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“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” That's the Peter Principal, a brilliant theorem of morose inevitability put forth by Dr. Laurence Peter. Usually applied to the world of business and commerce, the astute commentary holds just as much water in Hollywood as it does on Wall Street. Nearly every working actor is eventually promoted to a level of fame, artistic sophistication or mass appeal big budgetary which he is either entirely incapable or in better cases, not particularly suited to handle.
It's actually not quite the insult it makes itself out to be. Imagine your dream car. For the sake of argument, let's say it's a silver 2008 Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Now imagine driving it on vacation to Mexico City. It's possible. You certainly could drive it to Mexico City; you're probably better off driving that than a 1993 purple Corey Haim, but really, on the whole, it's the better call to drive the sweet '08 Silver Hoffman to the airport and fly jumbo first class 757 Tom Hanks straight into Mexico City. Said another way, the best mashed potatoes in the world can't replace overcooked turkey on Thanksgiving. That's no shot at mashed potatoes, they're delicious, you just can't make a habit out of exclusively eating mashed potatoes, regardless of what the Irish might tell you.
Sure, this list could be looked at as a condemnation, the sixteen souls who inhabit it as mere second fiddles, but slander or not, this penned celebration is a testament to how truly wonderful these men and women are at their respective games. Some of them may be pleased with their stations, others may want for something more, but when focused, all are capable of delivering Oscar-worthy supporting turns. The Rock may have denigrated millions in the late 90s by telling them to know their roles and shut their mouths, but maybe, just maybe, that's legitimately great advice. At least for a handful of movies, these men and women knew their roles, and because of that acceptance, because of that commitment to providing world-class support, their brilliant work is what we remember. Here's a look at sixteen working actors who shine brightest with third billing. They know their roles.
Best Supporting Roles: Pleasantville, Magnolia, Fargo, Boogie Nights, Mystery Men
In a business typically all about stylized beauty, William H. Macy has built a career playing the opposite. The assistant principals, the car salesmen, the second directors, the wannabe superheroes, the fathers who can't change with the times and the schmucks who just don't know any better. There's a loneliness to William H. Macy's best roles, a longing, sometimes for love, sometimes for respect, sometimes merely for acceptance, but always a longing, a begrudging sadness channeled from millions of trapped, disenchanted middle class eyes. It all feels so familiar, so recognizable.
We watch the beautiful, the damned, the virtuous and the powerful to escape; we watch the isolated, the disheartened, the awkward and the melancholic to smile as they want for something more out of life. It doesn't always have to be about winning or achieving something memorable; sometimes happiness, in and of itself, is a beautiful goal. Life is never over if you still have love to give. That's the maxim of Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, and that's the overarching message in the wonderful supporting work of William H. Macy.
Best Supporting Roles: 30 Rock, The Departed, The Aviator
In his early days, Alec Baldwin was a character actor talent trapped in a leading man body. Cursed to be continually cast as some sort of low-rent George Clooney knockoff I'm convinced that at some point he simply started eating, in the hopes that he'd get fat enough to be asked to do something interesting. Alec Baldwin was too good to be the chiseled-chin, straight man. He was never cut out for it. While most actors start out as sidekicks and eventually work their way up to leading men, Baldwin started out at the top of the marquee and then at some point decided he'd have a lot more fun with third billing.
He's a natural talent as the perfect, preening, comedic sidekick and, much as I love The Shadow, he never should have done anything else. It's more than just comedy with Baldwin though, portly old age has revitalized his career and remade him into one of the most sought after stars in Hollywood. Not as a leading man, but as the guy who works in the office upstairs, the guy who tries to ruin Howard Hughes empire, or the police captain who sends cops out into the street to do the mayor's dirty work. It's where he's always belonged.
Best Supporting Roles: Best In Show, Pineapple Express, For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind
Probably best known to most of you Johnny-Come-Lately's as the pissed off father who tried to shoot Seth Rogan in Pineapple Express, Ed Begley Jr has been hammering out solid supporting roles since President Obama was in high school. Many of them can be castigated as feed-your-family projects, he had a six episode story arc on the original Battlestar Galactica for Christ's sake, but Ed Begley Jr has really come into his own as the frequently stoic, always hilarious straight man in many of the best comedies and dramas of the last decade.
He's the condescending hotel manager in Best In Show, the hairdresser/ other man in Six Feet Under, the rival business executive in Arrested Development. Movies and television shows need great actors and actresses to support the main characters, this list has outlined many of them, but sometimes, they need reliable talent to pop in and out. Ed Begley Jr is a popper. He's the master of the several episode arc, the most capable man in three minutes of screen time or less. He's a dabbler, never wearing out his welcome or leaving on the low note. Maybe that's why he has time for environmental activism and kicking ass on Celebrity Jeopardy.
Best Supporting Roles: Gladiator, Blood Diamond, Amistad, In America
Nearly every time I have watched Djimon Hounsou act, I have felt as if I was smack dab in the middle of an Aesop fable. “I am not your partner!”(Blood Diamond)- Every man for himself (the three tradesmen). See where I'm going with this? The nature of most of his films lends his characters to being men who are unfailingly moral in tough situations. And that's great, because it allows an actor to work in interesting movies, but it also only gives them a chance to play one note. Holed up in a corner, if you will, they must take paycheck roles like Joe in Beauty Shop and stay in the public limelight through dating “I am anorexic” Kimora Lee. Then I saw In America, and realized that there was more to Hounsou than being a great one-note actor. In America finds Hounsou with spark, wit… and complication. It's like flipping over (insert great song or first side of album) for the first time only to discover (insert great song from other side) was waiting on the other side all along. Sounds like a wolf in sheep's clothing to me.
Best Supporting Roles: My Cousin Vinny, In The Bedroom, The Wrestler, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Perhaps never has a three-time Oscar-nominee been more maligned by the critics than Marisa Tomei. All-around douche bag Rex Reed once famously quipped Jack Palance must have read the wrong name when he opened her Oscar-winning envelope for My Cousin Vinny. She had to be playing herself. It all felt so genuine, like she and Joe Pesci hired writers to contrive a screenplay out of their personalities, but then along came In The Bedroom and recently, The Wrestler, two more worthy nominations for dissenting women with little in common. Like Bill Murray, she's carved out a niche playing emotionally-closeted, misanthropic middle-aged drifters, a wonderful counterbalance to her early tour-de-force look-at-me comedies. I love Marisa Tomei, she smiles and laughs like an A-list actress but sneers and cries like a seasoned character actor. I wonder how her biological clock feels about that.
Best Supporting Roles: Chicago, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Talladega Nights, Step-Brothers
Just like his less than infamous character Dale Doback, John C. Reilly is here to fuck shit up. John C. Reilly is a monolithic man, a chameleon of acting genres, a master of his craft…. While he's played the lead in films like Cirque Du Freak and Walk Hard, he's best when he's sharing a camera and wearing Chewbacca masks. Reilly slides seamlessly between historical biopics, musicals, comedies and dramas. He's a crooked cop, a best friend, a Stepbrother, a funny hunny—a Mr. Cellophane. So, here's the question, in which genre is he most suitable? “O.K. here's the shot out of the cannon… you gotta fuck one, marry one, kill one, go!” Just be careful because so help you God, if your answer ends up costing me Boogie Nights, my boyfriend's balls are going on your drum set.
Best Supporting Roles: Detroit Rock City, Up In The Air, Flags of Our Fathers, Away We Go, Helena From the Wedding
You know that chick who plays the friend who gives Piper Perabo that money in Coyote Ugly that later gets stolen out of the freezer? The same woman who brings the baby into the bar in Sweet Home Alabama? Most notably for anyone who actually watched Sputnik, she's the next-door neighbor in Two and a Half Men who shamelessly stalks Charlie Sheen's character. Same page? It's a shame these reference points need to be tossed out to get to some of Lynskey's roles that actually matter, most recently Up In The Air and Away We Go. In Up in the Air, Lynskey plays a soon-to-be married young woman dealing with keeping her family together on the eve of her wedding. In Away We Go, she plays a married woman who has adopted many beautiful children, but is tinged with sadness because she cannot have children of her own. A lot of people didn't see these movies. If you have, you've been privy to the pancake house, the lonely pole dance, the fatherless walk down the aisle. To see her is to think: “wow, that girl was pretty good. I wish she had a bit bigger of a part.” She's never going to be the woman to carry a whole movie, but it would be nice to see her get the acting credit she deserves.
Best Supporting Roles: The Italian Job, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Party Monster, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Here's the thing you need to know about Seth Green: we could talk about how he invented Napster in The Italian Job, got all angsty in Austin Powers and was the same level of solid in everything he's ever decided to do, but the real prize here is how he made the movie Sex Drive passable. Not even passable. Fairly funny. Not knocking on James Marsden or Clark Duke here (well maybe James Marsden), but that movie would be terrible without Seth Green. With his prowess, that movie almost made enough money to make back the budget costs.
Seth Green's the guy we need in there for a few scenes every movie, cleaning shit up, comedically speaking. Should he deserve to be on this list, next to the likes of Joe Pesci and Paul Giamatti? Debatable. All I'm saying is, you couldn't use the likes of Joe Pesci and Paul Giamatti the way you can use Seth Green. The man always plays Seth Green, but his shtick is so affable, he becomes super useful. (Seth Green could be Damian in Mean Girls: I want my pink shirt back. He could be Stanley Tucci in Devil Wears Prada—Gird your loins. See?) He may not be the best lead, but he is the John Cusack of support acting.
Best Supporting Roles: The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs, Con Air, The Island, Fargo, Ghost World
You know how people with soft features and bland hair are often described as mousy? Steve Buscemi doesn't look mousy, he looks almost ratty, and by this count, it could be argued he shouldn't be a movie star. He seems ill-placed in a sea of fake body parts and charming smiles. But the best thing (probably) about being a great supporting actor is that you get to be a character actor, and there is something so eerily charming, so daringly weird about Steve Buscemi, an audience is drawn to him in the same way an audience is drawn to a Tim Burton film. But that first drawing in is only part of it. Because Steve Buscemi the downtrodden, Steve Buscemi the Man, Steve Buscemi the fragile guy the loser the sardonic outcast, the guy who kind of doesn't always get it always, always has the same matter of fact smirk to let us know he's still in there somewhere, outperforming the A-list with his ratty greatness.
Best Supporting Roles: Cinderella Man, Safe Men, Shoot Em Up, Fred Claus
I have no idea what Paul Giamatti is like in real life. He might be a redneck or a biker or a desperate groupie, but let's be honest, he's not any of those things. I don't need to know him to know at least part of his overeducated curmudgeon persona has to be real. So powerful is his disapproving sneer, I preemptively pick out things for him to complain about. It doesn't matter the role, really. They're drinking merlot? Miles is not going to be pleased. Howard Stern said what yesterday? Oh Pig Vomit'll be pissed. They want James J. Braddock to fight whom? His manager will have something to say about that.
Whether it be Bob Zmuda from Man On The Moon or Veal Chop from Safe Men, Paul Giamatti's characters always look at the world through disapproving eyes; yet, we find reasons to root for many of them, or at least explain away their foibles. Harvey Pekar just wants a little respect, and John Adams just wants a little recognition for his hard work and Saint Nick, well, he just wants to keep on with his whole presents thing. Paul Giamatti would be the asshole to play Santa Clause as a tired mumbler. That has to be list worthy, right?
Best Supporting Roles: Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby, Glory, The Dark Knight
Morgan Freeman is the greatest other dude in the history of cinema. Even in the films where he's technically the main character, he's still remembered as the other bloke. He's Andy's friend in The Shawshank Redemption. He's the other cop in Se7en. I haven't seen The Bucket List, but I'd throw down a few sawbucks and bet he's more Jack Nicholson's friend than the other way around. Mind you, this whole second banana business is a compliment. You see, the main guy, the lead character, he's always up to some shit. He's fighting off the sodomites in a prison bathroom or dressing in black to save Gotham City. Morgan Freeman's definitely not that dude. He's the brains, the guy behind the guy, the epicenter of real power and influence. Blasphemic rhetoric aside, he's God, at least when playing a sketchy head assassin, Nelson Mandela, or God.
Best Supporting Roles: Spider-Man, Juno, Up in the Air, Extract, Party Down
Whether he's screaming for pictures of Spider-Man or driving Juno to planned parenthood, JK Simmons has a talent for being that guy you know, only better. Give him a line of dialogue and he'll deliver it like his tongue's on fire. Give him a thankless character and he'll invariably steal every single, crappily written scene he's plopped down in. He's the dad you've always wanted, the boss you've always feared, the incompetent secret agent who screws things up for everyone else and still manages to get a laugh while he's doing it. JK Simmons takes comedy seriously and makes drama seem easy. He's effortless. The guy you want delivering your movie's most important life lesson, the dude you want screaming at the top of his lungs whenever your movie's short on tension. JK Simmons makes anything better. Give him a cigar and he'll light your scene on fire.
Best Supporting Roles: The Squid And The Whale, Pleasantville, The Lookout, Away We Go
Jeff Daniels sells stupid, ill-advised decisions better than any other actor working today. Sure, it may not be the sexiest skill on the acting block, but to consistently, over-and-over again, make me, as a viewer say, “that fucking moron would…”, well, that has to be a skill, at least in the same way as Justin Bieber's hair flip or David Koechner's whammy noise. Actually, it's better than those one-dimensional, for-any-situation faux-talents. Jeff Daniels can sell the shit out of the high-class stupid decision, the low-class stupid decision, I'm sure if you gave him a chance, he could have sold you on BP dumping eight million gallons of black gold into the Atlantic.
Take high class. In The Squid And The Whale, he fires his literary agent for making a disparaging remark about the Knicks at a party. “Said they played like thugs.” Fucking moron, he would. Take low class. In Dumb & Dumber, he follows his idiot best friend across the country to find a woman without checking to see if they knew her name. “Maybe it's on her briefcase!” No, Jeff, it's not Samsonite. Whether the character is a high-class, arrogant buffoon or a low-class, ignorant simpleton, Jeff Daniels commits, he invests in the incompetent, foolhardy natures of those he chooses to play, and in doing so, creates real people we can't help but root for as they stumble through misadventures.
Best Supporting Roles: Capote, Being John Malkovich, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Your Friends And Neighbors
There's a fragility to Catherine Keener's best roles which often gets lost amidst her harsh exterior. She's the woman who's seen it all, done most and regretted more than a few, gradually shrouding herself in defensive, impenetrable layers. She doesn't think herself a prize to win or a treasure to cherish; she's merely a woman more focused on riding out the waves than dreaming naïve girlish fantasies. In The 40-Year Old Virgin and Capote, we see these layers slowly unravel; in Being John Malkovich and Your Friends And Neighbors, we see these layers fortify. You've got to work for the love, for the trust, for the affection of a woman like Catherine Keener because “she breaks just like a little girl…”. That's what Bob Dylan would have said, but I'm sure Max's mother in Where The Wild Things Are wouldn't have even bothered to question it.
Best Supporting Roles: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Home Alone, Lethal Weapon 2
Arguably more than any other ethnic subgroup, the Italians, the Romans, have seen their culture's history played out, praised, maligned, castigated and worshiped, sometimes within the confines of a single decade. What does it mean to be an Italian? An Italian-American? I don't know. A thousand people would probably give a thousand different answers, but Joe Pesci, that son of a bitch, he knows. And believe it or not, that all-knowing Italianism has little to do with his mob movies. It's the swagger, the walk, the I-don't-care-who-the-fuck-you-are and who-the-fuck-are-you-exactly persona. I don't have that. I'm sitting behind a computer typing an article, meanwhile a Joe Pesci character is out trolling the streets for uncollected gambling debts and probably simmering an awesome pasta sauce. Is that racist? I don't really care; it's awesome and it's the reason I own more than ten Joe Pesci flicks.
Best Supporting Roles: Clue, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Earth 2, Muppet Treasure Island, Legend, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, It
We're cheating a little here because Tim Curry hasn't done anything even remotely relevant since Kinsey back in 2004. So he's our wild card, the 16th man. But he's in Burke & Hare which comes out later this year and if there's a god, then that means he's poised for comeback. Curry's the kind of unbelievable talent who deserves throngs of adoring fans outside his house throwing roses and begging for an appearance. He should be treated like the pope, because nobody does it better than Curry. He's the oily salesman, the innocent but brilliant butler, the mysterious villain, the untrustworthy colleague. He's danced around wearing a teddy, he's sneered and connived with the best of them. He's a villain when it's called for and the leader of an ensemble whenever it needs one.
There's nothing Tim Curry can't do, there's nothing he hasn't made better simply by showing up on screen and staring straight into the camera. When he speaks, it's liquid gold. He doesn't need to be a leading man, he's comfortable there on the fringes; pulling the strings, foiling your plans, ten steps ahead of you and six floors above. He doesn't need top billing, he doesn't need your accolades or your attention. Like the Mounties he always gets his man and frankly Scarlett he doesn't give a damn. Communism was just a red herring, Tim Curry's a star wherever he goes.
Best Supporting Runners Up: Laura Linney, Maria Bello, Mos Def, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Julianne Moore, Josh Brolin, Maggie Gylenhaal, Anna Paquin, Thomas Lennon, Gary Oldman, Chris Cooper, Jackie Earle Haley, Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Benicio Del Toro, John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Paul Dano, Ed Harris, Mary Steenburgen