Features and Columns

Talking Heads: What’s a Supporting Role, Again?

By  · Published on February 18th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as CriterionCollector85 and JP2themax in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, they puzzle over how to define a Best Supporting Role. What does that support mean? Or look like? Does it matter how long someone is on screen or how big a catalyst they are?

Since the Oscars don’t seem to know…what the hell is a supporting role anyway?

Landon: ? ?So Hailee Steinfeld, who is undoubtedly the central character of True Grit, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The politics behind her performance being characterized as “supporting” rather than “lead” are clear, and have been discussed elsewhere. What I’m interested in talking about is the flip-side of this question. That is, we know when something is NOT a supporting performance, but how do we identify what IS a supporting performance? Beyond screen time, how does a supporting performance function differently from a lead??

You can answer those questions one at a time if you’d like

?Cole: ? ?Wow. What happened to our brevity rule? I feel like those poor job applicants in Exam didn’t.? But I think I can answer that question in 3 notes. A supporting performance is one that bolsters the performance of the lead actor. Or do you think that’s too simple?

?Landon: ? ?Yes.?

(There’s some brevity)

Does Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight bolster the performance of Christian Bale?

?Cole: ? ?Yes…in the exact same way that Christian Bale’s performance…bolsters…Heath…Ledger’s. Oh, I see what you did there?.

?Landon: ? ?What’s interesting about this category is how much the performances run the gamut.? On one end, you have roles like Hal Holbrook’s in Into the Wild, where he’s a memorable character onscreen for just a few minutes and “bolsters” the rest of the film. On the other, you have performances that completely overshadow anything else in the movie.

?Cole: ? ?Like Ledger’s. That’s fair, but there’s also something to say here about story structure.? No matter how intense, cool or just plain lovable The Joker is with all his wacky stories about how he got his scar – he’s not the main focus of the movie. It’s Batman’s story, just like it’s Chris McCandless’s story in Into the Wild.

Story structure-wise, it’s often clear which character owns the thrust of the story. Which is yet another reason why Steinfeld shouldn’t be considered a supporting actress.

?Landon: ? ?Though I agree with you, I’m not sure if narrative focus is so clear in every case?

?Cole: ? ?Not every case, no. But usually.?

?Landon: ? ?Is there an argument to be made that True Grit is really “about” Rooster Cogburn? In many ways he becomes more the catalyst of the story than Mattie Ross, and even when he isn’t onscreen, Mattie Ross is looking for him?. If True Grit is about Mattie Ross, why don’t we consider Jeff Bridges’s performance a supporting one?

?Cole: ? ?While a white male is normally the main character, I don’t think that’s the case here.? I think it’s fine to think of Rooster as a leading role AND Mattie as a leading role, but Mattie is our entry into the story. We see things as she does and learn about the world as she learns about it.

Rooster becomes a catalyst and has his own journey, but what’s his journey about? Not being drunk?

?Landon: ? ?Okay, so they’re co-leads. You successfully removed the wrench I put in your spoke.?

So I’m going to change the nature of the conversation…

?Cole: ? ?Boo-yah.?

?Landon: ? ?I agree that by definition Batman is the natural lead and The Joker the natural supporting character of any Batman story, but with regards to TDK a lot of people responded to the movie specifically because of The Joker story…? If a supporting performance overshadows the lead character, is it really a good or successful supporting performance?

Doesn’t that violate the definition?

To a lesser extent, I think this is what happened with Christian Bale this year.

?Cole: ? ?Christian Bale’s performance was ironically Joker-esque – cutting through the movie like a hopped-up tornado with a demon at the wheel.? Tornadoes have wheels right?

?Landon: ? ?Let’s stick with bike metaphors?.

?Cole: ? ?So what you’re saying is that the supporting performances that we most love and respond to, are actually bad supporting performances by definition.? While they’re busy doing wheelies and gaining attention, the lead actor is still trying to strap his helmet on.

Stealing the show is a crime that we punish with gold statues.

?Landon: ? ?I’m saying the standards and definitions for what constitute a supporting performance – be it narrative function, running time, or what audiences take away from it – change every time one tries to state what makes the difference between a supporting and a lead role?.

Cole: ? ?But we’re looking at outliers.?

?Landon: ? ?And this becomes even more confusing with ensemble films where the distinctions between lead and supporting go out the window?.

?Cole: ? ?For instance, this year has Amy Adams, Helena Bonham-Carter, Melissa Leo, and Jacki Weaver?. All deliver phenomenal performances, but the story of the movie isn’t their story.

?Landon: ? ?But the outliers, with the bells and whistles, are often the most celebrated?.

?Cole: ? ?Do they overshadow? A bit, yes. Some definitely. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t add the much needed color to the life of the central character.? It’s hard to celebrate nuance, my friend. Just as people don’t hold up protest signs reading, “Please give us some calm and well-reasoned debate!”

?Landon: ? ?But shouldn’t they?

Let me set something straight: I think Christian Bale and Heath Ledger did amazing work and deserve the stateues they got and will get, respectively, and I don’t think they’re hogging the screen. It’s simply a category I’m fascinated with and befuddled by every year because the nominations are so all over the place in the relationship of the character to a larger film?

That’s not a bad thing.

We know a supporting performance when we see it.

?Cole: ? ?We just can’t define it.?

Landon: ? ?It’s really difficult to put into words exactly what that is?.

?Cole: ? ?So a supporting performance is a lot like pornography.?

?Landon: ? ?I bet porn awards have supporting categories, too?.

?Cole: ? ?Best Fluffer.

Great. You’ve now connected the dots saying that what Amy Adams did in The Fighter was like porn.?

Way to go, Landon.

?Landon: ? ?Thanks for not saying Hailee Steinfeld.

?Cole: ? ?You’re welcome.?

Regardless, it’s a strange category specifically because they’re defining something concretely that often isn’t. Here’s where I rattle off the official AMPAS regs…

?Landon: ? ?I ultimately don’t care how it’s defined by the Academy (though I’d be surprised to hear what the definition is) but as a movie fan it’s an interesting thing to try to figure out.? There’s a world of difference between how Melissa Leo and christian Bale function in the exact same film.

?Cole: ? ?Fair enough. So what about your definition? What is it??

?Landon: ? ?It’s a lot like porn.?

Which is what the AMPAS regs should say.

?Cole: ? ?Because if they had, they would have never seen a situation like Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way.? Who, as we all know, is the only actor to ever be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting for the same role.

(He won Best Supporting).

?Landon: ? Well Going My Way certainly speaks to the lack of definition, and that there is no standard for a supporting performance, ? ?but I do think the category does celebrate nuance, which is why John Hawkes got a nomination. He is a memorable non-lead character who serves his function well without overshadowing any other actors?.

?Cole: ? ?Unlike these conversations, where the supporting speaker is clearly noted.?

?Landon: ? How meta.

What would your definition be?

?Cole: ? ?Whatever the studios and producers want to put their actors up for, considering talent, notability, and chances of winning.?

Naw, I’m sticking with that bolstering thing. That word makes it sound like I’m smarter than I actually am.

There’s a definition out there, it just has a lot of asterisks next to it. Just like porn.

?Landon: ? ?Just like a tornado on wheels?.

How do you define a Supporting Role?

Read more of us talking our heads off

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