Saturday, February 2, 2013

Not to be Forgotten

We all remember (or occasionally would like to forget) some of the star performers in a movie. But what about those folks who lurk in the background? Sometimes they outshine the stars, or at the very least, they make their presence felt, as David Churchill points out in this Critics at Large piece.

The Day Players: Single-Scene Attractions

Oksana Akinshina in The Bourne Supremacy
Oksana Akinshina and Danielle DuClos. Never heard of either of these actresses, have you? Neither one has had what you could call a major career, at least not in English-language films. Akinshina is a still-working Russian actress who has made only one American film, The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and American Danielle DuClos's career in movies essentially ended shortly after she appeared in her one major motion picture, Midnight Run (1988). And yet, their small contributions to both films enriched the finished product immeasurably. In both films, they were what are called in the industry a day player. Sure, it may take more than a day to shoot their scenes in a motion picture (since the process is so slow), but essentially they are hired for one scene. Fortunately, for both of them, they got to appear in an extended sequence with the film's star.

In The Bourne Supremacy (the middle film in the trilogy and probably the best of the three), amnesiac Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is simultaneously seeking vengeance on the people who killed his girlfriend in Goa, India, and also trying to recall the details of his first kill (a nearly botched assassination where he was assigned to kill a Russian industrialist, but also had to kill the man's wife when she stumbled upon the hit – Bourne then rigged the scene so it looked like the wife killed her husband and then herself). Near the end of the film, he has pieced together the details of the hit and he realizes he has left the couple's daughter an orphan and essentially penniless. In the film's penultimate scene, he tracks down the girl in order to tell her the truth (like everybody else, she has always believed her mother killed her father in a jealous rage) and to apologize.

Oksana Akinshina
We first see Akinshina as she walks home on a grim winter day in a dreary-looking Moscow suburb. An aura of melancholy hangs over her visage as the camera tracks her movements. She is a thin, pretty, 17-year-old young woman who life has not been kind to. She walks up to her grimy apartment, unlocks the door, then opens another to find Bourne sitting in a chair, a pistol on his knee. In Russian, she fearfully tells this unknown intruder that she has neither drugs nor money. In American-accented Russian, Bourne tells her that's not what he's there for. He asks her to sit, which she does, hesitantly (she sits on the edge of the chair, ready to run like a scared rabbit). She says that she speaks English and Bourne proceeds to tell her that every bad thought she had about the end of her parents was untrue. Her mother had not killed her father: he had. He tells her, “I'd want to know what really happened,” then he slowly gets up (he had been wounded in the scene before), shuffles past her, mutters “I'm sorry” and leaves.

Though Damon has 90% of the dialogue, director Paul Greengrass honours Akinshina's character by having all the reaction and feeling play out on her pretty face. One of the beautiful touches she brings to the scene is the wary way she repeatedly and quickly glances at Bourne's gun. It's a very small body language thing, but the way Akinshina flicks her eyes at the gun builds an honest tension and fear into her character. Bourne realizes this and pockets the gun, but it doesn't stop her from stealing glances at his hand and the now-pocketed gun. Bourne then proceeds to tell her what really happened. Without a further word of dialogue from her, and the elegant use of close-ups, we see her fear turn to grief as Bourne reveals the truth. Finally, a single, deeply moving tear tumbles down her cheek. The last shot we see of her is when she looks over at a solitary photo of her younger self smiling happily with her parents. The obvious hatred she had felt for her mother falls away in that glance. It's a brief, tiny, brilliant performance and adds heft and weight not only to the sequence, but the film itself.

DeNiro and Danielle DuClos in Midnight Run
I haven't seen Midnight Run since about 1990, but I've never forgotten Danielle DuClos's performance. She was maybe 13 at the time, but hers is the one scene filled with emotion in a big, loud picture. Midnight Run stars Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Grodin is an accountant who has absconded with Mafia funds. He was arrested, but skipped bail, so now he's being chased by the Mob, the FBI and a bounty hunter (De Niro). Long story short, De Niro catches him and then the two of them are on the run for the rest of picture trying to ... well, I don't remember. It's not important. The one detail I recall is that De Niro is divorced, with a daughter he has not seen in some time. I think the characters find themselves in Chicago where the ex-wife and his estranged daughter live. De Niro and DuClos meet up at their house. He’s hoping to borrow his ex-wife’s car to continue the trip with Grodin. But DuClos also offers her father her babysitting money to help them along. It's a very short scene, but the way DuClos handles the hard-for-her-to-understand emotions as she tries to connect to her father is very touching.

I've never been a big fan of the film, since it is a typical noisy 1980s action picture (though Grodin, as always, makes it watchable and De Niro is okay), but some day I would like to see it again just to determine if my memory of DuClos's one scene still rings true.

Day players are the under-appreciated part of any movie or TV show. Sure, the big lead does the heavy lifting, but if all elements, right down to actresses or actors who come in and shoot for a couple of days, are not up to snuff, the film can ultimately fail. Both films were hits in their day, and I'm a big fan of The Bourne Supremacy, but I think they work not just because of the top-line elements, but because of the wise choices the casting director and director made filling these smaller parts.

- originally published on February 6, 2011 in Critics at Large.

– David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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