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The Supporting Actors Who Stole the Movie From the Leading Man

Our favorite Oscar-winning Number Twos

Given that the Oscars are tomorrow night, for a fun little exercise, we decided to pick our favorite performances that won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Why that category? Because anybody could rank all the Best Picture winners. Besides, there’s something enticing about Best Supporting Actor. This prize is given out to someone who’s not the lead in the movie, but he’s still got a relatively important job, providing the film with its villain, comic relief or the hero’s right-hand man.

A personal favorite among the Best Supporting Actor winners is the gentleman who, for me anyway, will forever be the Santa Claus. Tim Allen played St. Nick in The Santa Clause. Kurt Russell recently took on the role for The Christmas Chronicles. But the all-time best Kris Kringle is Edmund Gwenn, who took home the Oscar for his work in Miracle on 34th Street.

Forget the terrible 1994 remake: The 1947 original stars Maureen O’Hara as Doris, a single mom with a high-pressure job, who will fall for handsome, idealistic attorney Fred (John Payne). It’s the holidays, and because Doris is an executive at Macy’s, she needs a reliable Santa. That’s when she meets Kris (Gwenn), who claims to be the actual Santa Claus. Her precocious daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), believes this kindly man with the white beard, but others wonder if Kris is insane, leading to life lessons about the true meaning of Christmas and a delightful courtroom drama.

My dad showed me Miracle on 34th Street when I was a kid — it’s one of his favorite movies — and I’ve always been partial to Gwenn’s likable, slightly sly performance as Kris. He looks like Santa, but Kris has also got a bit of wit to him — and he’s not so goody-goody that he won’t knock someone in the head who’s being a jerk. That combination of sweetness, humor and savvy made him the Santa Claus that I always envisioned coming down my chimney during Christmas Eve. And it made it hard to imagine Gwenn in any other role. When he shows up in Alfred Hitchcock films, it’s always jarring: What is that nice man doing getting involved in a murder mystery? He’s Santa.

And now, other members of the MEL staff offer their picks for their favorite Best Supporting Actor winners. Enjoy the Oscars, everybody.

Martin Landau in Ed Wood

If you’ve ever seen Ed Wood, you know that Landau’s rendition of Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian-American actor best known for portraying Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula, has to be somewhat based in the absurd because no one is really that insane. Well, I can’t speak for the actual Lugosi, but Landau’s Lugosi reminds me an awful lot of my late grandfather (who I should add was very sane).

No, my grandfather wasn’t a heroin addict like Lugosi, but everything from his voice, which sounded vaguely angry even when he didn’t mean for it to come across that way, to his short, unexpected bursts of gentleness were perfectly encapsulated by Landau’s idiosyncratic performance. Sure it helped that I could relate to his character by proxy of my grandpa’s personality, but what’s so special about the performance is how Landau is so seamlessly able to blend what’s undoubtedly a ridiculous character with an inherent humanity that’s too strange, as I can personally attest, to be purely fiction. — Andrew Fiouzi, Staff Writer

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

When looking through Wikipedia’s list of Best Supporting Actors, I saw Heath Ledger and pictured The Joker flying through downtown Gotham in a cop car. I also saw Alan Arkin and thought of Grandpa Hoover giving heartfelt advice. But when my eyes landed on “Anton Chigurh — No Country for Old Men” I swear to Oscar himself that darkness flooded my mind’s eye.

I remember exactly where I was when Anton Chigurh’s slow, methodical killing spree begins in No Country for Old Men:

Sitting stoned and cold in a freezing Morris, Illinois Classic AMC 10, I believe the six other people in the theater all gasped Holy. Shit. in unison with me.

In the original novel, Cormac McCarthy describes Chigurh as a psychopathic killer with eyes “blue as lapis… Like wet stones,” while the Coens Brothers added the twist that he’s someone who “could have come from Mars.” Bardem nails both. He’s ominous, stone-faced and wide-eyed as coin flips determine his path through the film. It was the first time I’d seen such intense derangement contained in such a calm, detached disposition. — Quinn Myers, Staff Writer

Chris Cooper in Adaptation

Cooper is exactly what you want in a character actor: a chameleon. In a movie like Adaptation, where co-stars Nic Cage and Meryl Streep are inescapably themselves (which isn’t to say they’re not marvelous), Cooper blends seamlessly into the Florida swampland that breeds the movie’s essential, Darwinian question: Does life have a narrative form?

And while all three of them are playing variously fictionalized versions of real people, it’s Cooper — as the rangy, obsessive and charming autodidact John Laroche — who provides the raw terrain for Charlie Kaufman’s fanciful meta-comedy. After all, he’s the subject of Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief, the book Kaufman took on the impossible task of adapting in the first place. As such, it’s his intoxicating aura of craftiness and conviction (tinged by cosmic tragedy) that propels this writing exercise into the realm of genuinely affecting art. There are too many wonderful scenes to choose from — it’s an endlessly rewatchable film — but one I return to often is what I think of as the “fuck fish” monologue, in which Laroche explains to Orleans how he pursues a niche hobby or interest to its absolute limit, then walks away forever:    

If stories are meant, in part, to show us the inner-workings of other minds, Cooper delivers a masterstroke here: You can actually see the wheels turning in his head, his fundamental restiveness, and how he is perhaps already plotting his next move. — Miles Klee, Staff Writer

Joe Pesci in Goodfellas        

I know nothing about Pesci or his actual personality. Still, I imagine him just as he is as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas (“Funny? Funny how?”). More importantly, it’s difficult to imagine the gangster genre without him. Like, are you sure he’s not in The Sopranos? — Magdalene Taylor, Editorial Assistant