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The Best Supporting Actor Performances in Recent Memory

Updated on December 2, 2012

Movies are often defined by great acting performances. However, these are not always the performances of the movies headline star or stars, in fact there are numerous occasions where a “supporting” actor really steals the show and even makes the movie what it was. This list contains five of my favorites, not all of which necessarily took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Tom Hagen, the Corleone family advisor.
Tom Hagen, the Corleone family advisor.

Robert Duval in The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2

This was a tough one for Duvall, as at the Academy Awards The Godfather saw three of its actors nominated for Best Supporting. James Caan and Al Pacino were also both nominated, and inexplicably the award went to Joel Grey for his role as Cabaret in Master of Ceremonies. Perhaps the Academy couldn’t justify giving the award to one member of the cast of arguably the greatest film ever made, and therefore played it safe and went in a different direction. Then The Godfather Part 2 rolled around, and Duvall lost out to De Niro, for his role as a young Don Corleone. Hard to argue with that. However, what is often forgotten is Duvall’s amazing turn as the Corleone family Lawyer and advisor, who was the rock at the center of their organization. He portrayed an on screen strength, calmness and quiet power that for me was one of the series’ best performances.

Heath Ledger's iconic Joker.
Heath Ledger's iconic Joker.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

This one is a bit of a sitter, but it has to be on the list. Before his untimely death, Ledger put in one of the most iconic roles in modern history, as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. After months of preparing for the role, locking himself in hotel rooms and creating a persona so perfect, Ledger brought to the screen one of the greatest villains in history. Ledger’s Joker was a maniac, who portrayed pure evil in a way that was so cool it managed to be chilling and entertaining at the same time. His performance was so detailed that you could even pick up on his characters little quirks and habits, to the way he licked his lips while delivering one of his psychotic speeches, or the twitch of his facial features as he stared at fellow characters. It is out of the ordinary for a character in a superhero film to take home a Best Supporting Actor award, but this one was certainly well deserved.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh

Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men

Another villain to take home the Oscar, Bardem’s role in No Country For Old Men was one of the most chilling performances of the decade. One of my favorite films of all time, in my opinion No Country For Old Men contained three of the best acting performances of the year in my opinion, from Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin. Bardem waltzed through the film, creating violence and chaos in a way that was free of discrimination, free of remorse and free of all emotion whatsoever. He was the perfect portrayal of pure evil, even down to his hideous haircut. The man deserved the Oscar for that hairstyle alone! My favorite scene, that truly portrays the evil he represents is when he is sitting in the bedroom with Josh Brolin’s girlfriend, discussing her fate. At no other time in recent film history has one character ever made me feel a complete lack of hope for anything “good” to be possible during a film. That is just one example of his great role, and a well-deserved Academy Award.

Verbal Kint, one of "The Usual Suspects"
Verbal Kint, one of "The Usual Suspects"

Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects

One of the all-time greatest moments in movie history spawned from Spacey’s performance in The Usual Suspects as shy, crippled Verbal Kint. This is a difficult paragraph to write without ruining the film, and therefore I will keep this short and vague, so as not to ruin what I consider one of my favorite films for any potential viewers. Spacey plays a character who appears to be the only survivor of a scheme gone wrong, instigated by himself and a group of fellow thieves. The story unfolds with Spacey telling the story to an investigative officer, and the pieces fall together slowly but in fantastic style. I will say no more about the plot, but Spacey is brilliant in his ability to portray vulnerability and smarts at the same time, although it could be argued that his greatness in this film is also largely due to such a fantastic script.

Ralph Fiennes chilling Nazi Commandant.
Ralph Fiennes chilling Nazi Commandant.

Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List

Another one to miss out on an Oscar award, this is a performance that is often overlooked. Schindler’s List is one of the finest films of all time, and is a harrowing portrayal of the persecution of the Jews during WW2, containing fantastic performances from Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes plays Amon Goeth, a Nazi concentration camp Commandant. His performance was truly psychotic and he creates an on screen persona that is so easy for the audience to hate, it makes the viewing experience all the more engrossing. His performance has been the inspiration for many others following, even spawning Christoph Waltz recent Oscar winning performance in Inglorious Bastards, which many feel is somewhat of a parody of Fiennes performance. Fiennes ended up missing out at the awards, losing to Tommy Lee Jones who won for his role in The Fugitive. Lee Jones is a fantastic actor, one of my favorites, and deserved of many awards, but in this case I think the Academy got it wrong.

Honorable Mention - Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

It would be wrong to complete this list without mentioning this classic role. Jack Nicholson’s turn as Colonel Jessep in this military courtroom drama spawned one of the most famous quotes in film history. “You can’t handle the truth!” That phrase has been used so many times since Nicholson so famously coined it during the films dramatic courtroom finale. Losing out to Gene Hackman for his role in that year’s Best Picture award winner Unforgiven, Nicholson’s role was perhaps not as deep as many remember simply because it is so famous for one iconic line. However, one cannot deny the power of that scene alone, and it is possible that in a relatively weak field that year, Jack should have taken home the Oscar.

My favorite Joker scene from The Dark Knight


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