One is the Loneliest Number: Cinema’s Best Solo Performances

By: Daniel Reynolds

So last weekend I was watching Evil Dead 2, you know, as you do[1]. I’d never seen it, and while I don’t much go in for horror movies, I’d kind of wanted to see what the fuss was about (it spawned a trilogy of films and of course, a remake is on the way). Is it a good film? Sure, it’s got some pretty bizarre energy and Sam Raimi, the director and co-writer, executes a lively, off-kilter visual style that is as terrifying as it is ridiculous. But that’s not the point: what got me thinking – and writing – about Evil Dead 2 isn’t the quality of the scares, but rather the film’s decision to spend about half the movie with star Bruce Campbell as he battles, by his lonesome, undead demons, possessed furniture, and eventually, famously, his own hand.

Now, to be fair, Evil Dead 2 is far from an exercise in minimalist restraint (it does feature copious – and I mean copious – amounts of flowing blood), but it takes a certain amount of, errr, guts to rest a film resolutely on the shoulders (or in Campbell’s case, chin) of one actor playing off of the uncommunicative, the inanimate, or the immaterial. And with that, it got me thinking about the five best performances that predominantly exist as soliloquies, man against himself or nature. I tried to stay away from classic solo scenes and focus on movies that exist largely as real one-man shows.

First though, some Honorable Mentions: Moon with Sam Rockwell playing off of, well, himself and a Kevin Spacey-voiced computer, the footnoted Life of Pi with Suraj Sharma giving a surprisingly moving performance, and The Pianist with Adrien Brody (it had too much other stuff to make the cut) for those scenes of him wandering around bombed out Poland.

And now, on to the lonely films:

Tom Hanks supplying the recent standard.

Tom Hanks supplying the recent standard.

Cast Away – Admittedly, this is the first film that came to mind. Robert Zemeckis’ tremendously engaging 2000 film gives us one of those Tom Hanks performances that really shouldn’t work. Yeah, it’s book-ended by some scenes with Helen Hunt and whatever, but without the aid of flashback the film manages to stay largely focused on Hanks’ dedicated FedEx employee Chuck Noland wandering around a deserted island. His only companion is the by now well-known Wilson, a volleyball (how much did Wilson have to pay to get that kind of publicity? How about FedEx?). Hanks’ presence is so continuously likeable it works even in a vacuum!

Key Scene: Tom Hanks drifting away on his raft, crying after Wilson as he floats away. Leave it to Hanks to get us to care about a damn volleyball.

Secret Honor – What if I told you that Robert Altman made a film in 1984 about Richard Nixon? Now what if I told you that it all takes place, roughly, in one room and it stars Philip Baker Hall (who will always be Bookman to me)? Intriguing, right? One of the few truly one-man shows around, Secret Honor is an unhinged, full-blast vision of one of the more controversial figures in 20th century American history. I’m not exaggerating here: the film is Hall as Nixon delivering monologues about Eisenhower, Kissinger, Kennedy and, of course, his mother; ultimately rambling and raving on into the night about his sad legacy.

Key Scene: Probably a cop-out, but its tough to nail down an individual key scene here. Seriously, it is 90 minutes of Hall yelling, mumbling, raging, whispering. Just, yeah, it’s out there.

I Am Legend – Like the aforementioned Cast Away, it’s another example of a recent movie anchored totally by the presence and skill of a big time movie star (it occurrs to me that 127 Hours works here too, though not at quite the same magnitude). In this case, I Am Legend from 2007 is fueled by the charisma of Will Smith, one of the few actors capable of selling, like Hanks, the general public on a movie about a man, his dog and a city full of raving zombie-like creatures. Unlike Cast Away, however, this movie has a lot more flashbacks to explain (re: spell out) the circumstances of the film. But wait (!), much like Cast Away, it also falls apart in its third act when more characters are introduced. So, score one for symmetry, I guess.

Key Scene: There are a couple of great scenes in this movie but for me the scene with Smith’s Neville hanging onto his dog Sam one last time stands out.

Will Smith and dog. The best parts of I Am Legend.

Will Smith and dog. The best parts of I Am Legend.

Wall-E – This film just made the cut. You see, Wall-E is actually a really touching love story between two robots and while it is a brilliant movie, it does go crashing into a conclusion that features a bunch of fat humans. Yes, those slobs can speak in full sentences, but I long for a full length film of just Wall-E and his pet cockroach crawling around going on adventures and uncovering treasure. Pixar still manages to give us a magical first act that casts such a spell on the audience that we forget we’re watching a mouthless, legless robot comb through the wreckage of a post-apocalyptic earth. That’s something.

Key Scene: Wall-E flips on Hello, Dolly! to learn what love is. For all the junk and treasures that surround him, it is the one thing he truly desires.

The Passion of Joan of Arc – A performance that is so monumental and well-known all you have to do is mention the name Falconetti (the single name by which the star was largely known) to a film nerd and it will elicit some response. Make no mistake, there are a lot of other people glancing around the frame in Carl Dreyer’s silent 1928 masterpiece; but they are entirely faceless and inconsequential. You won’t notice or remember any of them as every iota of your attention will be drawn to the unspeakably expressive face of Falconetti as she plays out the agonizing final days of Joan of Arc. That it was her last (and only) significant performance seems fitting. I mean, how could it be topped?

Key Scene: Spoiler alert! Joan of Arc is burned alive at the stake. Naturally, the key scene here is that close-up of Falconetti, flames rising around her, tears streaming down her face, death seconds away. No words.


[1] For the purposes of this discussion I also saw Life of Pi, which while nice, didn’t have nearly as many moments of brutal dismemberment, explosions of blood or Bruce Campbell. So yeah, we’re talking about Evil Dead 2 today.

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2 responses to “One is the Loneliest Number: Cinema’s Best Solo Performances

  1. The one movie here I might consider viewing is “Joan of Arc”. I’m glad to hear the directors chose to stay with history and keep Joan burning, rather than have her jump down and destroy her persecutors with automatic weapons (that version is no doubt in the works).

  2. It’s so unfortunate that they didn’t use the original ending for I Am Legend, from the short-story and the Vincent Price precursor – a twist of Shyamalanian proportions! Also, while Sam was a female, at the time my side-kick was a male German Shepard. If I could make a ‘Provan’s Final Cut’ with just these 2 alterations, it would become my favourite movie, supplanting Cast Away.

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