The old adage tells us there are no small parts, only small actors—but a background extra might take umbrage to that statement. Still, there is a long history of actors breaking out with a minimum of screen time. And when it comes to the Oscar race, there is always the question of whether an actor has “enough” to be nominated. Of course, Judi Dench famously scored a supporting actress statuette for less than 10 minutes of screen time in “Shakespeare in Love,” but does anyone question it was a worthy performance? It’s not even the shortest to win—that would be Beatrice Straight, who landed the trophy for a six-minute scene in 1976’s “Network.”
This year, there are a handful of performances that have pundits wondering if there’s enough screen time to earn a nomination. One of the most discussed is Laura Dern, an adored veteran of the screen, who delivers a wonderful turn in “Wild.” As Bobbi, the mother of author Cheryl Strayed, Dern appears in quick flashbacks while Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Many of these scenes are mere snippets, fleeting memories Cheryl has of her beloved mother. But the impact they make is remarkable, and Dern truly proves the heart of the film.
Dern also gets a few scenes where she really shows her stuff—at one point, we see she’s attending the same college as her daughter, and she sweetly understands Cheryl’s awkward feelings about this. Few actresses can emulate goodness and warmth without the character verging on dull, but Dern pulls it off effortlessly and is a likely nominee next year.
Less certain is how Vanessa Redgrave will fare as the imperious, daunting mother of John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.” Redgrave is an expert at coming in and killing it with little time—“Atonement” only works because she appears at the very end and reveals the film’s denouement so expertly. Much of her screen time in “Foxcatcher” consists of silent, disapproving glares, but those moments speak volumes. And she has one dialogue scene with her son (played by Steve Carell) that is so cold and crushing, it is likely to linger in voters’ memories. It’s going to be a harder road for her than Dern, but many pundits believe Redgrave’s gravitas will land her a nod.
Less certain is the fate of the women of “Birdman.” While Michael Keaton is a lock for a best actor nom and Edward Norton all but assured a supporting nod, the film is bursting with complex, wonderful performances from four fantastic actresses—Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts. The question is whether they will cancel each other out, or whether more than one can slip in.
Of the four, Stone probably has the most screen time and the showiest role as Keaton’s recovering addict daughter, who forges a tentative romance with Norton. But Watts is a two-time Oscar nominee, considered overdue for a win and turns in a sweet, vulnerable performance as a somewhat overlooked actress that voters are likely to relate to.
Riseborough is also great as Keaton’s lover, but her role is the least showy and frankly, she’s the least known of the four (for now.) Which leaves Amy Ryan, who was at one point considered the frontrunner to win supporting actress with “Gone, Baby Gone” before a surprise win by Tilda Swinton for “Michael Clayton.” Though she only has two scenes as Keaton’s ex-wife, they are the most real and grounded moments in a purposely fantastical film. The entire energy changes when she appears on screen and brings to the character so many years of history that goes unspoken between the two. While perhaps a longshot, Ryan should not be ruled out.