Grand Larceny II

Thanks to a shout out from 2Blowhards, the post several days ago on “stealing movies” is getting some attention online. (The question was, “Who has stolen the most movie with the smallest part?”)

I am grateful for this attention, and it occurs to me that the comments for the piece open up the opportunity for further comment.

Here’s is the whole list, grouping suggestions from the post with suggestions from the comments.

Holly Hunter in Time Code
Steve Zahn in Out of Sight
Selma Blair in Cruel Intentions
Siobhan Fallon in Men in Black
Brad Pit in Thelma & Louise (Rick Liebling)
Brad Pit in True Romance (Keven Lofty)
Joan Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank (Keven Lofty)
Blutto (Ole)
Mickey Rourke in Body Heat (Communicatrix)
Chris Rock in I’m Going to Git You Sucka (Communicatrix)
Meryl Streep in Manhattan (Communicatrix)
Bill Murray in Tootsie (Mike Madison)
Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles (Mike Madison)
Joan Cusack in Working Girl (Mike Madison)
Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (Bryan)
R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (Bryan)
J.K. Simmons in Spider-Man (Bryan)
Don Cheadle in Devil with a Blue Dress on (MHB)
Sharon Stone in Total Recall (SRP)
Steve Buscemi in Miller’s Crossing (Virtual Memories)
Steve Buscemi in Billy Madison (James)
Brad Pitt in True Romance (JewishAtheist)

If we squint our eyes (essential to all acts of analysis) and ask ourselves what these movies have in common, one answer is this: they are all good movies.

This suggests the possibility that it is easier to steal a good movie than a bad one. And this implies that a movie stealer is well served when he or she is working with other great actors in the larger parts.

(Let’s assume that there is no selection process at work here, one that says we don’t look at bad movies for issues of this kind.)

I think the sensible assumption is that it should be easy to steal bad movies. Less competition. But it may be that the bad actors who staff the big parts in bad movies will not let this happen. They watch great performances with envy, suffer a terrible insecurity, and prevail upon the director to fire the offending player.

Great actors are bigger than this. They believe, perhaps, that brilliant performances in small parts do not diminish their contributions but instead augment the movie’s hope of success. All boat rise with the tide, as it were.

This would mean that the Don Cheadles and Steve Zahns and Siobhan Fallons of the world do not steal movies after all. Which forces to ask what we meant when we talked about “stealing” movies in the first place. Do they belong to the stars? Is this a zero sum enterprise? What goes to one actor must come from another. Is every movie a quiet competition for that very scarce thing called attention (and admiration)? All of these sound like old economy assumptions to me. And then the question becomes whether we must dispense with the idea of movie larceny altogether. Just wondering.


McCracken, Grant. 2008. Grand Larcenty, Hollywood Style. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. April 17, 2008. here.

Blowhard, Michael. 2008 Post for April 23. here.

8 thoughts on “Grand Larceny II

  1. Rick Liebling

    There are so many factors involved – the actors, the directors, the screenplay, the role. It does seem a shame to saddle a positive (great performance) with a negative term (stealing). As you are suggesting, the actors are actually giving something to the movie, not taking something away.

    Looking at this from another direction, what about the idea of a ‘name’ actor with a small role who actually does take something away? I would call that hijacking a film. One possible example, Danny DeVito in whichever Batman movie where he played the Penguin. Just as you noted that ‘stolen’ movies are usually good films, ‘hijacked’ movies are almost always going to be bad films.

  2. Eric Nehrlich

    I think that films are non-zero sum games, as you suggest. Good actors realize that if a film has more good actors and higher quality, the film will garner more attention. They may be getting a smaller relative piece of the film’s attention, but the total attention is much larger (smaller piece of a bigger pie).

    I’ve been seeing this pattern everywhere recently. At a startup, should the founders and investors fight over the existing resources of the company (zero-sum), or find ways to grow the company (non-zero)? In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the “rational” one-time strategy is at odds with the iterated strategy, because a one-time prisoner’s dilemma is a zero-sum game, but an iterated version is non-zero.

    I really need to go back and finish Robert Wright’s Nonzero one of these days.

  3. peter

    Another grand theft, auteur to add to the list is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles in “The Talented Mr Ripley”, a movie which fits your analysis — a very good movie, with very good actors.

  4. Terry Rock

    – it’s impossible to steal a bad movie? Nothing to steal.
    – most people only remember good movies.
    – stealing is one element of “what makes a movie good.”

  5. fred

    One bad movie stolen by a good actor: Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (or, Prince of Cheese as my friends and I called it at the time). Perhaps merely the exception that proves the rule.

  6. smack

    Can a movie have multiple thieves? Probably not, but in the category of multiple great performances, how about Cathrine O’Hara AND Teri Garr AND John Heard in After Hours.

  7. Maureen

    In a bad movie, you don’t think of the actor as “stealing the show”, so much as “the actor playing that character was too good for this movie”.

    If you ask people for “examples of good acting in bad movies”, you’ll probably get a lot more suggestions. Vincent Price was frequently a bright spot, for instance — even doing voice acting in The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, he was good.

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