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Supporting Actors: The Overlooked and Underrated (part 1 of 5)

Supporting Actors: The Overlooked and Underrated (part 1 of 5)

With the Academy Awards for the 2011 film year in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to take a look at one of the event’s most consistently fascinating categories: Best Supporting Actor. The most interesting story in the category this year isn’t who got nominated, it’s who didn’t. More specifically, Albert Brooks was completely robbed of a nomination for his performance as film producer turned lethal gangster Bernie Rose in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

As much as I’d like to say I was surprised by this, considering both the quality of performance and Brooks’ slew of nominations from other critical circles, in light of the Academy’s history of overlooking outstanding supporting performances, I simply can’t.

Following is a chronological look at a number of performances richly deserving of a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination.

In some cases, the performances are in films that are very narrow-mindedly considered “not Oscar material” or not even deemed worthy of any kind of critical attention at all, ignoring the basic fact that great acting is where you find it. In some cases, the performances are overshadowed by attention focused on another performance in the film or another aspect of the film as a whole. In other cases, much like Albert Brooks in Drive, it’s a matter of pure inexcusable neglect, sometimes of jaw-dropping magnitude.

For further viewing enjoyment, where applicable I’ve also included a list of other outstanding feature film performances by the listed actor that are definitely worth seeking out.

Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer in For A Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965, Italy):

After the trendsetting box office hit A Fistful of Dollars, director Leone raised the bar with the follow-up, the second in what’s become known as “The Dollars Trilogy”. A big part of the film’s overall quality is veteran actor Van Cleef’s excellent performance as a bounty hunter with an agenda besides money who’s a perfect counterpoint to Clint Eastwood’s character. Alas, this is the last we would see of the great Colonel Mortimer as Leone brought Van Cleef back in the villainous role of Angel Eyes in the third and final Dollars film 1966’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

Other notable Lee Van Cleef performances: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966, Italy), The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1966, Italy), Death Rides a Horse (Gulio Petroni, 1967, Italy), Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981, USA).

Alan Arkin as Harry Roat in Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967, USA):

Arkin, Oscar- nominated for Best Actor for 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Norman Jewison, USA) and 1968’s The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, USA), was an Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, USA). Curiously, one of his greatest screen performances as a man ruthlessly trying to retrieve a drug-filled doll from a blind woman went under the Oscar radar, most likely overshadowed by the critical acclaim focused on Audrey Hepburn, a Best Actress Oscar nominee for this film. This is an unforgivable slight as Arkin creates an absolutely classic screen villain.

Other notable Alan Arkin performances: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Norman Jewison, 1966, USA), The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, 1968, USA), Catch 22 (Mike Nichols, 1970, USA), Freebie And The Bean (Richard Rush, 1974, USA).

Don Gordon as Jackson Harkness in Cannon For Cordoba (Paul Wendkos, 1970, USA:

Gordon plays a key member of a group of soldiers dispatched to retrieve cannons stolen from the US military by a Mexican general in this variation on the “men on mission” movie popularized by the success of films like The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960, USA), The Guns of Navarone ( J. Lee Thompson, 1961, USA), The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966, USA), The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967, USA) and Where Eagles Dare (Brian Hutton, 1968, USA). A very compelling aspect of Cannon For Cordoba is the vengeance sworn on group leader Captain Douglas (George Peppard, in one his best roles) by his right hand man Harkness over the death of a fellow soldier early in the film. This creates a fascinating dynamic during the mission, brought to life by the intense performances. The film overall comes off as a bit routine due to the script but seek it out for the acting. Gordon, who appeared in Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968, USA) and Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973, USA) with Steve McQueen among other well-known feature films, has a much longer TV resume highlighted by a couple of appearances on the classic Twilight Zone.

Other notable Don Gordon performances: Slaughter (Jack Starrett, 1972, USA), The Beast Within (Philippe Mora, 1982, USA).

Robert Culp as Thomas Luther Price in Hannie Caulder (Burt Kennedy, 1971, UK/USA):

Culp’s performance as a bounty hunter who takes on a student is a huge stand-out in this otherwise very uneven revenge Western. Forget the grossly inappropriate “sexy” ad campaign featuring star Raquel Welch (she plays a vengeance-seeking rape victim) and the trio of barely threatening villains. Culp, who will perhaps be most remembered as a TV acting icon with a long list of credits that includes excellent performances in three classic Outer limits episodes along with his multiple Emmy-nominated role in the 1960’s series I SPY, turns in his best feature film acting here. It’s a shame that the overall film can’t match the quality he brings to his role, but his subtle, quietly powerful performance is definitely reason enough to seek out Hannie Caulder.

Other notable Robert Culp performances: Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969, USA), Hickey&Boggs (Robert Culp, 1972, USA).

Joe Don Baker as Molly in Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973, USA):

Walter Matthau’s character Charley Varrick and his gang rob a small town bank discovered to be holding a large amount of mob money in Don Siegel’s underrated crime film that contains the original cinematic reference to going to work on someone with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. Pursuing Varrick is the very dangerous Molly, an anything-but-feminine mob enforcer. The scene where Baker’s character, with his own unique combination of confidence and menace on full display, confronts Matthau gang member Andrew Robinson (Scorpio in Siegel’s 1971 classic Dirty Harry) inside a trailer is priceless.

Other notable Joe Don Baker performances: Guns Of The Magnificent Seven (Paul Wendkos, 1969, USA), The Outfit (John Flynn, 1973, USA), Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991, USA).

Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973, USA):

Hayden plays a troubled, alcoholic writer who is manipulated by a mental health guru in Robert Altman’s quirky crime film classic. Hayden brings real depth to the role as seen in his confrontation scene with the Henry Gibson character. Hayden was the original casting choice for the role of Quint in Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) but was unable to take the part due to troubles with the IRS. As great as Robert Shaw is in that role, I would love to have seen Sterling Hayden’s take on it. Fans of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972, USA) will of course remember Hayden as the crooked police captain McCluskey.

Other notable Sterling Hayden performances: The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950, USA), The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956, USA), Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964, USA).

Michael Gothard as Father Barre in The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971, USA):

Gothard turns in his best feature film performance by far in director Russell’s classic, controversial historical drama. Curiously restrained in everything else I’ve ever seen him in, Gothard cuts loose in this film with a frenzied, committed performance as a witch hunter employed by the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Gothard never came close to equaling this perfectly cast role in his acting career.

– Terek Puckett

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