Theirs is a supporting performance, not the lead, sometimes just a cameo, in other bizarre cases the lead role is designated a supporting performance by the studio or a supporting performance becomes a lead because the studio says so. They steal the film, they own the movie, it belongs entirely to them. In some instances the film does not recover when their screen time is finished because they have made such a strong impression, in other cases they are all we think about. For years it was important in Hollywood to have a star, but through the years it has become equally essential for there to be character actors to flesh out the films, to ground them and in some cases, make them more realistic than they might have been.
Since the seventies it has become acceptable for major stars to do supporting work, and gradually the lines between star and supporting character have faded, as the actors now see only the role, the character.
I remember watching Paul Newman, so good in The Hustler (1961), Oscar worthy, being blown off the screen by George C. Scott in the same film with a performance of such seething rage you cannot quite believe what you are seeing. THAT kind of performance is what I am writing about here, game changers, film dominators, characters we miss when they are not on screen.
Here is the list of 20 supporting actors who stole the show from the lead actors.
Note: The numbers indicate chronological order; they don’t indicate ranking
1. Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider (1969)
His first major role sees Nicholson as a small town Southern lawyer who would rather get high and talk about “the man” and the damage being done to his beloved America. Sickened by what he sees he lives his life in a booze haze, pot fueled world. A startling star-making performance.
2. Al Pacino, The Godfather (1972)
Lets be clear. Brando is onscreen less than thirty minutes, but was promoted as the lead of the film, the title character. Pacino dominates the film with a superb arc from idealistic war hero, through dangerous and lethal killer, to finally, cunning Don of the family Corleone.
3. Bruce Dern, The Great Gatsby (1974)
As bombastic Tom Burchanan, who hides his treachery behind his money, who hides his cruelty behind his money, Dern is superb. He finally hides a crime behind his money and knows that Nick knows it, and their friendship is over.
4. Robert Shaw, Jaws (1975)
How good is he? The scariest moments in the film are when he is telling the story about being on the SS Indianapolis when the ship was sunk and the sharks came to feed as the men waited to be rescued. Terrifying and for that sequence alone, he should have won the Oscar.
5. Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now (1979)
The film is a masterpiece, but never quite recovers from Duvall leaving the screen after his famous napalm sequence, and that alone tells you how great he is because the film that follows his exit is among the greatest ever made. Unflinching, fearless, as bullets whiz past him and grenades explode near him. Perfection.
6. Robert Preston, Victor Victoria (1982)
Preston had not been heard of for years until Blake Edwards rescued him and cast him in SOB (1981) and then handed him the role of his life as Toddy, the gay “agent” of a female, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman. Warm and wry, a purely good man, Preston is the heart of the film and fills it with love.
7. Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet (1986)
Hopper had never been a great actor, he had been good. Here he is astonishing as Frank Booth, a booze addled, drug addicted, nitrous oxide sniffing maniac who commits rape, murder, and all sorts of horrific acts with blazing eyed glee. The single most repellant character in film history.
8. Morgan Freeman, Street Smart (1987)
A performance of alarming intensity, Freeman is Fast Black a vicious pimp using a journalist for a story to give him an alibi for a murder, playing the writer more than the writer is playing him. His jovial good nature turns on a dime to a hissing, angry man ready to take out an eye (yours) with scissors…he even gives you the choice of which one it will be.
9. Joe Pesci, Goodfellas (1990)
Like a high voltage shot of electricity, Pesci is alarming in his intensity in this film as a dangerous mob killer who blows a gasket and kills whoever is in his path. What is terrifying about him is that he really does not see what is wrong with what he does. A brilliant piece of acting, darkly funny sometimes, always terrifying.
10. Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
It might be the finest performance of mentally challenged ever put on the screen, a piece of revelatory acting that is simply remarkable. His attention to detail is astounding, his focus perfect. A flawless performance.
11. Martin Landau, Ed Wood (1994)
As morphine addicted aging actor Bela Lagosi, his career in ruins, Landau is a revelation in a moving performance that so often crosses the line into deeply black comedy with his profane rantings about Karloff. Superb.
12. Ed Harris, The Truman Show (1998)
God-ilike, Harris is superb, truly loving his creation, feeling like his father, but seemingly unaware he is holding Truman captive in his own life. His best line? “Cue the sun” and indeed, let there be light. It is a sparse, unobtrusive performance but entirely right.
13. Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast (2001)
Like a heat seeking missle, bullet headed Don Logan comes into their world and all hell breaks loose. Why is he so fearsome to audiences? Because the mere mention of his name terrifies the characters with the film. Astounding. Watch him walk through the airpot with such purpose, like a shark seeking prey.
14. Tim Roth, Planet of the Apes (2001)
A great piece of acting in a terrible film, Roth is superb as the chimpanzee General Thade, who hates humans, who hates everyone but himself. Roth did intense research and found that chimps are the most feared ape alive, unpredictable and known for horrific tempers and great physical strength. To his character he brought just that.
15. Chris Cooper, Adaptation (2002)
With his front teeth missing, his insecurity masked by his arrogance (he knows everything about everything), John Larouche is an extraordinary character played to perfection by Cooper. The great Chris Cooper. The actor won an Oscar and yet has never been so challenged since. Something even he is painfully aware of.
16. Sean Astin, Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King (2003)
He is the heart and soul of the trilogy a true friend charged with protecting Frodo which he will do to the death, even when Frodo sends him away. Astin had never done anything remotely close to this before, or since.
17. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
As the Joker, Ledger won the Academy Award, bringing credibility the super hero film, the films director making them art. Ledger is magnificent, obsessed with chaos, and knowing there is nothing they can do to him to hurt him, because he is attached to no one or nothing. He is, simply, a terrorist.
18. Tom Cruise, Tropic Thunder (2008)
Balding, huge fleshy hands, foul mouthed, vulgar and all powerful he is doing a Harvey Weinstein without doing Harvey Weinstein. He stops the show, lives to deliver lacerating insults, and when he is off screen, the film never recovers and we want more and more of this guy. The Globes nominated him, the Academy blew it.
19. Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained (2012)
Stephen, the ever watchful, manipulative house slave runs the house more than his master and knows it, but also knows when to keep his mouth shut, which it appears is not very often. Treacherous and vicious, he is the film’s true villain.
20. Sylvester Stallone, Creed (2015)
Though we have seen Rocky Balboa often since Rocky (1976), never has the actor gone as deep as he does with this powerful performance as Rocky past middle age. Adrian is dead, Paulie is dead, Mick is long gone, and he is alone. When cancer hits him he does not wish to fight it, but a young fighter gives him something to fight for and someone to fight it with. A lovely performance from Stallone.
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