Monday, April 22, 2013

Top 10 Supporting Performances by A-List Stars

We’ve all heard stories of actors unwilling to play a character because they felt the role was too small. Most recently, Will Smith was rather outspoken about why he turned down the title role of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” Smith told Entertainment Weekly. Now, maybe it’s just me (me as in a guy who has never been offered any film role of any kind ever), but I say who gives a shit?

If there’s one thing I truly believe about acting, it’s that the size of the role has nothing to do with that quality of performance. Here are 10 great examples of really famous people taking a step back from the spotlight, but still managing to kill it in a supporting performance.

Few distinctions: I’m only considering people who were arguably the most famous person in the specific films listed, at the particular time of their release. Also, cameos are out. These are all true supporting performances. Enjoy!

Orson Welles – The Third Man (1949)
The Third Man was released at the height of Welles’ fame, and I’m still stunned that such an admitted egotist would take as small a role as Harry Lime. But a few things contributed to making Lime one of the best characters Welles ever played. First is the fact that we hear so much about Lime long before we see him. Second is the introduction of Lime, which may indeed be the most iconic introduction of a film character in the history of film. And third is, you know, the fact that Welles is amazing in the movie.

Janet Leigh – Psycho (1960)
Leigh was marketed as the sole star of Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it’s only in hindsight that we’re able to appreciate Leigh’s willingness to let the quality of the role do the talking, not the amount of screen time. Everyone thought Leigh’s Marion Crane was going to be another of Hitch’s blonde haired damsel in distress, which, of course, she was…. just not for quite as long as people assumed.

Jack Nicholson – Broadcast News (1987)
Nicholson is no stranger to taking on a supporting role at the pinnacle of his celebrity. He’s delivered solid work in Reds, Terms of Endearment, A Few Good Men and more, all while retaining his A-list status. None impress me more, however, than his brief work as Dan Rather-esque news anchor, Bill Rorich in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News. Not only did Nicholson urge Brooks not to include the actor’s name in the pre-release marketing material (Nicholson didn’t want his name to take away from the real stars of the film), but he refused to be paid for his work on the picture. How can you not respect that?

Bruce Willis – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Many insightful nuggets of film geek knowledge were revealed in Vanity Fair’s recent and brilliant exposé on the making of Pulp Fiction. One is that Harvey Weinstein demanded that an A-list star play the lead role of Vincent Vega. Tarantino wanted John Travolta. Weinstein said no, and round and round they went. The ultimate comprise came when Tarantino cast Willis in the supporting role of boxer-on-the-run, Butch.

“Once I got Bruce Willis, Harvey got his big movie star, and we were all good,” Tarantino told Vanity Fair. “Bruce Willis made us legit.”

Thank God for that.

Drew Barrymore – Scream (1996)
It’s no secret that Drew Barrymore’s performance in Scream was Wes Craven’s attempt to capitalize on the prototype set by Psycho. Be that as it may, you can bet your ass that everyone who saw Scream when it was released was just as fooled as those who saw Psycho in 1960.

Bill Murray – Rushmore (1998)
If I was including cameos in this list, then you can be sure Murray’s pitch perfect work in Zombieland would’ve made the cut here. But for a purely supporting film performance, nothing stands out more in Murray’s body of work than his melancholic turn in Rushmore. When that year’s Oscar season took hold, Murray was extremely verbal about his disapproval of not being nominated. Awards clout be damned, watching Rushmore both then and now, it’s clear that Murray kills it.

Tom Cruise – Magnolia (1999)
I believe there are ten truly great performances on this list, but if I had to pick a favorite, Cruise’s work as the falsely confident, impossibly complex Frank T.J. Mackey would easily take it. Say what you want about Cruise’s on screen conviction and off screen depiction, but his role in Magnolia forever grants him a career pass.

Denzel Washington – Antwone Fisher (2002)
If Antwone Fisher had been made 15 years earlier, the lead role would’ve been the type of character Denzel Washington strived to play. But in the present, Washington found himself attracted to an original, devastating, and ultimately inspiring tale of adversity, so he signed on as director and cast himself in a minor role of a Navy psychiatrist. Much of Washington’s duty in the film relies solely on articulating plot exposition. A gig that, in lesser hands, could be wholly forgettable, but resulted in being anything but.

Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life (2011)
Much like Jack Nicholson, superstar Brad Pitt has no reservations about taking a supporting role. His expert turns in Twelve MonkeysBabelBurn After Reading and, to a certain degree, Inglourious Basterds, are evidence of his dedication to material, but it’s his work in The Tree of Life that I find myself most drawn to. Sure, one could argue no actor is really the star of a Terrence Malick movie, and hell, I might even agree. But Pitt so clearly took a sideline here to let Malick’s vision be the most present thing on the screen. And damn if it didn’t work out just fine.

Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained (2012)
Post-Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio has been featured as a supporting cast member in just two films: Woody Allen’s Celebrity (which was filmed before Titanic was released), and Django Unchained. So, basically, the dude can star in any damn movie anytime he wants. And he usually does. But, not unlike Welles’ work in The Third Man, DiCaprio’s sadistic plantation owner, Calvin Candie, is a man we hear much about before actually meeting him. And when we are finally graced with his presence (as he ecstatically watches two black men beat each other to death), we certainly are not let down. He had our curiosity, and then he damn sure had our attention.


41 comments:

  1. Great list. Can't fault it but personally I like Bill Murray in Rushmore. I think he's great when he takes a back seat.

    DiCaprio was great in Django though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Tom! I love Murray in Rushmore... easily one of my favorite performances he's ever done.

      Delete
  2. Awesome list man. Haven't seen Nicholson and Washington's stuff, but pretty much agree on everyone else here. Especially Murray, Pitt and Leo. I honestly felt that Pitt's performance in Tree of Life was much better than that in Moneyball.

    Can't really think of any other except Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona.

    You *do* realise that you must make a Best Cameos list now :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks :)

      Cruz in Vicky Cristina is a good choice. Was really trying to think of more female roles here, but I kept coming up short.

      I guess I DO need to make a cameos list now!

      Delete
  3. Great list! Reading that article about Will Smith turning down Django just made me angry. What a dick thing to say. Kevin Spacey in Se7en is another great one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OMG YES! That was my pick for the "Small Roles Big Performances" blogathon.

      Delete
    2. Isn't that such silly justification by Smith? I mean, dude, who CARES how big the role is?

      As for Spacey in Se7en (which is one of my favorite performances of all time), I don't know if it fits here simply because Spacey wasn't very well known in 1995. The Usual Suspects came out the month before, and he had already had memorable turns in Swimming With Sharks, The Ref and Glengarry Glen Ross, but he wasn't Kevin Spacey, Kevin Spacey, if that makes sense.

      Delete
  4. Fantastic choices! Welles, Cruise, Pitt, and DiCaprio are my favorite examples, and I love the Psycho/Scream connection. I still need to see Murray and Washington, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Murray is brilliant in Rushmore - a quintessential Murray performance. And Denzel is on point in Antwone Fisher!

      Delete
  5. Oh, that is a great list. I like it when big actors do small parts because it gives them the chance to do something small and for fun while giving others the chance to shine.

    Fuck Will Smith! "Will Smith doesn't cuss in his records" Well I say profane shit in my comments, reviews, and in my scripts so fuck Big Willie Style. And for the record, the only reason I watch Fresh Prince is because of Carlton! He is truly one of the great characters on TV.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man. Oh I completely agree with what you said - these smaller roles really can give a big actor some flexibility to try something new.

      Carlton roooocks. I loved that damn guy. So hilarious. That dance to Tom Jones? Priceless.

      Delete
  6. Great list, of everyone in Pulp Fiction I think Bruce Willis did the best job for someone playing in a non-leading role. For some reason the first thing that came to my mind was Dustin Hoffman in I <3 Huckabees.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much! Willis is perfect in Pulp... easily my favorite performance of his. Hoffman in Huckabees is a great choice for this list. Really solid pick.

      (PS, I noticed on your blog that you seem to live in Loudoun. Are you someone I... know. Dun dun duuuun.)

      Delete
    2. It's just BK, it's my blog name I use for writing about concerts I go to mostly.

      Delete
    3. Ah gotcha, that's what I thought. Yeah after I got hacked, I had to disable anonymous and name/url commenting. That hacking nearly ruined me.

      But I really appreciate you logging in and commenting!

      Delete
  7. Awesome list dude. My mind went straight to Nicholson in Broadcast News, Tom Cruise in Magnolia and Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential, but like you said with Seven he wasn't quite Kevin Spacey at that point, pretty damn close though. Welles is a great pick too, he stole that film by barely being in it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jay! Actually, I think Spacey in L.A. Confidential is a great pick. Had I thought of that, I think I would've included it. Great call.

      Welles is such a beast in that movie. He's the only actor from that film who people really talk about. Which is crazy.

      Delete
  8. Solid list as usual. I especially love the Orson Welles mention. What an entrance!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! What an entrance indeed. A classic moment in film.

      Delete
  9. Oh, great list. I think it's Meryl Streep who said that an actor isn't truly an actor until he takes a supporting part. Good call on Pitt, he really takes all kinds of roles even if they are small, which is great because he has a chance to show how versatile he is.

    Another good example is Julianne Moore - her parts were relatively small in A Single Man and Children of Men but she still did wonders there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Sati! I couldn't agree more with Streep - that is great insight on her part. I actually wanted to include a role of hers here, but I couldn't find anything where she was the most famous person in a movie in which he took a supporting role. But still, she knows when to step back.

      Love Moore - she's just so damn good in everything. She deserves better, juicier roles, you know?

      Delete
  10. Jack Nicholson was excellent in Broadcast News. Remember I was actually surprised to see him in the film.

    Jason Clarke in Lawless was excellent. It's not a fantastic film, but he does some great work in it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So glad to hear you're a fan of Nicholson's work in Broadcast News. One of my favorite performances of his.

      Clarke is a damn fine actor. Dude has a huge career ahead of him.

      Delete
  11. Ooh, nice list. I would also include Jack Lemmon in Short Cuts and Max von Sydow in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Those are two perfect picks. Von Sydow's work in particular just crushes me.

      Delete
  12. Great List Alex! though I haven't seen a few(Broadcast News, A Third Man and Antwone Fisher).

    Funny you mention Willis story. I knew it before but watching Pulp Fiction for the first time, I remember thinking him as an odd man out. He is great in it no doubt, but Willis isn't someone I would expect to see in Tarantino film - if you can 'expect' anything from Tarantino.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! At first glance, I agree that old Bruce feels like a bit of an odd man out in Pulp. But man, after watching it... dude's got power, you know? Easily my favorite Willis performance.

      Delete
  13. I had no idea about Will Smith considering the role of Django. I'm glad he turned it down, good riddance.
    I'm curious if money has anything to do with a decision like this. Do actors get paid a lot less for supporting roles?

    Love this list idea. Your broad knowledge of so many films shines through here. So incredible, Alex!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jules! The money question is a good one. Honestly, it depends entirely on the budget of the film. In terms of Django, I'm sure Smith would've been one (if not the) highest paid actor. It also has to do with how many days an actor shoots for (and how good of agents they have).

      It's a real racket.

      Delete
  14. Finally saw Django last week when it came out on DVD. Quite true ... it isn't the size of the role that counts. I'm glad they cast Foxx in Django, though. I never knew he was that talented, probably because I've only seen him in stuff like The Soloist and Horrible Bosses. He was funny as MF Jones, but it's not exactly the kind of role that rocks your world.

    Great choices. I didn't even remember Nicholson was in Broadcast News, which isn't surprising, since I haven't seen it since college. I *loved* Cruise in Magnolia, and I don't even like him. It's one of about 3 roles he's played that I actually appreciated, and I think it's his best. And the list wouldn't be complete without Calvin Candie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you liked Foxx in Django - he sure has gotten his fair amount of shit for that performance, but oh well, I dug it.

      Cruise is damn fine in Magnolia, isn't he? I'll always respect him for that. And DiCaprio... man, that dude showed me something new there. Whoa.

      Delete
    2. Agreed, agreed, and agreed. :-) I wasn't aware that Foxx had gotten shit for his performance as Django. I wonder why?

      Delete
    3. Oh it's all Twitter. People on Twitter are mean.

      Delete
    4. Oh, I see. I don't have time to keep up with Twitter -- it sounds like it's just as well. Social media seems to bring out the dregs of human nature, doesn't it? :-)

      Delete
    5. Yes, yes indeed it does. I dig Twitter, but it's a dangerous world out there.

      Delete
  15. I don't know why, but I actually think that one of my favorite supporting roles from an A-lister would be Matthew McConaughey as Rick Peck in Tropic Thunder. He's just hilarious in that movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a great choice. I love old Matt Mc in that flick. You know, Owen Wilson was original cast in the role, and although he had to drop out of the film for tragic reasons (he attempted suicide a few weeks before the film shot), I honestly think the role was better suited for McConaughey.

      Delete
    2. I would say it's one of my favorite McConaughey roles period. I had not heard that Wilson was originally cast and while I do think that his "attempt"was quite tragic, I don't think even he could have lived up to what Mc did. I guess what makes it even worse knowing that for me, at least, is that Owen really hasn't done too much good material recently (or in the past for that matter) and that it appears like when he does give a good performance it's usually with Wes Anderson. I kind of wish he would do better projects instead of not even-Judd Apatow-lite projects.

      Delete
    3. It's definitely one of my favorite McConaughey performances as well. And I too wish O. Wilson would take on some more challenging material.

      Delete
  16. Don't know how much this one counts due to his accident, but Monty Clift in 'Judgement at Nuremberg' is as heart-wrenching as he ever gave. So more that come to mind, Matt Damon in 'True Grit', Michael Caine in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Sean Connery in the 'Untouchables', Alec Bladwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, Christian Bale in 'The Fighter', and numero uno for me without a doubt is Alec Guinness in 'Lawrence of Arabia'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great choices all around there. God, I just love Clift's brief and devastating work in that film. By far the highlight of that movie for me.

      Delete