Actors who specialize in supporting roles sometimes describe their work as similar to performing in a stock theater company, for which actors fill multiple roles in a variety of plays over the course of a single season. Similarly, an actor who plays supporting roles will frequently be asked to perform a wide assortment of types. Versatility is a key element in the career of many supporting players. Frances McDormand, for example, played two very different supporting roles in the films Raising Arizona (1987) and Mississippi Burning (1988). In the former, she does a comedic turn as a wildly enthusiastic mother of a small army of children; in the latter, she has a dramatic role as the abused wife of a small-town sheriff in 1964 Mississippi. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson's supporting roles as a strung-out crack addict in Jungle Fever (1991) and a self-assured, cool-as-ice hit man in Pulp Fiction (1994) allowed him to showcase his versatility as an actor and paved the way for lead actor roles in subsequent films.
Some supporting actors, especially those who specialize in character parts, play the same sort of role from one film to the next. These actors are usually cast as a particular type and play it often enough that audiences know what to expect as soon as they see the actor in a film. Eve Arden, for example, made a career of playing wisecracking, independent women in films such as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Henry Travers appeared in numerous films playing a kindly old man with a twinkle in his eye, as in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
Appearing in supporting roles gives actors other advantages as well. Because they are not the stars of the films, supporting actors are not held responsible by the studio for a film's failure. Also, supporting actors can appear in more films in the course of a year than can leading actors because the amount of time they need to commit for filming is often significantly less. Supporting roles can be liberating for actors, because they are often allowed more latitude in terms of characterization. Agnes Moorehead, who played supporting roles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and numerous other films, described the freedom enjoyed by supporting actors: "in each individual role the character actor is rarely limited in the amount of characterization he can invent. He is like a painter with a very large palette of colors from which to paint an interesting picture with dimension. It can be a subtle performance or an eccentric one" (quoted in Steen, p. 104).
Supporting actors are frequently called on to provide comic relief. These comic roles often occur in otherwise serious films to diffuse tension and provide the audience with a small break in the drama. Some actors, like Arden, Ritter, and Donald O'Connor, made careers out of playing comic seconds; others, including Moorehead and George Sanders, alternated between comic and dramatic supporting roles. A notable early example of a comic supporting role occurred in D. W. Griffith's epic Intolerance (1916). Constance Talmadge played a feisty mountain girl in the Babylonian sequences, providing light moments in this otherwise heavily dramatic film. Critics and audiences took note of her small part, propelling her to stardom as a leading comic actress of the silent era. Russ Tamblyn's performance as Riff in West Side Story serves a similar purpose; his comic songs and dancing allow the audience to enjoy a few laughs in the midst of the tragic story.
The wisecracking best friend who delivers witty remarks and wry observations is a supporting role found in countless films of all genres. Among many examples are Arden in Mildred Pierce , Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo (1958), Ritter in The Misfits (1961), and Patricia Clarkson in Far from Heaven (2002). These characters act as confidantes of the film's leading lady or man. Because the demands of narrative and convention exert less pressure on supporting actors, they are freer to experiment and test boundaries. The characters played by Arden, Bel Geddes, and Ritter are single and remain so throughout the film, enjoying an integrity of independence unavailable to the leading characters, who are expected to fulfill romantic expectations. While the leading characters must, as a rule, be sympathetic to the audience, the comic supporting characters can be blunt and abrasive. In A Patch of Blue (1965), Shelley Winters plays the abusive and bigoted mother of a blind daughter. Winters, who won an Academy Award ® for her performance in this film, is thoroughly convincing in creating an intensely unlikable character. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987) is another character whose insulting and abrasive manner makes him entirely unsympathetic to the audience. Unlikable supporting characters can help create conflict in the plot, providing a counterpoint to the leading actors who serve as the films' heroes. In the more restrictive classical era, comic supporting characters could also enjoy some harmless amorality with impunity: they could drink, smoke, and chase after the opposite sex, behaviors generally denied to the leading characters.
Whereas leading actors generally need to keep their performances grounded in reality to make the film believable, supporting actors have more freedom to be excessive. In his portrayal of the silent film actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Willem Dafoe's appearance and mannerisms are so grotesque that his character is at once fascinating and repulsive. In Cabaret (1972) Joel Gray is by turns flamboyant and intense as the Master of Ceremonies of a nightclub in pre-World War II Germany. In comedies, supporting actors are often more outrageously funny than the leads. Both Jean Hagen and Donald O'Connor deliver broad comedic performances in Singin' in the Rain (1952), Hagen as the silent film star whose shrill voice is poorly suited to talking pictures, and O'Connor as the leading man's best friend, who wins the most laughs with his almost impossibly flexible dances, pratfalls, and facial expressions. In Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Jennifer Tilly goes for a broad performance as a squeaky-voiced gangster's moll, and Dianne Wiest brings a touch of the absurd to the role of an aging actress. In both films the leading performances are much more restrained than the supporting roles.
The types of roles offered to supporting actors can often showcase their talents and lead to increased exposure and acclaim. Supporting actors who make bold choices, or find ways to stand out in their roles, can find themselves playing leading roles in later films. Because supporting roles frequently go to actors who are just starting out in the movies, there is tremendous potential for previously unknown actors to earn fame though their supporting performances. Kevin Spacey's performance in The Usual Suspects (1995) as the nervous con man Verbal Kint generated such attention that since then Spacey has primarily appeared in starring roles. Countless other actors primarily known as leading players began their career in supporting roles, including Cary Grant ( She Done Him Wrong , 1933), Jean Harlow ( Dinner at Eight , 1933), James Stewart ( After the Thin Man , 1936), Glenn Close ( The World According to Garp , 1982), and Denzel Washington ( Glory 1989). Jodie Foster, who began as a child actor playing supporting roles in films such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), went on to become a leading player as an adult, earning Best Actress Academy Awards ® for her roles in The Accused (1988) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Occasionally, supporting roles are played by performers who are known for their work in other fields, and as such are new to acting. The baseball player Babe Ruth played himself in supporting roles in a number of films, most notably The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Musicians often appear in supporting roles in films, sometimes as musical performers—for example, Queen Latifah in Chicago (2002)—but sometimes in roles having nothing to do with music—Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and Frank Sinatra's Oscar ® -winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953). Other neophyte actors have appeared in supporting roles under a variety of circumstances. Harold Russell was cast in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) as a returning soldier who had lost both of his hands in the war because he had, in fact, lost both of his hands in the war. Russell was awarded two Oscars ® for his work in the film, one for his supporting performance, and a second special award for "bringing hope and courage" to other veterans.
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Kristen Anderson Wagner