Compared to leading roles, supporting roles frequently provide more opportunities for "nontraditional" actors—actors who fall outside the narrow boundaries of age, race, and appearance that have long defined leading roles in Hollywood. Although leading roles have historically tended to be played by actors who are young, white, and conventionally attractive, supporting roles have been filled by a vast spectrum of performers who do not necessarily fit the "look" of a typical Hollywood star.
In some films the leading characters are played by elderly actors, but the vast majority of movies feature leads in their twenties and thirties. Many older actors who play supporting roles were leading actors earlier in their careers and have made the transition to smaller roles, often because of the scarcity of leading roles for actors past a certain age. Alan Alda played leading roles in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the 1990s and 2000s has primarily played supporting roles in films such as Flirting with Disaster (1996) and The Aviator (2004), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award ® . Meryl Streep's career has followed a similar trajectory; she appeared almost exclusively in leading roles throughout the 1980s, and though she still occasionally plays the lead, she appears with increasing frequency in supporting roles, such as in The Hours (2002), Adaptation (2002), and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). Although older supporting actors are often cast in pedestrian roles as parents or grandparents, they are sometimes given the chance to play more challenging and showy roles. In Rosemary's Baby (1968) Ruth Gordon gives a memorable performance as Minnie Castevet, the brash and flamboyant neighbor to Mia Farrow's Rosemary. The difference between the characters played by Gordon, the character actor, and Farrow, the ingenue, is striking. Whereas Farrow is constricted by the audience's expectations for leading ladies and the conventions of the genre, which dictate how she should behave in certain situations, Gordon has more freedom to create her own character. Similarly, Thelma Ritter (1905–1969), who was forty-two when she made her film debut in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), exhibited a gloomy humor in her films, commenting wryly on the action and bluntly stating truths that the leading characters refused to acknowledge. Her age and her status as a supporting player made her characterizations possible; the leading ladies she played opposite, such as Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) and Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959), would never have gotten away with Ritter's brand of acerbic wit.
Just as older actors have found a great many supporting roles available to them, so have child actors. Children have appeared in supporting roles in countless films, and many have received critical and public acclaim. At the age of ten, Tatum O'Neal won the Best Supporting Actress award for her work in Paper Moon (1973), becoming the youngest person to win an Academy Award ® .Other notable supporting performances by child actors include Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1968), Mary Badham as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993), and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999). Children, like adults, can give a wide range of performances in supporting roles, from sweet and endearing (Drew Barrymore in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial , 1982), to demonic (Linda Blair in The Exorcist , 1973).
Over the course of her career as one of the most popular supporting actresses in motion pictures, Thelma Ritter was nominated for a total of six Academy Awards ® but never won, making her one of the most nominated actors in any category never to win an Oscar ® . She appeared in movies, television, radio, and theater, in a career that spanned close to sixty years. With her trademark gravel voice and bleak expression, Ritter was best known for playing world-weary characters who could steal a scene with a blunt wisecrack or witty retort.
Rittter attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then spent the next several years performing in stock companies around New York, with occasional stints in vaudeville and on Broadway. While performing in stock she played a wide variety of roles, both supporting and lead. In her later film career, her versatility enabled her to play many different types of roles as well as to shift easily between drama and comedy. In 1946 the director George Seaton, an old family friend, asked her to play a cameo bit in his film Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Ritter's performance as a weary shopper whose young son drags her to Macy's to visit Santa Claus so impressed studio head Daryl Zanuck that he ordered additional scenes for her and signed her to an exclusive contract.
Entering motion pictures at the age of forty-two, Ritter's age combined with her somewhat frumpy appearance and Brooklyn accent destined her for supporting rather than leading roles. She was often cast as a working woman, usually a maid or secretary whose wry, offhand remarks cut to the heart of the situation. As Stella, the cynical nurse in Rear Window (1954), and as Alma, the perpetually hungover maid in Pillow Talk (1959), she is engagingly straightforward and unflappable. Ritter's performance in Pickup on South Street (1953) as Moe, the weary yet opportunistic street vendor, alternates between comedy and pathos and is one of the best of her career. For this performance Ritter earned her fourth consecutive Academy Award ® nomination. Her other nominations were for All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pillow Talk , and, in a dramatic performance as the long-suffering mother to Burt Lancaster's title character, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Rear Window (1954), Pillow Talk (1959), The Misfits (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Boeing Boeing (1965)
Parish, James Robert. Good Dames . New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1974.
Kristen Anderson Wagner
Throughout Hollywood history leading performers in films have overwhelmingly been white. This was especially true during Hollywood's classical era, when studio films featuring nonwhite performers in starring roles were almost unheard of. Supporting roles have been offered to actors of color with a much higher frequency than have leading roles, and these performances are marked with the versatility and artistry commonly found in supporting performances. The African American actress Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) won a Supporting Actress Academy Award ® for her 1939 performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind , making her the first nonwhite actor to be nominated for, or win, an acting Oscar ® . Despite this recognition of her talents, McDaniel spent the bulk of her career playing cooks and maids for white leading ladies such as Margaret Sullavan ( The Shopworn Angel , 1938), Barbara Stanwyck ( The Mad Miss Manton , 1938), and Ann Sheridan ( George Washington Slept Here , 1942). Dooley Wilson, who won acclaim for his role as Sam, the piano player, in Casablanca (1942), also had a difficult time finding supporting roles of substance; like McDaniel, he frequently appeared as a servant in films such as Higher and Higher (1943), in which he played a chauffeur, and My Favorite Blonde (1942), in which he played a railway porter. Over the years, the caliber of supporting roles played by African Americans has increased tremendously,
allowing these actors to showcase their talents by playing a wide range of characters. In Pinky (1949) Ethel Waters turned in a moving performance as the title character's strong-willed grandmother; Whoopi Goldberg won an Academy Award ® for her supporting performance as a flighty psychic in Ghost (1990); and in The Crying Game (1992), Jaye Davidson played an English transvestite in love with an IRA soldier. These vastly divergent roles demonstrate the range of characters played by African American supporting actors.
Like African American performers, other minority actors have found success in supporting roles when leading roles were unavailable to them. The Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973) delivered a powerful performance as the inflexible head of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Rita Moreno's turn as the spirited Puerto Rican immigrant Anita in West Side Story (1961) earned her critical acclaim and an Academy Award ® . Nonwhite actors have increasingly filled roles of complexity and substance. The Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo gave a riveting performance as the wife and mother of a family torn apart by tragic circumstances in House of Sand and Fog (2003). Sandra Oh, a Canadian actress of Korean descent, played a comedic role as a free-spirited wine lover in Sideways (2004). Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio Del Toro has had memorable supporting roles in a number of films, among them The Usual Suspects (1995), Traffic (2000), and 21 Grams (2003). Although a substantial discrepancy between the numbers of leading roles available to white and nonwhite actors persists, the freedom and creativity available in supporting roles is evident in the performances of countless minority actors.
The overwhelming majority of leading actors in Hollywood films are conventionally attractive, but the same standards do not apply to supporting actors. Actors who fit specific character "types" due to their weight, height, or appearance can find work in supporting roles. Marty Feldman, whose gaunt face and bulging eyes prohibited him from working as a leading man, played a number of memorable supporting roles, such as in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and in Young Frankenstein (1974), as Igor, the hunchbacked laboratory assistant. Like Feldman, the talented comedian Mary Wickes was not considered conventionally attractive enough by the studios to play leading roles but found success and longevity as a character actress in films such as The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) and Sister Act (1992). Other actors who do not fit Hollywood's conception of what a leading actor should look like have had similarly successful careers as supporting and character actors, including world-weary but tough-as-nails Ritter, rough-edged William Demarest, and three-foot-nine-inch Billy Barty.