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Movies are a hugely collaborative medium, often requiring the efforts of hundreds of talented artists, technicians, and performers to get a single film into theaters. Some of the most unsung heroes in that process are the supporting actors — those who don’t get their names above the title on the poster but who deliver engrossing performances, even if they're only in one scene.
Sometimes the supporting actor can steal the entire movie away from that A-list star. Those performances, which may be only a couple of minutes long, are still seared in our collective memories, even if the rest of the movie fades away. Here are a handful of our favorite supporting performances that eclipsed the main event.
[Image Credit: Universal Pictures]
MELVIN & HOWARD is a modern American classic. It captures the beauty and fragility of life with humor and empathy in a way that few movies ever will. Paul Le Mat gives a wonderful performance as Melvin, a longtime screw-up who also maybe gave a ride to Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) after Hughes had wrecked his motorcycle in the middle of the desert. (Keep in mind this is based on a true story.) Robards only has one scene, at the beginning of the movie, and yet his presence informs the film's entire running time. It’s a performance full of warmth and humor and Robards was rightfully nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In a movie filled with wonderful performances, Robards still manages to walk away with the whole shebang.
It’s an especially nifty feat to steal a movie out from under a perfect ensemble cast. Sean Penn does just that in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. As high school burnout and pizza aficionado Jeff Spicoli, Penn plays the kind of laid-back slacker who became a constant character in '90s movies. Penn's performance is guileless and pure; when he says that all he needs are “tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine,” you believe him. And his subplot involving his rivalry with the strict teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) is one of the funniest in the movie. Some of the best supporting performances feel like discoveries, and this was the case with Penn. The fact that he would go on to a distinguished acting and directing career might not have been evident in Spicoli, but you could tell he had something special.
[Image Credit: MGM]
Anthony Hopkins was not the first or the last actor to embody Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer who haunted several best-selling novels by Thomas Harris. But it says something that Hopkins is so closely associated with the role. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Hopkins has only a handful of scenes, making up a sliver of the runtime, but he chews up scenery like Hannibal chews up his victims, never going so far over the top to alienate the audience or Jodie Foster's FBI Agent Clarice Starling, who is effectively mentored by Lecter, even as he repels her. Hopkins won an Oscar for the performance and his power in the role contributed to the movie's Oscar sweep and immovable place in popular culture. He reprised the role in subsequent films, but nothing has the same power as seeing Hopkins's Lecter, standing ramrod straight in his cell, as a plucky young FBI trainee comes to interview him. Shivers. Still.
[Image Credit: Walt Disney Animation]
Animated movies are often overlooked when it comes to performances since what we see on the screen is the work of animators who bring the characters to life. But vocal performances are key to that animation — and, obviously, to each character. It’s difficult to imagine the Genie in Disney’s animated masterpiece ALADDIN without Robin Williams. The trademark stream-of-consciousness comedy Williams was known for turned out to be perfect for the shape-shifting Genie, who was elegantly animated by the great Eric Goldberg. Even better, the character's more solemn and tender moments pack an emotional punch thanks to Williams's depth as an actor. There was talk, at the time, that Williams would get the first Oscar nomination for a voice actor for his work in ALADDIN. That didn’t end up happening, but he left behind an immortal character regardless — one that will entertain and delight countless generations to come.
[Image Credit: Paramount Pictures]
TROPIC THUNDER is a brutal satire of Hollywood and war movies that is as fearless as comedies come. With its portrayal of a bunch of dim-witted actors whose disaster-ridden Vietnam war movie shoot turns into real combat, it's like the movie is not afraid to burn every possible bridge — sometimes literally. And while the movie is packed with A-list comedians like Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Steve Coogan, and Danny McBride, the world’s biggest movie star, wearing some eccentric prosthetics, made the biggest impression. We are referring to, of course, to Tom Cruise. He played sleazy movie executive Les Grossman, an overweight, balding, dancing menace. Cruise doesn’t have much screen time and he is almost unrecognizable — and he totally steals the show whether or not you know what actor plays the part. For years there was talk of a spinoff movie featuring Grossman, which probably wasn't a great idea since less is more with a character like that. But that speaks to the impact Cruise made with his performance. You can feel his desire to disappear into the character, to become someone unlike any of his previous characters. And it shows.
[Image Credit: The Weinstein Company]
We knew that Brad Pitt would most likely be a hoot playing a Tennessee-born Nazi-hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. But we had no idea that Hans Landa, the character played by Christoph Waltz, would be like a stick of dynamite dropped in our laps. As a notorious and fully evil Nazi, Waltz is as scary as he is charismatic. Every word that comes out of his mouth (spoken in a number of languages, no less) is both seductive and terribly toxic. Part of what made Waltz’s performance so effective is that most American audiences had never seen the actor before. (Tarantino had originally earmarked the role for Leonardo DiCaprio!). That sense of discovery makes his performance even more fun, and the Academy evidently agreed, since Waltz won the Oscar for the role. In the words of Hans Landa, “If the shoe fits, you must wear it.”
Tom Cruise’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise is a well-oiled machine, full of delightful actors in key supporting roles as the various members of the IMF. For new actors, walking into that ensemble is a tricky proposition that could potentially throw off the equilibrium of the entire endeavor. But when Rebecca Ferguson joined the franchise in the fifth film, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, it felt like she had been there the whole time. While most audiences hadn’t seen Ferguson before, she was so confidant and cool as the double-agent Ilsa Faust, it felt like watching a movie star bloom before your very eyes. Since then, 2018’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT made her an even more integral part of the franchise, and she'll be back for the subsequent two films, shooting back-to-back soon. All that tells you how important Ferguson now is when it comes to making a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie.
[Image Credit: Focus Features]
In a Paul Thomas Anderson movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, you go in knowing who the top banana will be. But the mysterious movie PHANTOM THREAD buried the lede; the real thrill of the movie wasn’t watching Day-Lewis engage in his immersive method acting technique. (Though that was fun!) Discovering Vicky Krieps, who plays the put-upon partner of Day-Lewis's headstrong designer, was the movie's real pleasure. As Alma, Krieps brings an unpredictable spark to the story, and even offers some oddly romantic chills as her character exerts a level of dominance over her paramour with the help of some poison mushrooms. Krieps is a relative newcomer but is able to hold her own acting opposite one of the greatest actors of his generation, even in scenes where they boldly go toe-to-toe. It’s enough to make you hope that another filmmaker is able to pair them in a new movie as soon as possible.
[Image Credit: 20th Century Studios]
Prior to making BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, Cynthia Erivo had already won a Tony and a Grammy for her Broadway work. In the years since, she has starred in WIDOWS, the Oscar-nominated HARRIET, and the HBO original series THE OUTSIDER. But for many, the first time they saw the powerhouse actress was in this twisty, twisted 1960s-set thriller, in which she plays a singer who winds up at a seedy hotel on a very bad night. Erivo gets to do it all in this underseen gem, from whacking Jeff Bridges over the head to singing powerful tunes in a series of long, unbroken takes. At some point, Beyonce was offered the role but turned it down. She would have been great, but Erivo's performance is perfect: real and vulnerable and dynamic. With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, a star was born.
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