Minute -- but memorable

Special to The Times

Does anyone remember Richard Garrick? He played a tiny role in both the stage and film versions of "A Streetcar Named Desire" as a doctor who gently took Blanche DuBois away to be locked up. According to theater lore, someone once asked Garrick what the play was about. The veteran actor reportedly replied, "It's about a man who takes a woman to a sanitarium."

According to my college theater professor, this exemplified the creaky adage that there are no small parts, only small actors. One must always look at his or her own character as the center of the world and act accordingly. Alas, in the land of Oscar, where "supporting" can mean "didn't have a shot in the lead category," those world-filling roles usually go unrewarded. On the rare occasion when a small part wins big, it's something of a scandal. When Judi Dench won best supporting actress in 1998 for her perfectly powdered few minutes as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love," even she looked shocked. (Many in the industry considered it a payback for her brilliant portrayal of Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown," which failed to win the Oscar the year before.)

But she deserved the recognition for her Queen Elizabeth I, as do the other actors who create so much out of so little. Naturally the academy can recognize only a certain number of performances. But smaller roles give a film much of its texture and are a really fun part of the ride. Here, then, is a celebration of some of the year's smallest roles that won't win Oscars but had a definite impact.

One poignant scene

"The Hours" has received much attention for the larger roles, but what Toni Collette accomplished in one scene was as rich and poignant as any of the more prominent portrayals. Her role as Julianne Moore's neighbor Kitty was exquisite; she disappeared so fully into the role that even seasoned filmgoers didn't recognize her.

Michael Cunningham, author of the novel "The Hours," watched her performance in awe. "We don't see her before that scene, we don't see her again, yet she creates a whole person with a whole life." Cunningham said. "She gives us to understand that there exists a parallel movie that's about Toni Collette's character and that she's visiting this movie from her own."

Tony Award-winning actor Stephen Dillane brings a similar depth of understanding to the part of Leonard Woolf. Facing Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) at the train station, he agrees to let her go to London to have a fuller, richer life, knowing that she will be overwhelmed and eventually die. Dillane reveals his character's acceptance with a quiet devastation, without ever straying into the realm of melodrama.Cunningham noted, "I think 'The Hours' works to a large extent because it's so fully packed with brilliant performances by some of the greatest living actors in these small roles."

"Adaptation" was similarly packed, with talents from Tilda Swinton to Maggie Gyllenhaal lending their skills in a few scenes. Marc Heuck, a film lecturer on the college circuit and the designated Movie Geek on Comedy Central's show "Beat the Geeks," mentioned another stellar portrayal: "Everyone's talking about Chris Cooper, but what about Brian Cox as Robert McKee?" Cox, a celebrated British stage actor and star of the independent film "L.I.E.," plays the real-life screenwriting seminar leader so flawlessly that it was hard even for some of those who have taken those seminars to believe that it wasn't McKee. "About Schmidt" is another film filled with great actors taking small roles. Linda Voorhees, UCLA screenwriting professor, admired Dermot Mulroney as Randall, the mullet-wearing fiance of Schmidt's daughter. "He went all out, creating a character who's goofy and funny but also very true to himself, so while everyone's laughing at him, we recognize ourselves," she said. "He immerses himself into the part in a way that allows the audience a safe place to examine our own tedious little lives."

Voorhees also found Howard Hesseman a welcome sight as the downtrodden, put-upon hippie bickering with ex-wife Kathy Bates.

Filled with surprises

Other noteworthy small performers of the last year include Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tovah Feldshuh. As Dean Trumbell, the extortionist tormenting Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love," Hoffman is comical and dangerous in equal measure. As Heuck put it, "You wouldn't think someone could come up with a new way to say 'shut up,' but he does."

Heuck singles out Feldshuh for her work in "Kissing Jessica Stein" as Jessica's over-involved mother. "She takes the stereotypical Jewish-mother role and adds just the right twist to it at a critical point in the film," which takes the role beyond comic relief to something genuinely moving.

Small roles are filled with surprises. They allow us to see actors we love in roles we would never anticipate for them. "Or we see an actor we've never seen before who makes us say, 'Who is this person? I want to see them again,' " Voorhees said. In the latter category Voorhees places June Squibb's performance as Helen Schmidt in "About Schmidt."

"She held her own against Jack Nicholson and became this gravitational pull for poor Mr. Schmidt, trying to get away from this life he's lived forever," Voorhees says.

G. Paul Davis (also known as Litefoot) merited praise for his portrayal of Russell, the Native American orchid thief in "Adaptation" who messes with Meryl Streep's head. "He had such humanity," Voorhees said, "and he carried with him his own history and his own attitude, even though he said very little."

Finally, Viola Davis deserves special note for pulling off a troika of beautiful performances in 2002. In "Antwone Fisher," as the mother Antwone finally confronts, she powerfully conveys the shame and sorrow of her failure with hardly a word. In "Solaris," as Helen Gordon, her intensity heightens the surreal unease aboard the space station. And in "Far From Heaven," her portrayal of Julianne Moore's maid Sybil shines through her perfectly starched uniform.

Davis is compelling in each movie, bringing layers of complexity and mystery to what otherwise could have been generic roles.

Perhaps the cliche needs reversing. There are plenty of small parts and, fortunately for us, plenty of actors with talent big enough to make magic with them.

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