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10 Great Supporting Performances by Actors Who Usually Lead

Out on DVD today is one of our favorite rom-coms in many a moon, Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids, which stars the writer/director and… Adam Scott, which seems sort of strange considering that Ms. Wesfeldt’s S.O. for the past decade and a half has been Mr. Jon Hamm, who would seem an obvious choice for the film’s leading role. Instead, as in Bridesmaids, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Town (and in sharp contrast to his television work), Hamm plays a secondary supporting role in the picture — and continues to carve out a niche for himself as a leading man who chooses to be a second banana. After the jump, we’ve got ten more name actors who decided to step back and play supporting roles, to great effect.

Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading

Early in his career, after his breakthrough in Thelma and Louise and between his matinee-idol leading turns in A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall, Pitt made a brief but memorable appearance in True Romance, playing the perpetually stoned “Floyd.” Fifteen years later, his leading man bona fides firmly established, he took a similarly hilarious supporting role in the Coen Brothers’ spy comedy Burn After Reading, getting big laughs with his characterization of airhead personal trainer Chad Feldheimer — right up until his, um, unexpected disappearance from the film.

Meryl Streep, A Prairie Home Companion

Robert Altman was one of those filmmakers who had such a reputation as an actor’s director that he could get just about any performer, no matter how big or how hot, to work for him (usually for a fraction of their customary asking price). Take, for example, the great Meryl Streep, who appeared in two films in 2006: the leading role in The Devil Wears Prada (which nabbed her an Oscar nomination — her fourteenth), and a small role in Altman’s final picture, A Prairie Home Companion. That movie’s lead (if there is one) is Garrison Keillor, playing himself; Streep is Yolanda Johnson, one-half of a sister singing team appearing on GK’s show. Lily Tomlin plays her sister, Lindsay Lohan plays her daughter, and all three — hell, the whole cast — do the kind of warm and winning ensemble work that was Altman’s stock-in-trade.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Celebrity

Like Altman, Woody Allen has always been able to get the actors of the moment in his films for a pittance — there’s a credibility factor to having a Woody Allen movie on your resumé. So it came as no surprise when word got out that Leonardo DiCaprio’s first film after becoming the biggest movie star on the planet (via Titanic) would be a Woody Allen movie. Allen wasn’t using him in a leading role, however; that role was going to Kenneth Branagh, doing his very best Allen impression. Instead, DiCaprio was cast as a scorching hot young bad-boy actor, if you can imagine such a thing. Doing drugs, smashing hotel rooms, and mistreating his girlfriend, DiCaprio gives the movie a jolt of fierce energy; unsurprisingly, this keenly observed turn feels like a dispatch from a world he knows inside and out, and the young actor masterfully sends up his own image while playing the character entirely straight.

Jodie Foster, Inside Man

Two-time Oscar winner Foster has never been one to insist on playing the lead: for example, she played the minor role of Sister Assumpta in 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (which she also produced) and popped up in a small but effective cameo role in 2004’s A Very Long Engagement. But her smashing supporting turn in Spike Lee’s 2006 film Inside Man was one of her most enjoyable in recent memory. As Madeline White, the “fixer” for New York’s power elite, she cuts quite a figure, all tailored suits and sharp angles. Her dialogue has the purr of someone for whom great influence is second nature; she tells Denzel Washington’s police detective “My bite is much worse than my bark,” and warns him that “there are matters at state here that are a little bit above your pay grade, no offense.” (His retort: “Well, why don’t you just tell the mayor to raise my pay grade to the proper level, problem solved.”) It’s a different sort of performance for Foster, the kind of showy, scene-stealing work that character actors get all the time, but stars of her caliber seldom get to sink their teeth into.

Penélope Cruz, Nine

Daniel Day-Lewis may not have brought his A-game to Rob Marshall’s flaccid film version of the stage musical adaptation of Fellini’s 8 ½, but no one could accuse Cruz of that particular crime. The actress has often rotated between leading and supporting turns — and her Oscar for Vicky Cristina Barcelona was in the Supporting category, which is easy to forget since she so completely took over that movie. When cast in Nine, she presumably could have gone for the larger role of Luisa, the long-suffering wife of Day-Lewis’ Guido (that role went to Marion Cotillard). Instead, she took the part of mistress Carla and walked off with the movie; her slinky “A Call from the Vatican” number is one of the sexiest scenes of her career, and that’s saying something.

Tom Cruise, Magnolia

There may well have been no bigger star on the planet in 1999 than Tom Cruise, so it was a bit of a surprise when he chose to follow Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire, and Eyes Wide Shut with a small (if showy) supporting role among the large — and Boogie Nights-tinged—cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s three-hour Altmanesque kaleidoscope of the San Fernando Valley. The actor’s public image has taken such a beating in the ensuing years that it’s easy to forget just how shocking it was to watch the All-American Movie Star™ strutting across a hotel ballroom, spewing profanity and misogyny of the “How to turn that ‘friend’ into your sperm receptacle” order. But Cruise is an actor who has always sought out the finest directors, and placed his full trust in them (he’s worked with, among others, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Stone, Mann, and Crowe). It’s still a blast to watch Anderson take Cruise’s movie-star confidence and smarm and turn it inside out — he gives the actor a hateful, dark edge, and then reveals the open wounds underneath. He got an Academy Award nomination for his trouble, and has continued to do interesting supporting work in the years since (Tropic Thunder, Lions for Lambs, and the otherwise terrible Rock of Ages).

Wesley Snipes, Brooklyn’s Finest

There was a time (the ’90s) when Snipes was popping up in leading roles in action movies (Blade, Demolition Man), dramas (One Night Stand, Sugar Hill), and even comedies (Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar). But his star started to fall around the turn of the century, and all those tax evasion woes didn’t help his image any; with the exception of the occasional Blade sequel, the bulk of his 2002-2009 filmography, though leading roles, went straight to video. In 2009, Snipes did what many a smart actor has done, post-Tarantino: he took a small role in a prestige project, and reminded everyone that he could act. The film was Brooklyn’s Finest, Antoine Fuqua’s omnibus tale of police corruption and undercover exhaustion; Snipes, as a just-out-of-the-joint OG doing his best to keep his nose clean, is subtle and effective, and more than holds his own with Don Cheadle (with whom he shares most of his scenes).

Jack Nicholson, Reds

Nicholson was one of the most electrifying leading men of the 1970s, with a string of thrilling performances that landed him one Oscar (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and three more nominations (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and Chinatown). But when his buddy Warren Beatty decided he wanted Nicholson to play the secondary role of playwright Eugene O’Neill, he knew it would require some convincing. “As the story goes,” wrote Peter Biskind in 2006, “Beatty tricked Nicholson into accepting the smallish but important part by ostensibly asking for advice. ‘I told him I needed someone to play Eugene O’Neill, but it had to be someone who could convincingly take this woman away from me,’ Beatty once told an interviewer. Without missing a beat, Nicholson responded, ‘There is only one actor who could do that — me!'” However he got him, Beatty got one of Nicholson’s most quietly powerful — and atypical — performances, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Nicholson won that prize two years later, for his outstanding work in Terms of Endearment.

Rachel McAdams, The Family Stone

2004’s sleeper smash The Notebook, along with Wedding Crashers and Red Eye, lifted Rachel McAdams squarely out of her second-fiddle-to-Rob-Schneider days, so you’d think she’d have been cast in the female lead of the 2005 film The Family Stone. But no, that role went to Sarah Jessica Parker; instead, Rachel McAdams played Amy Stone, youngest daughter of the titular family, a school-teaching grad student who literally carries an NPR tote bag, which places her at odds with conservative would-be sister-in-law Meredith Morton (Parker). Parker does her best in the lead, but can’t make the character more than a type. McAdams, on the other hand, brings Amy to vivid, enjoyable life; when it’s over, there’s little doubt that she’s a movie star, while Parker is a TV actor doing a movie.

Steve Martin, Little Shop of Horrors

Martin was such a major star when he appeared in the secondary role of sadomasochistic dentist Orin Scrivello (DDS) in Little Shop of Horrors that he was given the unusual billing of “special appearance by,” a credit more often seen on television than in film. But it made sense; he was one of the biggest comedy film stars of the era, headlining the likes of The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, and Three Amigos. He only has a handful of scenes in Little Shop, Frank Oz’s film adaptation of the off-Broadway musical (itself adapted from a cheapie Roger Corman comedy), but he makes the most of them — his sneering dental greaser is one of the most memorable characters in the film, and showed a range beyond Martin’s usual film roles.

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