DVD Release DateThe Best Single-Scene Performances in Film History (2023)

The Best Single-Scene Performances in Film History (2023)

The Best Single-Scene Performances in Film History (2023)

It’s absolutely mind-blowing when an actor can make a fleeting movie appearance absolutely unforgettable. The most incredible single-scene performances are like a crash course in the art of leaving a lasting impression. To pull it off, the actor needs to truly grasp the character they’re portraying and the role they play in the grand scheme of the film. Usually, when a character only pops up for one scene, it means that particular moment is absolutely crucial, which adds even more pressure for the performer to knock it out of the park.

This incredible list will shine a spotlight on some of the scene-stealing actors who managed to make an indelible mark in just a few minutes of screen time. Some of these legends, like Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors and Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein, were already big shots in the industry when they delivered their jaw-dropping scenes. Meanwhile, others, like Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop, experienced a meteoric rise in their careers thanks to their unforgettable performances. No matter where they stood in their journeys, these actors left an unshakeable and awe-inspiring impression.

In each of the following cases, we’ll dive deep into how these extraordinary one-scene performances had a profound impact on the movies they graced. These scenes aren’t mere cameos; they are pure, unadulterated moments of cinematic sorcery.

1. Christopher Walken – ‘Pulp Fiction’

Christopher Walken - 'Pulp Fiction'
In this scene from Pulp Fiction, we witness a meeting between Young Butch Coolidge and Air Force veteran Captain Koons. Captain Koons presents Butch with a gold watch that once belonged to his father. It’s a meaningful gesture, as Koons had hidden the watch in a very uncomfortable place just to fulfill his promise of delivering it to Butch.

Captain Koons is portrayed as a man with a strong sense of purpose, as he shares a monologue recounting his time as a prisoner of war. The watch delivery mission holds the same importance to him as any combat mission he has undertaken.

Christopher Walken’s performance in this scene showcases his well-known quirkiness, which reaches a whole new level in Pulp Fiction. The story narrated by Koons is undeniably absurd, involving the watch being hidden in his posterior. However, Walken delivers it with such sincerity that it becomes captivating. This sequence had a profound impact on Walken’s career, leading to many of his subsequent roles allowing him to deliver peculiar and unexpected speeches. It has almost become his unofficial trademark.

2. Billy Crystal And Carol Kane – ‘The Princess Bride’

Billy Crystal And Carol Kane - 'The Princess Bride'
In this scene from the film, our hero Westley, played by Cary Elwes, is in a precarious state – he’s “mostly dead but still slightly alive.” Luckily, he’s brought back to life by two miracle workers.

Playing the roles of Miracle Max and Valerie are the talented Billy Crystal and Carol Kane. Despite their gray hair, wrinkles, and a touch of eccentricity, they possess very specific skills.

What makes their performance truly remarkable is the fact that Crystal and Kane improvised many of their lines, adding an extra layer of spontaneity. One of their most famous lines, “Have fun storming the castle!” has become a beloved quote. Not only is their scene naturally funny, but their comedic voices blend together flawlessly.

Their chemistry on screen suggests a long-lasting relationship between Max and Valerie, one that has endured both ups and downs. The way they bounce off each other is a true master class in comedy, showcasing the art of building humor.

3. Gene Hackman – ‘Young Frankenstein’

Gene Hackman - 'Young Frankenstein'
In the movie Young Frankenstein, there is a scene where Frankenstein’s Monster, played by Peter Boyle, escapes from the lab and finds himself in the countryside. It is here that he stumbles upon a blind man named Harold, portrayed by Gene Hackman. Harold, a solitary individual longing for companionship, extends his kindness to the monster.

Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Harold in this scene is quite unexpected, considering his reputation for serious roles in films like The Conversation and The French Connection. His appearance in a Mel Brooks comedy was a pleasant surprise. In this four-minute scene, Hackman skillfully delivers jokes about Harold’s lack of vision, unaware that he is conversing with a monster and inadvertently causing harm. What makes these jokes even funnier is that Hackman plays it straight, not giving away that it is a comedy. This adds an extra layer of humor to the already well-crafted gags.

4. Edie McClurg – ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’

Edie McClurg - 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles'
In the scene, Neal Page, played by Steve Martin, is desperately trying to make it home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his journey has been filled with one mishap after another. In a last-ditch effort, he decides to rent a car, only to find out that the one assigned to him is nowhere to be found. Enter Edie McClurg, who plays the car rental agent on the receiving end of Neal’s profanity-laden tirade.

Credited simply as “Car Rental Agent,” McClurg’s character initially appears overly cheerful, engrossed in a phone conversation with a friend, completely ignoring the frustrated customer in front of her. However, after Neal’s outburst, she proves herself more than capable of giving him a taste of his own medicine.

In her one scene, McClurg showcases her impeccable comedic timing, making it arguably the funniest moment in the entire film. She effortlessly transitions her character from disinterested to annoyingly perky to defiant, all while maintaining believability. While Martin’s use of profanity elicits laughs (with 18 F-bombs to be exact), it’s McClurg’s two-word response, “You’re f*cked,” that steals the show. Her delivery is masterful, elevating an already funny scene to unforgettable heights.

5. Bronson Pinchot – ‘Beverly Hills Cop’

Bronson Pinchot - 'Beverly Hills Cop'
In the scene, Detroit cop Axel Foley, played by Eddie Murphy, arrives in Beverly Hills and visits an art gallery to meet his old friend Jenny, portrayed by Lisa Eilbacher. As he enters the gallery, he is greeted by Jenny’s assistant, Serge.

Serge, whose accent is of unknown origin, is instantly drawn to Foley’s rough demeanor and famously offers him an espresso with a twist of lemon.

Playing alongside Eddie Murphy is no easy feat, but Pinchot manages to shine in his role. In just a few minutes of screen time, he brings depth and significance to a character that might otherwise be unimportant. Serge, who was inspired by Pinchot’s makeup lady from a previous film, becomes a fan favorite. In fact, he is brought back for Beverly Hills Cop III, even though his boss, Jenny, does not appear in the film.

6. Bill Murray – ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

Bill Murray - 'Little Shop of Horrors'
In this twisted scene, we witness a sadistic dentist, played by Steve Martin, striking gold when a masochistic patient, portrayed by Bill Murray, ends up in his dental chair.

Bill Murray takes on the role of Arthur Denton, a patient who actually revels in the pain of his dental procedure. The more agony he experiences, the more he is filled with glee.

Murray adds his own comedic touch to the character, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the 1960 non-musical film, Little Shop of Horrors. While the scene’s concept is undoubtedly disturbing, Murray manages to soften it by infusing it with an over-the-top sense of humor. He effortlessly matches Steve Martin’s wild energy, resulting in a side-splitting performance.

The chemistry between Murray and Martin is simply electrifying. The Washington Post aptly describes their pairing as the comic equivalent of the Thrilla in Manila. These two incomparable comedians of our time go head-to-head, delivering a performance that is as dynamic as it is hilarious.

7. Alfred Molina – ‘Boogie Nights’

Alfred Molina - 'Boogie Nights'
The scene takes place with Dirk and Reed, two struggling adult film actors, who are trying to pull off a scam on a local dealer. Their brilliant idea is to pass off baking soda as a significant amount of cocaine.

In this role, Rahad Jackson is portrayed by Alfred Molina. Despite his craziness, Rahad is still more mentally capable than Dirk and Reed.

Alfred Molina’s performance in this role is unforgettable. Whenever you hear the Night Ranger song “Sister Christian,” you can’t help but think of Boogie Nights because of the impact he creates. He expertly brings a sense of danger and unpredictability to Rahad as he handles a firearm and gets lost in the music during the deal. The drum riff particularly excites him. While the moment is meant to be tense for the protagonists, Molina’s portrayal is so vivid that the audience also becomes agitated.

8. Dave Bautista – ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Dave Bautista - 'Blade Runner 2049'
The scene takes place at a protein farm, where K, played by Ryan Gosling, arrives to “retire” an aging Nexus-8 replicant. However, he encounters resistance and a fierce fight ensues, smashing through walls.

Dave Bautista portrays the replicant, Sapper Morton, who is both physically strong and cultured. This is evident through his extensive book collection.

Bautista’s performance is not surprising in terms of his ability to hold his own in a fight. However, what stands out is his portrayal of Sapper as a polite and cultured yet weary individual. There is a sense of sadness in his performance, suggesting that the character has experienced and possibly committed many regrettable actions in life. This mournful quality adds an unexpected and powerful depth to the character, especially considering that Bautista is not typically seen in this kind of dramatic role.

9. Alec Baldwin – ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’

Alec Baldwin - 'Glengarry Glen Ross'
The Scene: Picture this – the big shots of a real estate company have brought in their star salesman to give the rest of the team a much-needed kick in the pants.

The Role: Unlike the typical motivational speaker who goes for the “you can do it” approach, Blake takes a different route. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything and instead scares the living daylights out of his audience by highlighting the harsh realities of failure. He delivers this hard-hitting message in a mind-blowing seven-minute scene.

The Performance: Glengarry Glen Ross revolves around the immense pressure that comes with working in a cutthroat industry where your survival is on the line every single day. Baldwin’s portrayal of Blake is nothing short of intense. From start to finish, he commands the scene, barking and yelling Mamet’s powerful dialogue at the other characters. He embodies the essence of an alpha male who revels in his power, effectively setting the tone for the rest of the film, despite not even being a main character.

10. Viola Davis – ‘Doubt’

Viola Davis - 'Doubt'
In the movie “Doubt,” Meryl Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, confronts Viola Davis’ character, Mrs. Miller, about her concerns regarding a priest’s inappropriate behavior towards her son.

Viola Davis’s performance as Mrs. Miller is remarkable, considering she only has one eight-minute scene where she speaks. Despite her limited screen time, Davis’s portrayal earned her an Oscar nomination. To prepare for the role, she wrote a 50-page biography for her character, giving her a deep understanding of who Mrs. Miller is. This extensive preparation allowed Davis to deliver a performance that had a profound emotional impact. Even though we only meet Mrs. Miller briefly, we feel like we truly know her.

Film critic Roger Ebert praised Davis’s performance, stating that she goes head-to-head with Meryl Streep, who is considered one of the greatest actresses of our time. The confrontation between the two actresses creates an intense and powerful moment on screen.

11. Chris Evans – ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’

Chris Evans - 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World'
The Scene: Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) pay a visit to a movie set, and Ramona confesses that she used to date the lead actor.

The Role: Meet Lucas Lee, an actor and skateboarder who holds a grudge against Scott as per league rules. This guy is head over heels in love with himself, even more than his fans adore him.

The Performance: While there is a preview of one of Lucas’s movies earlier in Scott Pilgrim, it’s in one scene where Evans truly embodies the character. He’s absolutely hilarious as an arrogant actor, the kind who shouts “action” before the director can even say it. Lucas takes it to the extreme by having his stunt team fight Scott so he can casually grab a cup of coffee. These types of characters can be irritating, but Evans strikes the perfect balance of comedic egotism. Instead of making us cringe, Lucas has us in stitches.