to settle their rivalry once and for all, Derek Zoolander and Hansel (Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson) agree to a fashion "walk-off," when out of nowhere, David Bowie emerges to offer his assistance as judge. Why Bowie? Why not? Only the man who wrote "Fashion" could mix a droll faux-seriousness and a real sense of fabulousness into a mini role like this.


16 and 17. John Carroll Lynch and Charles Fleischer, Zodiac

David Fincher's hypnotic thriller Zodiac is filled with brief, indelible performances and characters, like Brian Cox's narcissistic TV personality, but none are quite as creepy or memorable as the brief turns from John Carroll Lynch and Charles Fleisher, as two loners suspected of being the Zodiac Killer. When interviewed by the police in connection with the Zodiac killings, the hulking Lynch offers alibis and explanations that sound way too rehearsed and fuzzy to be convincing. Lynch treats the cops with a disconcerting mixture of forced civility, defensiveness, and barely concealed contempt. He imbues the line "I'm not the Zodiac. And if I was, I certainly wouldn't tell you" with blood-curdling menace, and his bizarre exit line, "I look forward to the day when police officers are no longer referred to as pigs" with sinister ambiguity. Lynch is seen briefly later on when the cops search his trailer, but it's rare that an actor makes such an impact with such a short sequence. Charles Fleischer is equally unforgettable as the revival-house employee and cinephile that cartoonist-turned-amateur-gumshoe Jake Gyllenhaal seeks out in his hunt for the Zodiac Killer. Fleischer leads Gyllenhaal to a spooky old house filled with movie memorabilia and sadness. When Fleischer heads down to the basement to look for old records, it seems equally likely he'll emerge with the records in question or his trusty murdering-axe. Sure, Fleischer is gentle and quiet. But so was Norman Bates. It's a performance unnerving enough to permanently negate memories of Fleischer as the voice of Roger Rabbit. These two may not be guilty of being the Zodiac Killer, but they certainly are guilty of being creepy as fuck.



18. Samuel L. Jackson, Kill Bill Volume 2

Some actors specialize in small roles that make a big impression. Christopher Walken is one; so is Samuel L. Jackson, whose early career is filled with tiny roles in big movies like Coming To America, Goodfellas, Eddie Murphy Raw, Menace II Society, and True Romance. In Kill Bill Volume 2, he lends his effortless cool to the role of a world-weary musician who happily rattles off his pedigree for clients Uma Thurman and the dude she's marrying: "I was a Drell. I was a Drifter. I was a Coaster. I was part of the Gang. I was a Barkay. If they come through Texas, I done played with them." In light of the bloodshed and misery to come, Jackson's flashy little turn qualifies as the calm before the storm, a neat little music-geek moment shot in the bohemian black and white of a vintage Blue Note album cover. "Rufus, he's the man" notes Thurman's ostensible father-in-law-to-be. Since he's played by Jackson and surrounded by elegant curls of cigarette smoke, that pretty much goes without saying.


19. William Hurt, A History Of Violence

In its climactic scene, A History Of Violence undergoes a dramatic tonal shift from a dry, internal character study to a gothic, gory black comedy. It's a left turn dictated largely by gloriously hammy William Hurt as a debauched, balding mob boss with some seriously twisted family issues to work through with baby brother Viggo Mortensen. As the two brothers sit down after years of silence, their dark past together takes on an almost physical presence, and Mortensen morphs unmistakably from man of peace to world-class killing machine. Hurt at least has consistency on his side; from the time he tried to strangle his baby brother in the crib (an event he refers to casually, as something all brothers do) to the unpleasant present, he's always been an outsized monster. He's the living embodiment of the ghoulish past Mortensen can run away from and deny, but never fully escape.


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