10 Memorable One-Actor Movies

By
Share:

Of particular note amongst this week’s new DVD and Blu-ray releases is Buried, Rodrigo Cortés’s tense, harrowing tale of a contractor, buried alive, trapped for the duration of the film in a 2’ x 7’ wood coffin. This is a risky formula for movie-making — not only must the filmmakers keep our interest in that confined space, but star Ryan Reynolds undertakes the considerable challenge of holding the audience’s attention, basically by himself, for 90+ minutes.

Unlike 127 Hours, which arrived in theaters around the same time and stole a good deal of its thunder, Buried eschews either a set-up prologue or flashback/cutaways outside of that box. We do hear the voices on the other side of the BlackBerry that’s been left in the coffin, but aside from that, Reynolds is all alone for the duration of the picture. It’s to the benefit of the suspenseful tale — by keying in on the claustrophobia of the situation, Cortés adroitly squeezes the film like a vice. But he couldn’t do it without Reynolds, whose low-key, admirably unshowy performance is a model of efficiency (and empathy).

His little decathalon of acting got us thinking: how many other actors have taken on the task of holding down an entire feature film, mostly if not entirely by themselves? Click through for nine more memorable examples.

Secret Honor

Director Robert Altman’s exhile from Hollywood in the 1980s was mostly spent directing adaptations of stage plays (and occasionally directing for the stage as well — he helmed both the Broadway production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and its subsequent film version). While serving as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan (and using students for his crew), he directed this adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s play, subtitled “A Political Myth” and consisting of a rambling monologue by a drunken, possibly suicidal Richard M. Nixon. Philip Baker Hall, later to gain wider recognition via the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (and his role as “library cop” Lt. Joe Bookman on Seinfeld), turns in a searing performance as “Tricky Dick,” pacing his library, Scotch in hand and a revolver on his desk, dictating notes into a tape recorder that quickly degenerate into raw, profanity-laden, stream-of-consciousness screeds. It’s a magnificent piece of all-out, no-limit acting.

The Man Who Sleeps

This French (very, very French) feature from 1974 — known in its land of origin as Un homme qui dort — features one actor, Jacques Spiesser, as a student wandering the streets of Paris. He has decided to withdraw from the world; as he walks the streets, a female voice (Ludmila Mikael) pronounces the pseudo-philosophical platitudes of his mind. Time Out London raved, “The influence of Franju is unmistakable, and wholly beneficial.” So, you know, do with that information what you will.

Sleep/Blow Job

Andy Warhol was just beginning his experiments with the movie camera in 1963 when he directed (if you’d like to use that terminology for it) the notorious Sleep, a silent, black-and-white portrait of poet and performance artist John Giorno getting a night’s rest. A full five hours and twenty minutes worth of rest. According to the New York Post, the slumborial epic premiered in January of 1964 for an audience of nine people; two left during the first hour.

Warhol’s Blow Job, shot the following year, also features only one person — this time, actor DeVerne Bookwalter, reportedly a veteran of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. But Bookwalter didn’t have to call upon his classical training for this silent, 35-minute film, which holds on a close-up of the actor’s face as he (gratefully) receives the titular act from filmmaker and professor Willard Maas. But the giver is never seen; Warhol isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the act, but in the face of his recipient.

Yaadein

Sunil Dutt scored himself an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records (“fewest actors in a narrative film”) with this 1964 Hindi effort, in which a man returns to his home, finds his wife and children gone, assumes they have left him, and reminisces of their time together and the indiscretions that drove them away. Aside from a silhouette at the end, Dutt is the only actor in the film; since he directed the picture as well, one must assume the crafts service budget was microscopic.

The Human Voice

Well, if you’re only going to have one actor in your movie, it might as well be Ingrid Bergman. The one-act monologue by Jean Cocteau, which dates back to 1932, was shot for television in 1966; Bergman plays a woman having a breakdown as she pleads on the telephone with her long-time lover, who is about to marry another woman. (In an odd coincidence, Bergman’s husband Roberto Rossellini directed Anna Magnani in a previous film adaptation of the play, released the very year that he met Bergman.)

Gray’s Anatomy

Actor and monologist Spalding Gray starred in four feature films taken from his one-man shows, for an esteemed roll call of directors (Jonathan Demme, Thomas Schlamme, Nick Broomfield, and Steven Soderbergh). Perhaps the most cinematic was Soderbergh’s 1996 film of Gray’s Anatomy (no relation to the current soapy TV drama), a monologue chronicling Gray’s experiments with alternative medicine in battling a painful eye condition. Whereas his contemporaries shot Gray performing his pieces in front of live audiences, Soderbergh shot Gray working just for the camera, using shifting settings, flashy editing, trick angles, and lighting effects. He also intercuts documentary interviews with Gray’s doctors and other victims, meaning this entry somewhat violates the rules of the list — but hey, sometimes you’ve got to bend the rules for the sake of including an underrated picture. (Soderbergh’s documentary tribute to the late Gray, last year’s And Everything is Going Fine, is also well worth seeking out.)

Richard Pryor Live in Concert

And it might also be a cheat to include a stand-up comedy performance in this list, but then again, when it comes to Richard Pryor, all bets are off. This 1979 masterpiece captures the finest stand-up of all time (argue it, we dare you) at his scorching, uproarious best. The notoriously hard-to-please Pauline Kael dubbed it “probably the greatest of all recorded-performance films,” and made the argument for serious consideration of Pryor as one of that year’s Best Actor nominees — a less-than-ridiculous argument, considering the scope of characters that Pryor effortlessly takes on in the course of the 78-minute film. “He seemed to go beyond himself,” Kael noted. “He personified objects, animals, people, the warring parts of his own body, even thoughts in the heads of men and women — black, white, Oriental — and he seemed to be possessed by the spirits he pulled out of himself.”

Moon

Okay, yes, a couple of other actors are seen in Duncan Jones’s brilliant, hypnotic tale of an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) alone on a lunar mining base. But for the most part, it’s just Rockwell — and, frequently, it’s Rockwell acting against himself, making him the only actor on this list who not only faced the daunting task of carrying an entire picture basically on his own, but also had to create more than one character while doing it. Bravo, Mr. Rockwell, bravo.

Carrying a film solo is a tough job — fewer actors have tried it than you might think. Did we miss any other admirable one-man (or woman) shows?