Assessing the Shortest Oscar Winning Performances

Should an Oscar win be measured by one’s total amount of screen time? The answer is no.

This is because a truly talented actor or actress doesn’t need more than a handful of minutes to convey utter emotion that stays throughout the length of a film. Occasionally, such minimal performances are so impactful that they have the capacity to present themselves more central to a film than they actually are. It’s all about what an actor is willing to offer to what could be perceived as a limited role. If the actor gives it their all, they have the chance to utterly wow audiences in a way that goes beyond what even the screenplay had intended. All it takes is a single scene to become iconic and forever remembered by future moviegoer generations.

It is exceedingly difficult for a short performance to win an Oscar over a more accepted “supporting” performance length for just reason. Can someone honestly exhibit enough acting skills in a mere few minutes? Absolutely. The reason being such scenes are not only about the performance, but rather they shape the entire formation of the film narrative. These performances are pivotal and require much care to carry the narrative arc of the film into its next phase. It can be argued such performances are essential to the transitional elements of the film. One such example would be Sylvia Miles who was nominated for a six-minute performance in Midnight Cowboy (1969). In her brief performance, Miles’ role as Cass represented the cruel reality the film’s naive protagonist Joe Buck (Jon Voight) must face. Believing he would be successful as a male gigolo, Miles’ performance was sylvia-miles-midnight-cowboypivotal in showing not just Joe, but the movie audience, how absurd and cutthroat his potential clients would be. Sylvia Miles, in a matter of six-minutes, was able to convey intoxicating sexuality, followed by cruel manipulation to actually gain money from Joe, rather than her paying Joe for sex. The scene informs the audience of the difficulty of the hustling profession, but also how easily conned Joe Buck could be. Six minutes. That’s all that Sylvia Miles needed and she excelled in those six minutes so much so that the moviegoer never forgets about her character. Her character effectively established how weak and unprepared Joe Buck was in this profession he was adamant he’d become rich doing.

This reinforces the potential impact of any role in a film. Contrary to popular opinion, there are no small roles. This is something Ned Beatty, who was nominated for a 5-minute performance in Network, has said to aspiring actors. As he once famously quipped, “I worked a day on Network and got an Oscar nomination for it.”

Below are eight examples of exceedingly short performances that won an Academy Award. Did any of this performance not deserve the Oscar? No. Every single one of these Oscar wins deserved the Academy Award because they shaped the emotional core of the film they starred in.

Patricia Neal for Best Actress for Hud (1963)
Length: 21 minutes, 51 seconds
patricia-neal-hudTo date, Patricia Neal holds the Oscar record for the shortest performance to win an Oscar in the Lead Actress category with a performance under twenty-five minutes. Despite that, Patricia Neal effectively stole the movie from her co-stars, especially Paul Newman, with her subtle performance as Alma Brown. Her performance strikes an extraordinary balance as a woman who is both strong in her demeanor, but also emotionally vulnerable. Neal functions as the moral compass of the film, whose own kindness is ultimately used against her in the infamous scene in which she is nearly raped by the film’s antagonist, Hud Bannon (Paul Newman). While Neal’s scenes may be brief throughout the film, they are stunningly rich in undertones of maternal instincts towards those she loves and longing for a future that will take her away from her past.

Anthony Hopkins for Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Length: 16 minutes
anthony-hopkins-silence-of-the-lambsHannibal Lecter has become one of the most famous, most iconic characters in all of cinema. Shockingly, when one considers the length of Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the cannibal serial killer, they will learn that Hopkins’ scenes don’t even add up to 20 minutes. Nonetheless, Dr. Lecter’s haunting and diabolical presence stays with the film throughout its length. That is the brilliance of Hopkins’ performance. Just like he haunts Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) mind, Lecter does the same for the movie audience, captivating us and never truly being out of our own minds.

David Niven for Best Actor for Separate Tables (1958)
Length: 15 minutes, 38 seconds
david-niven-separate-tablesTo date, David Niven holds the record for the shortest performance to win a Best Actor Oscar with a performance that is under 16 minutes, just beating Anthony Hopkins by a mere 22-seconds. Niven’s performance was the centerpiece of the soap-opera ensemble film Separate Tables. He stars as Major Angus Pollock, whose past comes back to haunt him, to which the residents of the seaside hotel he is staying at debate as to whether he should be kicked out. Niven’s performance bookends this ensemble film as the primary “issue” of the film that initiates the film’s drama, but also functions as the film’s resolution.

While Niven is largely absent from the film’s second act, his performance stays with the viewer due to his fragile performance as someone wanting to redeem himself for a past mistake, but is forever defined by that one action. This ultimately shapes into a common theme and motif for all characters throughout the film ,who strive for a new beginning, but are seen for only their past actions. Niven’s performance is one about redemption, but knowing that such a chance can only be granted if those around him are understanding to his circumstances. It’s a beautiful performance that showcased to moviegoers that David Niven was more than a comedy actor.

Anne Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress for Les Miserables (2012)
Length: 15 minutes
anne-hathaway-les-miserablesLes Miserables is a film that is nearly three hours in length, yet it is the brief presence of Fantine, a factory worker who is unjustly fired and resorts to prostitution, that most associate with the film, musical, and novel by Victor Hugo. Fantine is considered to be one of the most tragic characters in all of literature as a woman resorting to desperate means to make money for her daughter’s well-being. Anne Hathaway was up to the challenge by physically becoming the character by starving herself. Hathaway infamously ate nothing but oatmeal paste and put herself in a life-threatening, malnourished situation to truly look the part, which was method acting at its most extreme.

However, it is the pinnacle song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” that has immortalized the musical. It is Hathaway’s heartbreaking rendition of the song that carries throughout the length of the film. Hathaway sings the song with such stunning heartbreak, devastation, and betrayal that it’s nearly impossible not to cry watching this instance of innocence being stripped away and replaced with a life of tragedy and unparalleled sacrifice for another.

Ben Johnson for Best Supporting Actor for The Last Picture Show (1971)
Length: 9 minutes, 54 seconds
ben-johnson-the-last-pictue-showTo date, Ben Johnson holds the record as the shortest performance to win an Oscar in the Supporting Actor category for a performance just barely under 10 minutes. While it may seem ludicrous for such a small performance to win an award, Johnson’s performance is actually the soul of The Last Picture Show. The film occurs in a small Texas town where the diner, pool hall, and the theater are owned by Sam the Lion (Johnson), who is a beacon of the rugged west when it was once cherished and admired. The town is now dying and Sam is one of the last relics of a time of prosperity and hope. In his brief scenes, we realize that Sam only stays in this faltering town due to his memories of what beauty it once held. He recognizes he could have had a more impactful life, to which he holds onto his dearest memories by revisiting the grounds they occurred on many years prior.

While Ben Johnson’s performance is fleeting in this film, it stays with the moviegoer because he is a final remember of a world that once was. Once Johnson exits the film, the moviegoer is left with a contemporary world that no longer focuses on beauty. This causes the viewer to reflect back to a time that once was, specifically to the era of the film that featured Sam the Lion. This is the very essence of what a powerful performance should be, regardless of length.

Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Length: 8 minutes
judi-dench-shakespeare-in-loveMany have attributed Judi Dench’s Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love as compensation for having lost the Oscar a year earlier for Mrs. Brown. This is far from the truth. Contrary to arguments made, Judi Dench’s performance was pivotal to the Shakespearean romantic-comedy. The film represents Queen Elizabeth I as somewhat bitter, jaded, unimpressed with what theater can offer. As Dench’s performance conveys, Queen Elizabeth I was a commanding presence, whose booming voice caused an entire room to go silent. She is used to people cozying up to her and attempting to say what they think she wants to hear. This translates into the theater, to which writers deliberately offer The Queen mindless comedies because that is what she expects. This small character arc gave the film its premise and evoked the question: Does theater have the ability to evoke emotions from its audience and be a true portrayal of love? The movie’s penultimate goal is show audiences that theater is more than mere comedy, that it is about representing true love and emotion.

What makes Dench’s performance even more complex and twofold comes in the historical knowledge that Queen Elizabeth I never married and was deemed as “The Virgin Queen.” Dench subtly applied that to her performance, framing the Queen as the harshest of critics towards dramatic plays involving love. This resulted in the film’s main narrative that William Shakespeare is striving to write a play that could make the harshest of critics realize that love does exist and that plays do have the ability to trigger emotions from its audience. Regardless of the screen time of Dench, she was integral to Shakespeare in Love’s narrative and resolution.

Ingrid Bergman for Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Length: 5 minutes (Technically 14 minutes)
ingrid-bergman-murder-on-the-orient-expressTechnically speaking, Ingrid’s Bergman’s performance is roughly 14 minutes in total, but her scenes are mostly ensemble scenes that don’t directly showcase her. The bulk of Bergman’s performance in this adaption of Agatha Christie’s famous murder-mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express, is in a single scene that runs about five minutes in length. The scene is a single continuous shot in which Bergman’s character, Greta Ohlsson, is questioned by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney). While most actors would have scoffed at a single continuous shot, Bergman was excited by the prospect. As a result, this showcased Bergman’s acting ability better than any of her all-star supporting cast. Bergman was able to convey a dramatic range of emotions in a single shot, while brilliantly speaking her lines in broken English. Bergman also famously learned her authentic sounding Swedish accent for this movie. Some critics have argued this wouldn’t have been a stretch since Bergman was already of Swedish nationality, but she had been out of native country for so long and hadn’t spoken the language in years, that she actually had to relearn a Swedish accent.

Many critics and historians have also claimed that Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar as compensation for having been blacklisted during the 1950s for her highly publicized affair with Roberto Rossellini. However, this is a very unfair assessment. While Bergman’s performance may not be showy, it was an impactful performance that stays with the audience. Her performance is rich in its subtext. Bergman’s performance hinges on what the character may be hiding, to which she offers a brilliant mixture of insinuating that the character is haunted by something and also exhibiting tremendous compensation whenever spoken to. The character cannot look anyone in the eye without shivering and her diction is entirely religious-related, almost in an effort to exonerate herself from the cruelty of the world. Ingrid Bergman’s performance lies in not necessarily what her character says, but rather her mannerisms and how she subtly became the character. It’s acting at its finest and it is such a rarity for the Academy Awards to recognize a performance that is extremely minimal, but it is an Oscar win critics shouldn’t be complaining about.

Beatrice Straight for Best Supporting Actress for Network (1976)
Length: 5 minutes, 2 seconds
beatrice-straight-network-02Beatrice Straight’s Oscar win for a single scene is still one of the most hotly contested Oscar wins in Academy Award history, but it shouldn’t be. In fact, Beatrice Straight’s Oscar win ought to be considered one of the best, most deserving Oscar wins in Academy Award history. In a single scene, Beatrice Straight was able to convey a tremendous range of emotions that unfolded realistically and effectively enough that even the sternest of audiences cannot help but feel compassion for this betrayed wife.

The scene is simple enough, but Straight made it so much more. In the scene, Louise Schumacher is informed by her husband of twenty-five years, Max (William Holden), that he is leaving her for another woman. What follows is perhaps one of the greatest film monologues of betrayal ever filmed. While screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s words are astounding, it is Beatrice Straight’s delivery that made these words impactful. Having been a Tony-winning theater actress, Straight recognized the need to truly instill raw and heartbreaking emotion into this single monologue.

Straight’s monologue is essentially the grieving process on full display for audiences to see. The scene begins with her sitting across a kitchen table from Max, a look of seeming disbelief on her face. She is in denial this is something her seemingly stable marriage of twenty-five years is now facing. “Do you love her?” She asks. This particular moment is beatrice-straight-network-01fascinating in that Straight’s acting strongly suggests that she is a woman who doesn’t want to sit alone contemplating whether her husband’s affair is spontaneous or not. It is evident that Max won’t give her the truth because he is ashamed to admit it, but Louise won’t allow him to get away that easily from the truth. She wants him to be well-aware of what he is saying, even if it hurts her. Additionally, she wants the grim reality spelled out to her to ensure the reaction she is about to have is a valid one. “I’m in love with her,” is the hesitant response she gets.

What follows is Beatrice Straight’s stunning monologue that is pure anger and fury at the situation. She has entered the grieving process’ second phase of anger by demanding Max leave their home and to never come back. In a series of sentences, Straight effectively tears down Holden’s Max by directly informing him of his insecurities and his pathetic attempt to relive his younger years. Louise sees Max for exactly what he is and isn’t afraid beatrice-straight-network-03to directly confront him. She’s been hurt and she wants Max to know it hurts. However, it’s more than the words in the scene that make Beatrice Straight impactful. It falls in that her strong, empowered voice gradually breaks down. Her fury is slowly falling victim to profound depression. This is especially noticeable in her final sentences: “I’m your wife, damn it. And, if you can’t work up a winter passion for me, the least I require is respect and allegiance.” Her voice cracks in these final sentences, clearly representing that the character is desperately attempting to maintain her composure, but ultimately isn’t able to. From there, depression overtakes the character, to which she bursts into tears. The character has now entered the third stage of the grieving process: depression.

“I hurt. Don’t you understand that?  I hurt badly,” she confesses to Max in tears. It is only then that Max attempts to console his wife of twenty-five years. Her output of emotion has convincingly taken him off-guard, which is realistic given the outburst of the monologue Beatrice Straight has delivered. “I’m not giving up on you, Max,” she says to him, indicating the yet another phase of the grieving process: bargaining. However, this sentiment is short lived the instant Max indirectly confesses that he knows this sexual beatrice-straight-network-04dalliance will likely not work out, even insinuating that he may come back. “You’re in for a world of grief,” Louise responds to Max. At this moment, Beatrice Straight shifted the character’s demeanor to the final phase of grief: acceptance. Despite being hurt and betrayed, Straight’s acting heavily indicates that Louise will not forgive Max’s infidelity. She has accepted this is her circumstance and she is not going to allow him to apologize his way back into a comfortable, safe marriage with her. By doing that, Beatrice Straight allowed for Louise Schumacher to exit the film with a hint of empowerment and superiority over her husband, which is astonishing given where the scene began.

To say five minutes isn’t enough screen time to be awarded an Oscar is outrageous. All one needs to do is look to Beatrice Straight’s performance in Network for evidence that the most talented actor or actress may only need five minutes to utterly blow audiences away.

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