Walking away with it

Posted by · 10:40 am · August 30th, 2008

Tom Cruise in MagnoliaI remember slipping into a small theater in 1987 to see something called “Street Smart,” the new Christopher Reeve film that I had no particular interest in, to be quite honest. Two hours later I emerged knowing two things: Morgan Freeman was a brilliant actor, and he would be nominated for an Academy Award.

In a rather lacking movie, Freeman was terrifying as Fast Black, a vicious pimp who sees in a young reporter the chance to get off of a murder rap. At one point in the film he holds a pair of scissors to the eye of one of his hookers and invites her to choose which eye she is going to lose. It was an astounding performance that launched the actor’s career, earning him awards from the Los Angeles critics, New York critics and National Society of Film Critics…as well as that Oscar nod I predicted.

Supporting performances can often be the heart and soul of a film, anchoring the picture and actually elevating the work of the lead actor. Can you imagine what “The Wizard of Oz” would be without the perfection of the cast surrounding Judy Garland, or “The Godfather” without the magnificence supporting Marlon Brando and Al Pacino? Nor can I, and in fact, through the years, supporting performances have become more and more important, certainly earning more press, with lead actors once unwilling to be promoted for an Oscar in these “lesser” categories now only to be happy to do so.

Tom Cruise, arguably the biggest actor on the planet in 1999, gave his finest performance in a supporting role in “Magnolia” and somehow — SOMEHOW — lost the Oscar to Michael Caine. Jack Nicholson has gone the supporting route many times, winning an Oscar for his work in “Terms of Endearment” and earning nods for “Easy Rider,” “Reds” and “A Few Good Men,” though he was criminally snubbed for “The Departed.”

Meryl Streep has become no stranger to supporting roles, earning an Oscar nod for “Adaptation” in 2002 (she too should have won) and certainly turning heads for a should’ve-been-nominated turn in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Sometimes an actor in a supporting role can dominate the film, as we saw this summer with Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.” In “Apocalypse Now” the film actually peaks with Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving surfer, not Brando’s deranged Colonel. Like Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” Duvall so dominated the screen when he was on it. In just a few scant scenes…we could never forget him.

The work of the supporting actor, the “job,” so to speak, may seem to be support of the lead actors, secondary figures in the canvas of other artists. But what we see more often than not is their support of the story, and in many cases, their rise to infamy as a result.

Have your say. What are some of the most sensational supporting performances in film history?

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44 responses so far

  • 1 8-30-2008 at 10:50 am

    Sean said...

    I think that one of the finest supporting performances to date was given by Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Most people consider it to be overrated. Saying that he only won becuase he had a beard. But he created a character so complex that we worried to be a part of his life but wanted to desperately to follow him. He changed the life of one kid but in turn saving his own life.

  • 2 8-30-2008 at 11:08 am

    Ross Miller said...

    Great post, John. Supporting performances don’t get talked about enough.

    You’ve already mentioned Ledger (which is a given from now on when this subject arises), and Cruise in Magnolia (you see; when he chooses off the wall roles like that he proves just how good of an actor he is) but here are some I would say:

    – Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys
    – Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner
    – Anyone other than Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (Lee J. Cobb)
    – Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet
    – Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West (I think we can agree Bronson is the lead, yes?)
    – Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

    There’s many more that I could think of, obviously, but at the moment those are the ones that spring to mind for me.

  • 3 8-30-2008 at 11:22 am

    Casey said...

    Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
    Robert De Niro in GoodFellas
    Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs
    Willem Dafoe in Platoon
    Harrison Ford in Star Wars (come on everybody, Han Solo was perfectly wrought even if he wasn’t a huge stretch)
    Paul Newman in The Sting
    Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now
    George Scott in The Hustler

    way too many more to name

  • 4 8-30-2008 at 11:45 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’d actually go with Robards before Fonda, Ross. IMO.

    “Mr. Choo-choo.”

    As for my picks in the categories, Nicholson in “Batman” is a standout (and the BAFTA saw it right), Duvall in “Network” is probably one mof my favorite supporting perfs ever, and for the ladies, I have to give some love to Ellen Degeneres in “Finding Nemo” because I know no one else will mention her. It’s the best vocal performance off all time, I say.

  • 5 8-30-2008 at 11:54 am

    kmoore8435 said...

    Don Cheadle – Devil In A Blue Dress

    One of the most overlooked supporting performances in film history IMO.

  • 6 8-30-2008 at 12:05 pm

    Michael C. said...

    If I had to fill out the category for all time it would probably look like this:

    Orson Welles – The Third Man
    George C. Scott – Dr. Strangelove
    Edward G. Robinson – Double Indemnity
    Samuel L. Jackson – Pulp Fiction
    Robert Shaw – Jaws

    and my vote would go to Orson Welles

  • 7 8-30-2008 at 12:31 pm

    Belik said...

    Jude Law in Road to Perdition

  • 8 8-30-2008 at 12:36 pm

    John Foote said...

    Goddam Robert Shaw should have won the Oscar for “Jaws”; Roy ASchieder in “The French Connection”, Joel Grey, friggining brilliant in ‘Cabaret”, Bruce Dern, I love this man, in ‘Coming Home”, Bill Murray in “Tootsie”, Burt Reynolds in ‘Deliverance” and “Boogie Nights”…and those are just some of the men…

  • 9 8-30-2008 at 12:40 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Tatum O’Neal – PAPER MOON

    Ralph Fiennes – SCHINDLER’S LIST

    George Kennedy – COOL HAND LUKE

    Eva Marie Saint – ON THE WATERFRONT

    Christopher Walken – THE DEER HUNTER

  • 10 8-30-2008 at 12:46 pm

    Ross Miller said...

    Oh, good call, Michael C. – Scott was fantastic in Dr Strangelove.

  • 11 8-30-2008 at 2:00 pm

    Marvin said...

    Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, Al Pacino in Dick Tracy, Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club, John Goodman in Barton Fink, Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane, Claude Rains in Casablanca, Maggie Smith in Gosford Park, Maribel Verdú in Y tu mamá también, Al Pacino in The Insider, Christopher Plummer in The Insider, Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Lily Tomlin in I ♥ Huckabees, Taraji P. Henson and Taryn Manning in Hustle & Flow, Rodrigo De la Serna in Diarios de Motocicleta, Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, Jude Law in Gattaca, everyone in A Prairie Home Companion, everyone but the title character in Amélie, everyone in Stage Door…

  • 12 8-30-2008 at 2:07 pm

    Jack said...

    Ralph Fiennes: Schindler’s List
    James Cromwell: L.A. Confidential
    Joaquin Phoenix: Gladiator
    Anthony Hopkins: The Silence of the Lambs
    Jack Nicholson: A Few Good Men

    One of my other favorites that probably isn’t remembered well is Donald Sutherland in JFK, his role is one of the most important in the film and its the most memorable scene for me

  • 13 8-30-2008 at 2:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Douglas Rain in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

  • 14 8-30-2008 at 2:15 pm

    Casey said...

    I have to say that I can’t let something go that was mentioned. Jules Winnfield was not a supporting role in Pulp Fiction. Michael C. you are 100 % right that it was a performance of note in the history of cinema, because I think it was one of the greatest lead performances ever. but i will contend that Jules was not only A lead in Pulp Fiction; but THE lead. I really think he is the “protagonist” if there really is one. I would like to make another note on voice performances I liked in animation as well; Jeremy Irons in The Lion King. loved it. also for the feminine side my favortie supporting turns would have to be;
    Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (or Adaptation)
    Virginia Madsen in Sideways
    Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights
    Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas
    Reese Witherspoon in Election (I think she was more supporting than lead but I guess its up for interpretation)
    Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People
    Piper Laurie in The Hustler (category?)

  • 15 8-30-2008 at 3:09 pm

    Casey said...

    Jack, great call on Donald Sutherland in JFK. feck Jim Garrison, I want three hours of X

  • 16 8-30-2008 at 4:48 pm

    John K said...

    Ignoring the obvious ones – many of which have already been stated – let me say that the Academy’s refusal to nominate Val Kilmer for “Tombstone” bordered on criminal.

  • 17 8-30-2008 at 4:54 pm

    Casey said...

    John K is the man

  • 18 8-30-2008 at 5:05 pm

    John K said...

    I just noticed that no one mentioned Vince Vaughn for his electric work in “Swingers.” (This was back when Vince was still hungry and raw, instead of just regurgitating the Vince Vaughn act.)

    Also, Chloe Sevigny was fucking incredible in “Boys Don’t Cry” – Swank deserved the plaudits, but the movie absolutely belongs to both actresses.

    John Turturro has given so many amazing supporting performances over the years, and he was so fucking good in “Miller’s Crossing” – I hope he gets nominated for something someday.

    And people consider Sean Connery’s Oscar for “The Untouchables” to be a lifetime achievement award of sorts, but he earned his way with that awesome death scene alone.

  • 19 8-30-2008 at 5:09 pm

    John K said...

    I just noticed that no one mentioned Vince Vaughn’s electric turn in “Swingers” (back when Vince was still hungry and raw, instead of just regurgitating the Vince Vaughn act over and over again).

    Chloe Sevigny’s absolutely stunning work in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Swank deserves the plaudits, but that movie belongs to both actresses.

    John Turturro has given so many amazing supporting performances over the years, and he was so fucking good in “Miller’s Crossing” especially. I only hope that he manages to get a nomination for something sometime down the line.

    And people consider Sean Connery’s Oscar for “The Untouchables” to be a lifetime achievement award of sorts, but I firmly disagree – he earned his statue with that amazing death scene alone.

  • 20 8-30-2008 at 5:10 pm

    John K said...

    Ignore the double post – I hate the internet.

    Heh, and it seems great minds think alike, Casey. :p

  • 21 8-30-2008 at 5:29 pm

    eric said...

    What a great question! Some that really stick out to me:

    Julianne Moore, Magnolia
    Fionnula Flannagan, The Others
    Angela Lansbury, Gaslight
    Ian Mckellan, LOTR
    Chris Cooper, American Beauty
    Joan Allen, Pleasantville
    Kirsten Dunst, Interview with the Vampire

  • 22 8-30-2008 at 5:45 pm

    Troy said...

    I think Cooper’s performance in Adaptation. is much more deserving to be on this list.

  • 23 8-30-2008 at 6:38 pm

    Bryan said...

    Joan Allen – The Crucible
    Helena Bonham-Carter – Howards End
    Ian McKellan – The Lord of the Rings
    The cast of Gosford Park
    William H. Macy – Fargo
    Dennis Hopper – Blue Velvet (I have nightmares about him)
    Rinko Kikuchi – Babel

  • 24 8-30-2008 at 8:02 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Gotta go with:

    Best Supporting Actor:

    John Goodman-Barton Fink
    John Lithgow-The World According to Garp
    Max Von Sydow-Winter Light
    Henry Fonda-Once Upon a Time in the West
    Charles Coburn-The More the Merrier

    Best Supporting Actress:

    Mary Tyler Moore-Ordinary People
    Kathleen Byron-Black Narcissus
    Judy Garland-Judgement at Nuremburg
    Jodie Foster-Taxi Driver
    Judith Anderson-Rebecca

  • 25 8-30-2008 at 8:38 pm

    Troy said...

    Also, I should add that Turturro in Miller’s Crossing is a great choice. The scene at Miller’s Crossing is extraordinary, one of my favorite scenes of all-time.

  • 26 8-30-2008 at 9:45 pm

    Martin Edwards said...

    Wow, great topic, and some especially great responses that I totally agreed with and out of left field, like Vince Vaughn in Swingers, Ralph Fiennes in Schnidler’s List, and Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.

    I feel compelled to mention John Goodman in Barton Fink, Claude Rains in Casablanca, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, and Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

  • 27 8-30-2008 at 10:06 pm

    Silencio said...

    I second Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress.

    Also Sergei Lopez in Pan’s Labyrinth. His Captain had layer after layer. His last scene was the best acting of the film.

    Would Tony Curtis be a lead or supporting in Some Like It Hot? Jack Lemmon got the lead nom, so I’m not sure. But he was fantastic.

    Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump.

    Jeffrey Jones, Amadeus.

    Kirsten Dunst, Interview With the Vampire

    Maia Morgenstern, Passion of the Christ

    Monica Bellucci, Malena

    Danny DeVito, Batman Returns

  • 28 8-30-2008 at 11:06 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Uh, Silencio, Curtis was definitely lead, they were co-leads. Just because one is lead doesn’t mean the other can’t be too. Also, Perkins in Psycho? He was THE lead.

  • 29 8-31-2008 at 1:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Orson Welles – The Third Man

    and, since the ladies have been a bit under-represented:

    Lorna Patterson – Airplane!
    Geraldine Chaplin – Cria Cuervos
    Diane Keaton – The Godfather Part II
    Laura San Giacomo – sex, lies and videotape
    Zooey Deschanel – The Good Girl
    Karen Black – Five Easy Pieces
    Christina Ricci – The Ice Storm
    Vivian Pickles – Harold and Maude
    Simone Signoret – La Ronde
    Julie Christie, Billy Liar

  • 30 8-31-2008 at 1:31 am

    Rob said...

    Janice Rule in 3 Women is supposed to be on that list too. Couldn’t let that one go.

  • 31 8-31-2008 at 2:26 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Good one.

  • 32 8-31-2008 at 5:05 am

    John Foote said...

    A few more…Thomas Mitchell was wonderful in “Gone with the Wind”, Jane Darwell brilliant in “The Grapes of Wrath”, Malden, Cobb, Steiger and Saint stunning in ‘On the Waterfront”, Dean terrific in “Giant”, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason superb in “The Hustler”, Hackman in “Bonnie and Clyde”, Kim Hunter in ‘Planet of the Apes”, Paul LeMat and Mackenzie Phillips in “American Grafitti”, Burstyn and Johnson in “The Last Picture Show”, Burgess Meredith in ‘Rocky”, Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”, Penelope Milford in “Coming Home”, Joe Pesci in ‘Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, JFK” and “Casino”, Tommy Lee Jones in “JFK”, Diane Weist in ‘Bullets Over Broadway”, Martin Landau Iin “Ed Wood”, Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet”, Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”, and the incredibly under appreciated work of the great Graham Greene in “Dances with Wolves” for which he should have won the Academy Award for best supporting actor. What a stunning performance.

  • 33 8-31-2008 at 7:42 am

    Casey said...

    this was fun. we should do more of these. different situations. good work everyone hahaha. well I’ll throw out a couple more for good measure
    John Goodman in The Big Lebowski
    Ted Knight in Caddyshack (comedies anyone?)
    James Woods in Once Upon a Time in America
    Dianne Wiest in anything… i love her

  • 34 8-31-2008 at 9:53 am

    Adrianna said...

    I agree that Chris Cooper in “Adaptation” was a thoroughly satisfying example of an actor’s craft finally being recognized.

    Edward Norton in “Primal Fear” was a stunning supporting debut. They had trouble casting the part because no-one could do both sides of the character (innocent/evil) equally well, so they went with an unknown. Being unknown was an advatage because the audience had no preconceptions about the character. But I believe Norton lost to…Cuba Gooding Jr?

  • 35 8-31-2008 at 10:14 am

    Martin Edwards said...

    Props on the Ted Knight shout out, Casey. Great great call, and a hilarious performance for the ages.

    As far as my Perkins for supporting, I feel he had the Hannibal Lector effect, where a supporting role is so important to the plot and the actor is so good that he seemingly dominates the film. But the story follows the sisters, not Norman Bates. That’s why I felt comfortable putting him here.

  • 36 8-31-2008 at 5:30 pm

    David said...

    Sean Connery in The Untouchables
    Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects
    Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich (One of her best)

  • 37 9-01-2008 at 8:12 am

    Ivan said...

    Barry Pepper/25th Hour
    Sarah Polley/The Sweet Hereafter
    Jennifer Jason Leigh/Last Exit to Brooklyn
    Peter Sarssgard/Shattered Glass
    Bill Murray/Rushmore
    Jennifer Connelly/Requiem for a Dream
    Tim Roth / Reservoir Dogs
    Joaquin Phoenix / To Die For
    Daryl Hanah/Kill Bill vol. 2
    Robert Carlyle/Trainspotting
    Maria Bello/ A History of Violence
    Brian Cox/L.I.E.
    Michael Sheen/The Queen
    Joe Anderson/Across the Universe

  • 38 9-01-2008 at 2:41 pm

    Marcus said...

    Marie Josée Croze in The Barbarian Invasions
    Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction
    Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption
    Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction
    Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights and The Hours
    Clive Owen in Closer
    Tom Cruise in Magnolia
    Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men
    Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway
    Annette Bening in The Grifters
    Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown
    Kate Winslet in Finding Neverland
    Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
    Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects
    Joe Pesci in Goodfellas
    Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire
    Kirsten Dunst in Interview With The Vampire
    Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List
    DeNiro in Godfather II
    Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns

  • 39 9-01-2008 at 8:47 pm

    KBJr. said...

    Walking out of ‘Dreamgirls’, did you think of anyone other than Effie White? Jennifer Hudson’s performance was so commanding that you were forced to ponder it long after the film was over, and forget about everything else in the movie. That is truly what a great supporting performance is all about.

    And let’s not forget Kathy Bates in ‘Primary Colors’

  • 40 9-02-2008 at 2:14 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I don’t quite agree KBJr – Jennifer Hudson was the lead in Dreamgirls in every respect except billing. The reason you forget about everyone else in the story is because she’s the only character with a clear narrative arc.

    I’ve always thought the performance wildly overrated, but that’s another story.

  • 41 9-02-2008 at 9:49 am

    KBJr. said...

    Now that I think of it, you could make the argument that her role was the lead performance of the film, but given the official channel the role was given (i.e. during the awards season) I mentioned Effie White for that reason. I have to disagree the performance was overrated. Overhyped? Hell yeah. But did she deliver on the aspects of the role that everyone expected her to (i.e. “And I’m Telling You…’ scene)? Sure did, and with gusto. I can agree that Ms. Hudson’s actual acting ability is kind of stiff. But thats to be expected of someone with zero training. Whether she deserved her Oscar or not can be up for debate, but I’ve seen quite a few Supporting Winners who were a lot more perplexing than Ms. Hudson (Jim Broadbent over Ian McKellen? Judi Dench over Kathy Bates?)

  • 42 9-02-2008 at 10:04 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Despite my dislike of ‘Iris’ as a film, I think the Academy made absolutely the right decision in picking Broadbent over McKellen, but that’s me.

    I also like to think they unofficially gave it to him for ‘Moulin Rouge’ too, which would have been a more deserving nominee than either.

  • 43 9-03-2008 at 9:18 am

    mike said...

    I thought Steve Zahn in Rescue Dawn was great…

    While on the subject, Alan Arkin did not deserve the award for Little Miss Sunshine.

  • 44 10-09-2008 at 2:44 pm

    Rolando said...

    Juts to add one you have forgotten:

    Gene Hackman in Unforgiven