10 Unforgettable Supporting Performances In Biopics

By  · Published on December 27th, 2012

10 Unforgettable Supporting Performances In Biopics

by David Christopher Bell

Biopics are always praised for their lead actor or actress’ realistic or unique portrayal of the subject, but what of the supporting cast? Sure, we do recognize their efforts, they might even receive an Academy Award, but rarely are they honored with something as prestigious as an online comedy list.

It’s time to rectify that. Here are some of the more talented, memorable, or uncanny portrayals of people who were important enough to be featured in a movie, but not important enough for that movie to be about them.

10. Josh Brolin as Dan White in Milk

It would be really easy to play a person like Dan White one-dimensionally. As a self-proclaimed defender of family and religion against homosexuals and pot smokers in the city of San Francisco, it’s not hard to picture a scowling suit driven to murder out of prejudice and frustration. Brolin didn’t make it so simple, however, and Dan White comes across as an honest-to-god human being with human being troubles. He’s not just some hate puppet, but a man who is quite simply not from the world he was thrown into, and didn’t know how to deal with the rejection of that world.

Of course, none of that makes his actions justified – but at least we can see the mental wheels turning that led him down the terrible path he took. We see that there are no monsters, only monstrous acts.

9. Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK

Gary Oldman is a man known for his extremely wide range, and while makeup plays a big role in that, it really comes down to talent. Lee Harvey Oswald is a great proof of that, because there’s next to no physical transformation here. He just looked the part, so it was just a matter of performance. It’s not unlike when he played Sid Vicious; all they had to do was spike up his hair and voila, uncanny resemblance. Does that mean that Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald also look alike? Let’s go with yes.

And it’s not like Oldman just put on an accent and went to work – he actually traveled around the U.S. meeting people who knew Oswald in order to take on the character. As he put it, he became a ‘detective’ on the matter, hearing both sides of the conspiracy from people who knew the assassin and/or patsy personally.

8. Crispin Glover as Andy Warhol in The Doors

You know – I have no idea what Andy Warhol was like in real life, but gun to my head I would have to guess that he was exactly like Crispin Glover, because Crispin Glover is insane. In a good way. It just fits, right? That red phone in the movie that talks to god? How much do you want to bet Glover just brought that thing from home?

“Hey Oliver, can I use my god phone for this scene?”
“Sure Crispin, just don’t go near me and you can do whatever you want.”

I mean… have you heard his album? It sounds like a Muppet nightmare. A friend of mine noticed that his copy had a phone number in the liner notes, and when he called it someone picked up. He explained where he got the number and the meek voice on the other end replied, “So how did you like my album?”


7. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

It’s funny – unless you are a historian you probably have no idea who Thaddeus Stevens was until watching this film, let alone what kind of a man he was. It didn’t matter, all that mattered was getting to watch Tommy Lee Jones do what he does best: act like a ridiculously charismatic scrooge. Just a big ol’ lovable grump, like an old cat on a porch that hates being petted, and yet you can’t stop petting for that reason.

So while we really can’t say much about who exactly Stevens was, considering that his official photograph is of him scowling like an owl, I’d say Tommy Lee Jones fit the bill. Not to mention that he was described as being “witty,” “sarcastic” and “the greatest dictator Congress ever had.

6. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator

100 million dollar budget, all-star cast, Scorsese-directed – this film put a whole lot of effort into being forgettable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film by any stretch, but when you go through the list this one always gets skipped.

One thing that did not get lost to time, however, is Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. Miss Galadriel perfectly captured the late actress’ eccentricities down to the voice. They even look alike.

It’s one of those performances that must be a caricature, and yet is not. Hepburn never wavered from expressing every weird truth she felt, such as the hope that there’s no afterlife but the quiet pleasure of rotting in the ground, not having to “rake anymore leaves.” The point is valid, for there isn’t a single person on this earth who hasn’t wished to cease existing while raking a yard.

Read on!

5. Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter

Like Christian Bale was ever going to pass up a chance to lose a butt-ton of weight for a role. If you asked this guy to play Gumby he’d dye himself green and sew all his fingers together, but the weirdest part would be when he’d actually pull the role off.

We’ve all had someone like Dicky Eklund in our lives at some point. Someone who is retrospectively hilarious, but in the moment serves as a royal pain in the ass. One of those delightful souls that can only be appreciated from a distance. Bale does a fantastic job at it, having spent weeks upon months hanging out with the real Dicky Eklund in Lowell, Massachusetts studying his exact mannerisms and speech patterns.

It’s pretty amazing… I mean, the weight loss is one thing, but can you imagine having to spend time in Lowell, Mass? That’s commitment right there.

4. Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice in W

Okay, this isn’t so much of a biopic as it is a cinematic guess. That said – a disturbing amount of it was based on actual accounts of our former president’s less than flattering past, well… depending on who you talk to of course.

Accuracy aside, you can’t deny how well everyone played their part, and while it wasn’t a particularly huge part, Newton’s Condoleezza Rice seemed like the clear victor amongst victors. There’s no way to say it besides uncanny. She just looked and sounded like Rice. End of story. This is especially amazing considering how not at all alike these two look and talk, Newton being a good 20 years younger and British. It’s no wonder then that the actress struggled with the part, taking months to perfect the role.

3. James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock

If you haven’t seen Hitchcock yet, you should. The film is filled with very large personalities, all orbiting the biggest of personalities in Alfred Hitchcock. While everyone does a fantastic job managing these giant egos, the only character in the film that invoked audible gasps in the theater happened to be the most passive one. When I say, “audible gasps” I’m not exaggerating either. I literally heard people gasping when I saw this film.

The reason why is evident when you watch it; while D’Arcy doesn’t look perfectly like Perkins – his tone and facial expressions are, for lack of a better word, exact. It’s spooky. And being someone unfamiliar with D’Arcy as an actor, my assumption was that he was chosen because he at least sounded similar to Perkins – turns out I was very wrong.

2. Benicio del Toro as Oscar Zeta Acosta in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

It might not be the most accurate on this list, but if there were ever a more outstanding portrayal of someone brave enough to hang out with Hunter S. Thompson, I’d like to see it. It’s hard to purge the image of a grown man fully clothed in a rubbish-filled bathtub wielding a hunting knife and listening to Jefferson Airplane. That kind of stuff stays in there.

While technically playing a character known only as Dr. Gonzo – the role in the book and film was based around attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, who Del Toro gained 45 pounds to play and ended up looking remarkably like. The level of insanity shown, however, is debatable. It’s hard to confirm the validity of one account of a series of events when that account is seen through the lens of narcotics and booze. But hey, that could be said about pretty much everything that happened in the 60s and 70s.

1. Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood

Sure, Martin Landau won an Oscar, several Film Critic Awards, a SAG Award, Saturn Award, as well as a Golden Globe Award for his incredible reproduction of legend Bela Lugosi – but you’re not truly there until people on the internet are making lists about you, right? Lists are, as you know, the highest form of reverence. Why do you think we make so many around food, the very thing that sustains our life?

Anyway, there’s not much to say about it. This film could not have been cast better than it did; this entire list could have just been from this film. And yet from it all, Landau stands triumphantly above it all, conquering the conquerors like some kind of acting He-Man.

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