Talk about getting the most bang for your buck: William Hurt, onscreen for fewer than nine minutes in A History of Violence, winds up nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor.
Not that he stands a chance, right? After all, he's barely in the film, not like Jake Gyllenhaal, who's in nearly every scene of Brokeback Mountain. Or Paul Giamatti, the backbone of Cinderella Man. Or George Clooney, the tie that binds together Syriana. Or Matt Dillon, who enjoys the greatest character arc of anyone in the ensemble cast of Crash. All four are onscreen a lot longer than Hurt; heck, Clooney and Gyllenhaal could just as easily be up for the best actor Oscar.
But the supporting actor and actress categories are unlike any of their Oscar compatriots. Fluid, quirky and with criteria that seem ever-shifting, these awards have been used to recognize juveniles (10-year-old Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon and 11-year-old Anna Paquin in The Piano), nonactors (disabled veteran Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives and Cambodian refugee Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields) and big-name actors in small parts (Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment and Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express).
They've also been awarded to actors who, like Hurt, enjoy precious little screen time, but make an incalculable contribution to the overall film.
"An actor given the right part, good lines - he can last 50 years with two minutes," says Richard Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. "We can all remember tiny things from films of long ago that we have never forgotten. There are some parts that are just great."
In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, a mild-mannered, small-town business owner who shoots and kills two men when they attempt to rob his diner. Though his actions make him a hero, they also threaten to unleash a side of Stall that for years he has tried to suppress.
As stone-cold killer Richie Cusack, Stall's crime-boss brother, Hurt doesn't make an appearance until there's only 18 minutes left in the movie. But the film's narrative has been inexorably flowing toward him. For much of it, Cusack has been the unseen center of Violence's gravity, the mysterious answer to many questions.
When he finally shows up, Cusack doesn't disappoint. Using a guttural Bronx accent that sounds as if it were lifted straight from a 1930s gangster film, Hurt grabs the screen with a brashness and ferocity that's shocking and unforgettable.
"I'm surprised it's only nine minutes," says Thomson. "That is a tribute to what he does with that nine minutes. I think it's a great performance."
The film's stars - Mortensen as a small-town hero with a shockingly violent past and Ed Harris as a disfigured mob lackey with a score to settle - spend most of their time playing things close to the vest, concealing who they are and what they know. Hurt's character is the opposite - we know all about this guy from the second he hits the screen. It's Hurt's power as an actor - his barely controlled rage, his reptilian blue eyes, his seeming comfort with his own monstrosity - that makes his appearance memorable.
With his nomination, Hurt joins a small but impressive list of actors who have earned recognition despite the brevity of their screen time. Beatrice Straight won for her 1976 performance in Network despite little advance buzz, fewer than 10 minutes of screen time and an exalted field that included movie veterans Lee Grant (Voyage of the Damned) and Piper Laurie (Carrie) and heralded newcomer Jane Alexander (All the President's Men). And that's not to mention 14-year-old Jodie Foster's controversial portrayal of a teenage hooker in Taxi Driver.
In this disturbingly prescient film about the lengths the media (in this case, television) will go to make a buck, it was Straight's turn as William Holden's distraught wife, refusing to accept quietly his newfound infatuation with a younger woman, that earned the Oscar. She could hardly be accused of upstaging her Network co-stars (Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch won lead-performance Oscars), but Straight's role was pivotal, as perhaps the only voice of reason in the film, and Oscar voters rightly praised her for it.
"That's what good acting's all about, making that impression in a small amount of time," says Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne, author of 75 Years of Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards.
Although he didn't win, Ned Beatty also was nominated for a brief appearance in Network, as the corporate bigwig who acquaints renegade news anchor Finch with the facts of megamedia life. Beatty's turn, in which he comes off sounding like the voice of God, was impressive, but not enough to wrest the Oscar from Jason Robards Jr., who won for portraying Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men.
In 1999, Judi Dench won an Oscar even though she was onscreen for fewer than 12 minutes in Shakespeare In Love. The popular theory is that she won because she was passed over the previous year for her starring turn in Mrs. Brown. Her brief appearance as the haughty but human Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare demonstrated how a superior actor can dominate a film in just a few scenes. While Gwyneth Paltrow won the lead actress Oscar for her work in the film, it's Dench's scenes - waiting impatiently for a gentleman to lay his coat over a puddle, rising unexpectedly from the audience during a play - that stays in the mind's eye.
Other supporting nominees whose time onscreen was noticeably brief include some of the most fabled names in the movies: Ralph Richardson in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Gloria Stuart in Titanic, Robards in Melvin and Howard, Judy Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg.
Perhaps proof that there is such a thing as a captivating performance that's nevertheless too brief for Oscar consideration is Lynn Redgrave's memorable cameo in Kinsey, one of the most affecting performances of 2004. As an aging lesbian expressing her gratitude for Alfred Kinsey's pioneering research into sexual mores and morals, she said in five minutes what the rest of the movie struggled for nearly two hours to express. In one monologue, Redgrave gave the film its heart.
The work of actors like Hurt, Dench, Straight and Redgrave proves that sometimes, even in Hollywood, less can be more.