Screen time is a precious commodity for all actors. Such is the brutal nature of the film industry a budding actor’s first bit-part role can end up strewn on the cutting room floor, never to see the light of day. And even when the small part makes it onto the silver screen, it can be bludgeoned out of memory by the cruel human conditioning that a masterful acting performance must come with a nametag and be typeset in the bright lights.
While someone with only a few minutes of screen time is inevitably going to be pushed out of the limelight by the leading roles, it sometimes doesn’t take that much more than a few minutes to completely steal the show.
When the necessary time to construct a character with all the essential depth that makes a performance great is limited, it makes the truly exceptional supporting roles all the more praiseworthy. A supporting actor may not be bestowed with the pressure of steering the picture, but they are beckoned upon to add some impetus in one way or another, and some actors thrive on this.
Below, we’re looking at ten times when the liberation of causing a stir then leaving the scene is seized upon by the secondary star. Without further ado, let’s dip into the support acts that stole the show.
The ten show-stealing supporting performances:
10. Leonardo DiCaprio – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for more Oscars than there are O’s in an Irish phonebook, and his first was for his work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape when the star was only 19-years-old. The movie, which was released in 1993, saw him take on the challenging role of a mentally-disabled boy who is cared for by his older brother (played by Johnny Depp) in the Lasse Hallström-directed picture.
It was a performance that clearly heralded his forthcoming stardom. It wasn’t just the skill he exhibited in handling a difficult role that made the performance soar but also the deeply affecting charm that he imbued it with. Darlene Cates and Johnny Depp both put in stellar performances, not to mention the rest of the ensemble cast, but DiCaprio punctuated the drama with deeply emotional moments of poignancy.
9. Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada
You ask any living actor to name their top ten inspirations, and Meryl Streep will feature on just about everyone’s list. She’s won a whopping three Oscars and has been nominated for many more, one of which was for her wickedly sassy turn in David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada.
The role is not the most obvious fit for Streep, and much of the brilliance behind the performance has to do with her playing on this very fact. It may not be as reverent as her performance in something like Sophie’s Choice, but it has an undeniable sense of fun.
8. Cuba Gooding Jr. – Jerry Maguire
Tom Cruise is one hell of a bravura presence to steal some thunder from, but that’s exactly what Cuba Gooding Jr. did in his perfectly complimenting performance in the ‘couldn’t be more nineties if it tried’ hit, Jerry Maguire.
The Cameron Crowe movie saw him take on football star Rod Tidwell’s role and put in a hearty performance good enough to be garnered with the Oscar for work. It is both a movie and a performance that is hard to eulogise for all the right reasons. It simply does what it says on the tin in the most uplifting and life-affirming fashion.
7. Judi Dench – Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench’s performance in John Madden’s 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love might not have been quite as short as Beatrice Straight’s Oscar-winning five minutes 40 seconds in Network, but as far as screen time to show steeling ratio goes, it’s right up there.
Except for scoring a late winner as a substitute in a cup final, there is no other profession in the world where eight minutes worth of work could represent a career-high celebrated by all those who see it. Although Dench would rightly argue that many more hours went into it in make-up alone, it was the captivating time spent onscreen that everyone in the theatre was discussing on the way home. It may have been measurable in seconds, but it seemed like a lot longer, in the best possible way.
6. J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
A film about a student jazz drummer didn’t sound like the most obvious hit of 2014, but the Damien Chazelle directed picture was such a success that it usurped car insurance adverts at the top of Google ‘Whiplash’ search results. The plot sounds interminable on paper, but the performances bring it home in an elating cinematic glow.
J.K. Simmons was uncompromising in every which way. He portrayed a bullish persona that resonated with audiences by capturing similar manipulators in the real world whilst imbuing the performance with a loathsome villainous edge. Simmons got the tempo just right to add the necessary energy to this movie and rightly won the Oscar.
5. Christoph Waltz – Inglorious Basterds
Sometimes that first big supporting role can announce you to the world. As soon as the curtain parted on Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy World War II epic, it was clear that the new name of Waltz belonged right on the same dancefloor as the leading stars filling up the other roles.
From one of the very best first scenes in cinema history right through to the fabulously unnerving “it’s a bingo” finale, Christoph Waltz delivered a performance as good as any that Hollywood had ever seen. He embodied the duality of charisma and pure evil in a way that seemed seamless despite the unbelievable challenge of such a role. No doubt he was helped along by a stellar ensemble but when all is said and done it is Col Hans Landa who sticks in the mind of audiences forevermore.
4. R. Lee Ermey – Full Metal Jacket
“Well, what is your major malfunction numbnuts?” That is just one of the lines in a tirade of classic insults that are showered from Sgt. Hartman’s mouth like a barrage of abusive machine gunfire. In Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War epic R. Lee Ermey stole the show to such an extent that just about every single line he yelled in the movie is memorable.
There are certain roles that an actor simply seems born to play and that certainly is the case with the serendipitous turn of events that led Ermey to the role. Criminal mischief as a teenager forced the actor into the military, and it would seem this quirk of fate was what stood him in good stead for the perfect portrayal that he produced. Shocking, stirring and funny, it was a turn that stole the show.
3. Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men
Few performances in movie history have been as instantly iconic as Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers classic No Country for Old Men. With the help of the mercurial directing duo and an all-star cast at the top of their game, Bardem certainly brought Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s source material scintillatingly to life.
The beauty of the performance was that it offered something new, which is no mean feat considering the picture landed on big screens in 2007. The emotional black hole and total enigmatic evil of the bowl cut bastard seemed to be entirely new. A lesser actor may have puzzled the audience with his complete lack of humanising embellishments, but Bardem was unapologetically troubling in his resolute role.
2. Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs
Perhaps the true measure of Hopkins’ performance is that he actually received an Oscar for best actor in a leading role despite only stealing 16-minutes worth of scenes in the near-two-hour movie. His face peeling antics alongside Jodie Foster’s superb guiding lead catapulted Jonathan Demme’s adaptation to instant success.
When you only have 16 minutes to captivate an audience, there is no call for subtly, and Dr Lecter’s bravura lunacy wasted no time with pleasant hellos. It is a performance so memorable that nobody has ever been able to look at Chianti the same way again.
1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was revolutionary in many ways. It transposed the comic book onto the crime thriller genre, crafting some sort of Michael Mann movie in bedecked in a cape, but it also gave equal billing to the villain, as opposed to shepherd his vague nefarious ways into the realm of the darkened unknown.
Alongside Christian Bale’s brilliant Batman, Heath Ledger worked out a way to craft a spellbinding take on the good guy / bad guy dynamic. He was dark and twisted, with enough charisma to drive his rather more nettlesome points home with poignancy. It was a piece of acting heralded by critics, audiences and fellow stars alike and rightly so. The performance is not simply one of the greatest supporting roles, but one of the best performances in cinema history full stop.