THE 20 BEST SCENE STEALERS
Stop! Thief! Total Film names and praises a score of actors who prove it ain’t always the star who shines brightest…
Words By Leigh Singer and Dan Jolin
20. Douglas Rain 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Having recorded and rejected several actors for the voice of killer supercomputer HAL 9000, Stanley Kubrick finally plumped for little-known Canadian thesp Douglas Rain, whose silky tones he’d heard narrate a space documentary. Rain taped his lines in a weekend without even visiting the set and reportedly didn’t even know how they fit into the plot. Yet his disturbing, mellow reading of HAL’s murderous reasoning is more chilling than any Darth Vader-style heavy breathing and far more memorable than any of 2001’s human performances.
Grandest Larceny:HAL resorts to emotional blackmail to avoid being disconnected. ‘I’m afraid, Dave…my mind is going…’
Time for the Crime:16 mins
19. Rupert Everett My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Flipping the screaming movie cliché of the ‘gay best friend’ on its arse, Everett’s turn as Julia Robert’s nuptial-scuppering confidant was a triumph of finely calibrated camp and class. Initially rejected by director P.J Hogan as ‘too right’ (uh?) to play George, Everett so overpowers plyboard lead Dermot Mulroney that test audiences demanded more. Cue a hastily reshot, newly George-centric ending and Everett touted as Hollywood’s first openly gay leading man.
Grandest Larceny: Forced into posing as Roberts’ fiancé, George wreaks revenge by engaging her best friend’s entire wedding posse in a singalong to ‘I Say A Little Prayer’. Talk about divine intervention.
Time for the Crime:18 mins
18.Jean Reno La Femme Nikita (1990)
The cold, blank face. The dark, round shades. The shabby trenchcoat. When Jean Reno appears as Victor “The Cleaner”, the assassin’s assassin called in to tidy up Nikita’s mess, you instantly wish that he could stick around as the movie’s bad guy even though he barely says a word. Not bad for a role that was almost an afterthought. Reno was originally director Luc Besson’s first choice for well-groomed spymaster Bob (Tcheky Karyo), but Reno balked shouting: “I don’t want a tie!” A quick rethink and Victor was born…only to be transformed as the considerably cuddlier Leon four years later.
Grandest Larceny: Victor reveals his favourite cleaning method for the unwanted bodies: a bottle of acid. Only problem is, he forgets to check if the victim’s dead before he starts sprinkling the sulphuric. Messy.
Time for the Crime: 5 mins
17. Robert Duvall Apocalypse Now (1979)
While Coppola went mad, Brando went AWOL and Martin Sheen had a heart attack, Duvall’s Lt. Col Kilgore thrust this hallucinatory Vietnam epic into focus. Striding through the jungle the Stetson-topped, seemingly indestructible surfing freak - he gets his men to hit the waves mid-battle is the epitome of gung ho American military might (Duvall claimed to base him on a real officer ‘whose life only made sense if there was a war’) and surely the fool Dubya’s ultimate fantasy.
Grandest Larceny: Annihilating a Vietnamese village gets Kilgore all misty-eyed: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning…smells like victory…’ All he’s really saying is give war a chance.
Time for the Crime: 12 mins
16. Brad Pitt Thelma and Louise (1991)
Despite being a last-minute replacement for William Baldwin (remember him?), Pitt managed to transform his turn as hitchhiking thief J.D from sly support to major breakthrough role. With his puppy-dog eyes and ‘aw-shucks’-charm, Pitt excels as the small-time con kid who seduces Geena Davis’s timid housewife-on-the-lam, then throws fuel on one of cinema’s hottest sex scenes for good measure. Don’t mention it to George Clooney, though. Pitt’s audition runner-up admitted he was so miffed at losing out, he couldn’t watch Thelma and Louise for a year.
Grandest Larceny: J.D’s sweet-talking lesson in hold-up artistry: ‘I’ve always believed that, done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be a totally unpleasant experience.’
Time for the Crime: 15 minutes.
15. Sean Penn Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Beavis and Butthead, Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, none have topped Penn’s ultimate screen slacker, surfer Jeff Spicoli. Fast Times introduced a roster of future stars (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, er, Judge Reinhold) but Penn’s vacuous stoner smokes them all. According to writer Cameron Crowe, for the whole two-month shoot ‘Sean never answered to any name except for “Jeff” or “Spicoli” or “dude.”’
Grandest Larceny:Even being held-up at gunpoint in a gas station can’t faze Spicoli’s blissed-out, beach-inspired life philosophy: ‘All I need are some tasty waves, cool Buds and I’m fine,’ he slurs
Time for the Crime:16 minutes.
14. Steve Martin Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Thought Laurence Olivier’s unauthorised root canal on Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man was cinema’s most sinister dentistry? He’s an amateur compared to Orin Scrivello D.D.S. After all, when does Olivier dress in black leather, cruise around on a Harley singing about bashing in pussycat heads? Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ schtick jumpstarts Frank Oz’s big-screen version of the cult musical, sucking up laughter gas and torturing his patients with a rusty drill, a curled lip and an Elvis hip shake.
Grandest Larceny: Martin’s show stopping ‘Dentist’ number.
Time for the Crime: 19 mins
13. Hattie McDaniel Gone With The Wind (1939)
McDaniel’s deserved award for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s devoted maid in the epic Civil War weepie was the first ever African-American Oscar win, ironically coming only weeks after she’d been banned from the Atlanta premiere because of her colour. Her feisty Mammy regularly trumps Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett, those dry rebukes repeatedly snatching attention from her co-star’s Southern Belle histrionics. And if you think the role looks an offensive stereotype today, consider McDaniel’s response to her critics at the time: ‘I’d rather play a maid than be one.’
Grandest Larceny: Lambasting Scarlett’s risqué dress sense in their very first scene together: ‘You can’t show yo’ bosom ‘fore three o’clock!’
Time for the Crime: About 25 minutes
12. Rhys Ifans Notting Hill (1999)
Apparently Rhys Ifans objects to the term ‘scene stealer’ because ‘it implies a selfish actor.’ Excuuuse us, but Ifans has all-too often been the saving grace of many a dodgy Britflick. This slick Four Weddings retread gave him his big break as Spike, Hugh Grant’s scuzz flatmate from Hell. Ifans is inspired, slavering over Julia Roberts’ Hollywood diva-in-hiding and somehow making prehistoric hygiene endearing, despite sporting the crustiest kecks in movie history.
Grandest Larceny: Opening his front door in his filthy undies to find hundreds of paparazzi camped outside, Spike flexes his puny pipe-cleaner body and strikes a pose.
Time for the Crime:12 mins
11. Drew Barrymore E.T The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
The six-year old Drew Barrymore was that rarest breed of child actor: a cute kid who managed to avoid clogging up the screen with sickly sweetness. And if her interaction as the button-nosed Gertie with Spielberg’s wrinkly space-lump seemed heart-warmingly genuine, that’s because li’l Drew found it easy to believe the phone-homer was real. ‘He was very real to me,’ she recollects. ‘I would put scarves on him when I thought he was cold or bring him lunch. He was like a great friend.’
Grandest Larceny: The moppet dresses up her new plaything in frock and fetching blonde wig, humiliating and upstaging him at the same time. Bless.
Time for the Crime: 12 mins
10. Jack Black High Fidelity (2000)
Barrelling his way through this Nick Hornby records-and-relationships adaptation, Black rolled over not one, but two Cusacks.As obnoxious record geek Barry he manages to turn sarcasm into an artform, delivering his customer-withering putdowns with painful precision. But he’s no comic sidekick cut-out; Black ensures that Barry’s hidden depths are felt, especially when he proves that the character does have soul. Hollywood certainly noticed. ‘I’m still feeling the effects of playing Barry,’ says Black. ‘I got Shallow Hal from that. And I got a way bigger paycheck from that…
Grandest Larceny: Dismissing a bemused customer’s request for Stevie Wonder’s saccharine ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’: ‘There’s no way your daughter likes that record! Oh, wait is she in a coma?’
Time for the Crime: 20 mins
9. John Turturro The Big Lebowski (1998)
Turturro’s glorious cameo as paedophile bowler Jesus Quintana chews up so much scenery you expect to see teeth marks on the pins. Onscreen less than five minutes, his Miami pimp style (purple jumpsuit, hairnet, a single lacquered nail) and hilarious insult-hurling bravado still made Jesus a bizarre cult hero. ‘People go insane for him’, Turturro admits, also letting slip that he and the Coens have discussed resurrecting him for ‘Jesus: The Second Coming.’ Amen to that.
Grandest Larceny: His introduction, celebrating a strike with a slow-motion peacock strut to a flamenco version of ‘Hotel California’, makes it clear: eight-year olds aside, nobody fucks with the Jesus.
Time for the Crime: 3 mins
8. Kirsten Dunst Interview with the Vampire (1994)
‘People were throwing flaming roses and thanking my mom for giving birth to me. They asked her to cut off locks of my hair for them…’ Vampire scribe Anne Rice’s fans are far scarier than her fictional bloodsuckers, as their hysterical response to 11-year old Dunst’s fang-tastic performance proved. Turned undead by vamp queens Pitt and Cruise and eternally trapped in a young girl’s body, her tragic Claudia looks like a cherub but strikes like a cobra, insatiably snacking on any neck within nibbling distance. Wednesday Addams she isn’t.
Grandest Larceny: Guzzling up her first taste of the red stuff with bloodcurdling, butter-wouldn’t-melt innocence: ‘I want some more…’
Time for the Crime: 36 mins
7. Kevin Spacey Seven (1995)
Spacey’s unbilled last-reel reveal as serial nutjob John Doe was a genuine shocker at the time. Proving you can underplay a man who murders with a razorblade dildo, his quiet religious mania made Doe one of cinema’s most unsettling bad guys. And remaining Seven’s best-kept secret didn’t just benefit the audience. ‘It also meant I was able to be in a movie that made $200 million,’ grins Spacey, ‘and didn't have to do any publicity.’
Grandest Larceny: En route to the dread-soaked denouement, spying a mangled dog on the roadside brings out Doe’s black sense of humour. ‘I didn’t do that,’ he deadpans.
Time for the Crime: 16 mins
6. Claude Rains Casablanca (1942)
One of the best character actors of his day, Rains reached his peak in everybody’s favourite wartime romancer. Just as his wily police captain Renault plays Nazi off against Resistance fighter and casually skims Casablanca for all it’s worth, the elegant Rains snaffles up the spotlight whenever he’s onscreen, armed with some legendary one-liners (‘Round up the usual suspects’) and a doozy of a double act with Bogart’s nightclub owner Rick.
Instigating a raid on Bogart’s casino with all his crooked charm.
Renault: ‘I'm shocked shocked! - to find that gambling is going on here!’
Croupier [handing him a wad of cash]: ‘Your winnings, sir.’
Renault: ‘Oh, thank you very much.
Time for the Crime: 22 mins
5. Andy Serkis The Two Towers (2002)
OK, so Andy Serkis didn’t receive an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. But Lord of the Rings producer Barrie M Osborne was right to campaign for one, even if Gollum’s hissing, spitting scene-stealery was generated by effects house WETA Digital. As director Peter Jackson points out: ‘Andy created the character. He says the dialogue, he plays the scenes and the computer captures his movement and translates that into the digital version of Gollum.’
Too true. The photo-realism of Weta’s work is impressive but it’s the motion-captured performance that resonates, thanks to Serkis’s schizoid, addict-in-withdrawal torments and, of course, the gurgling, strangled vocals (inspired by Serkis’s furball-retching cats). ‘It’s been really nice to be able to go into such detail on a character,’ Serkis told Total Film at the time. ‘Although my family are sick to death of me doing the voice.’
Grandest Larceny:The scene in which Gollum and his gentler alter ego Smeagol vie for psychological supremacy. Top marks for simultaneously dropping jaws and bringing tears to eyes.
Time for the Crime: 20 mins
4. Jack Nicholson Easy Rider (1969)
Lucky for Jack Nicholson he was called to the Easy Rider set to act as peacemaker between warring stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. When Rip Torn scarpered after Hopper threatened him with a knife, Jack was perfectly placed to inherit the key supporting role of disillusioned Southern lawyer George Hanson.
Whether he’s getting high on his first joint or grinning in a gold American football helmet, Jack tractor-beams attention away from Hopper and Fonda every second he’s on screen. ‘I’m one of the few people who was actually present at the moment I became a star,’ he recalls, referring to the Easy Rider Cannes premiere. ‘It was great!’
Grandest Larceny: George’s stoned campfire explanations of the space visitors he believes are already among us: ‘so now the Venutians are meeting with people in all walks of life - in an advisory capacity…’
Time for the Crime: About 22 minutes.
3. Samuel L Jackson Jungle Fever (1991)
By the start of the 90s, Jackson’s drug habit was taking its toll. After his wife found him passed out on the kitchen floor holding a rock of crack, he decided enough was enough. ‘I was tired,’ he admitted. ‘About the only thing I hadn’t tried was sobriety.’ Bizarrely, he’d only been out of rehab for two weeks when Spike Lee offered him the role of hapless crack addict Gator Purify multi-racial lust story Jungle Fever. Fearing a relapse, his drug counsellor advised against him taking the role. But Jackson was determined, treating Gator more as exorcism than performance.
And he’s spellbinding as the uproarious, wretched, crackhead hustler. His doomed junkie effortlessly outdazzles Lee’s interracial pyrotechnics and so stunned the Cannes Film Festival jury that it created a special one-off Supporting Actor award just for him.
Grandest Larceny: Dangerous and desperate for a fix, Gator bears down on his armed Reverend father (Ossie Davis) in a taunting dance. The ferocious self-loathing in Jackson’s eyes near burns up the screen.
Time for the Crime: 13 minutes
2. Alan Rickman Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
While Costner’s Sher-wooden Robin of Malibu robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, Rickman’s seething Sheriff filched the movie and kept it all to himself. Nostrils flaring like a racehorse, cancelling food scraps for the poor and calling off Christmas, he puts the ham back into Nottingham with comic gusto.
Rickman was quick to defend his outrageous antics from critics who felt he’d slipped a little too far into panto-territory ‘This is a costume melodrama, not Shakespeare,’ he snorted. ‘I believe this particular villain needs to be a little laughable.’ Test audiences backed him to the hilt, declaring him the best thing in the movie.
However the producers weren’t such merry men and felt their star was being sabotaged. They recut the film against director Kevin Reynolds’ wishes, beefing up Costner’s heroics and lopping off choice cuts of prime Sheriff gammon. It mattered little.
Grandest Larceny:The Sheriff’s bile-spewing reaction to Robin’s cheek-slicing affrontery. ‘I’ll cut your heart out WITH A SPOON!!!’
Time for the Crime:18 mins
1. Orson Welles The Third Man (1949)
Citizen Kane confirmed Hollywood’s fears that Orson Welles was a genius, and, even worse, an extravagant maverick who did things his way. So when director Carol Reed wanted to hire the porky auteur him as rogue racketeer Harry Lime, it meant he literally had to chase Welles around Europe, paying off his hotel bills to get him to the set.
It was worth it. In what’s basically a glorified guest slot Welles makes one of movie history’s most famous entrances, and delivers some of cinema’s most quotable lines, including his self-penned ‘cuckoo clock’ speech. Audiences lapped up his insouciant skulduggery (Welles himself named The Third Man as ‘the only movie of mine that I ever watch on television), making Lime so popular he was resurrected for a radio series that transformed him from evil drug peddler to smooth International Man of Mystery. He was almost a prototype 007, in fact - as Lime fan Ian Fleming might have confirmed…
Grandest Larceny: That entrance: a kitten playing with shoelaces; a shadowy figure in a doorway; a sudden burst of light; a conspiratorial grin. Within seconds the Lime-light - and the movie have been utterly swiped away.
Time for the Crime:10 minutes
Other scene stealers who just refuse to rehabilitate…
Mr Pink should be Mr Gold, the value he’s added to flicks with his whiney delivery and hangdog features. Equally adept at tortured indie lead or moronic blockbuster’s comic relief, Buscemi’s a virtual hallmark of quality, whatever the project.
Rap Sheet: Barton Fink, Reservoir Dogs, Con Air, Armageddon, Ghost World
Regularly turns the thankless task of propping up the star du jour into an exercise in eclipsing them from the sidelines. Cusack’s evidently deemed too gawky to be the lead, but in a perfect world she’d be as big as brother and frequent co-star John.
Rap Sheet: Broadcast News, Working Girl, In and Out, Grosse Point Blank, Runaway Bride.
Guzman’s pugnacious screen presence has won over such actor’s directors as Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson, leading to an array of colourful Latino supporting flourishes that liven up the best ensembles. Just don’t put him in a period piece (Count of Monte Cristo, anyone?).
Rap Sheet: Carlito’s Way, Boogie Nights, Out of Sight, The Limey, Punch-Drunk Love
Philip Seymour Hoffman
A fearless actor, able to mould his doughy features and distinctive vocals into whatever the part requires, be it closet perv, supercilious toff or gentle nurse. Destined for leading roles but can take on any part and still be the main attraction.
Rap Sheet: Boogie Nights, Happiness, The Talented Mr Ripley, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love
Often limited to rent-a-psycho coasting (his dead-eyed stare has no equal), Walken’s too rarely allowed to show his versatility and comic timing witness his understated grace in Catch Me If You Can. Either way, he’s almost always the most memorable thing onscreen.
Rap Sheet: Annie Hall, Batman Returns, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead
Steal a scene? Kill it, more like…
Chris Tucker The Fifth Element (1997)
Motormouth Tucker’s pointless appearance as galactic DJ Ruby Rhod single-handedly flushed Luc Besson’s ludicrous French sci-fi down the interstellar crapper. Think Prince at his sleaziest, dressed by Jean-Paul Gaultier at his tackiest and sounding like a fire alarm at its loudest. Sadly, in space everyone could hear him scream.
John Wayne The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
This bloated, all-star Biblical epic nailed itself in the foot, upstaging its own crucifixion climax by wheeling out John Wayne as the Centurion for a single line: ‘trew-ly this man wuz the Son of Gawwwd.’ Wayne couldn’t be less convincing if he entered on a horse twirling his six-shooters.
Joe Pesci Lethal Weapons 2-4 (1992-98)
The nailbrush hair, the wild gesticulations, the helium jabber-jawing… Stomping blindly all over Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s buddy interplay, Pesci’s money-laundering buffoon Leo Getz manages to stink up every scene he’s in. For three movies.
Gary Oldman Leon (1994)
‘I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven…’ Shut it, Oldman! As corrupt, kiddie-killing New York cop Stansfield, our Gary’s all twitch, gurn and sweat, hissing and screaming his lines in a way that’s far more irritating than intimidating.
Nicolas Cage Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)For the role of Kathleen Turner’s smarmy high-school sweetheart in Coppola’s sickly sentimental Back to the Future clone, Cage persuaded the director his uncle to let him try and new accent. The result? The vocal equivalent of nails scraping down a chalkboard.
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