Alan Arkin doesn’t have a lot of screen time in Little Miss Sunshine, but he earns his third Oscar nomination with just one perfect scene. At a roadside motel, his irascible grandfather character — he’s listed in the credits simply as ”Grandpa” — shares his room with Abigail Breslin’s Olive as they road-trip with the rest of the family to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty competition in Redondo Beach, Calif. First, Grandpa and Olive practice growling at each other. ”You’re the world champion growler!” declares Grandpa, and Arkin gives the line a terse, proud, comic flourish. But as soon as Grandpa tucks her in, 7-year-old Olive starts to worry that she’s not pretty and Grandpa sets her right. ”I’m madly in love with you!” he says. ”And it’s not because of your brains or your personality — it’s because you’re beautiful!” Then he pokes her in her little potbelly and tells her he loves her, capping off the most heartwarming moment in a movie full of tough, surprising sweetness.
A moment later, of course, Grandpa goes into the bathroom to snort heroin. That’s the beauty of Arkin’s performance: His Grandpa is a real badass — angry, profane, foolish — but we still buy him in his few shining moments of tenderness. Despite his limited face time on screen, Arkin makes a lasting impression. It feels like a career performance from the 72-year-old actor, who scored two Best Actor nods four decades ago — for his film debut in 1966’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and for 1968’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Arkin’s been a dependable film fixture ever since, in movies both good and awful. In a tough, Little Miss Sunshine-y way, it’s touching to see him recognized again for his terrific work.