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.
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 Monkeys, Babel, Burn 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.