Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 6, 2012
Almost twenty years ago, my mom, dad and me went to see Philadelphia in the theatre. It had already won Best Actor for Tom Hanks when we caught up with it and, as a big fan of Jonathan Demme, I was excited to see it. I thought it was good but nothing like the Demme I’d grown to love with movies like Melvin and Howard. After Silence of the Lambs, I thought maybe he’d return to the smaller, more personal films that he started with and, to a degree, that’s exactly how it was. Still, I was disappointed even though I found it a good, solid movie and if nothing else, there was some great acting on display by a lot of great veterans, including Demme vets Mary Steenburgen and Charles Napier. But when we were leaving, my father said something that stuck with me. He said, “The other guy should’ve won.”
The “other guy” was Denzel Washington and I fully agreed. For my money, Washington gave the best performance in the movie but even if it weren’t the best, it would still be an excellent performance overshadowed by the lead performance that took all the glory. Many times, that lead performance deserves all the glory but sometimes you just need to spread it around and remind everyone of that other performance in the movie.
When a movie has a standout lead performance, every other performance in the film, no matter how good, gets overlooked. Not completely, of course. They’ll be mentioned in reviews and discussions but never more than a nod of respect before getting back to the big performance at the center. This type of occurrence probably happened to Karl Malden more than any other actor in history. Mention A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront or Patton and you’ll hear a lot more about Marlon Brando and George C. Scott than you’ll ever hear about Malden, and Malden even won for Streetcar, something Brando failed to do. Well I’m here to tell you (or should I say “confirm” because I’m sure you already know this) that Malden is simply superb in all three. In all three, Malden plays the voice of reason to Brando and Scott’s loud, brash and violent men (well, Terry’s not loud or brash but you get the picture). But more than that, there’s an actual progression from gentle (Streetcar) to fair but firm (Waterfront) to wise and level-headed (Patton) that plays off the lead performances perfectly. I may as well just say it up front: I think Karl Malden was one of the greatest actors that ever lived and despite his Oscar for Streetcar and nomination for Best Supporting Actor for On the Waterfront, I don’t think the guy got nearly the recognition he deserved. He only got those two nominations and by the time Patton came along, for which he received no nomination, I’d swear it was because he’d gotten so good at that kind of thing that people stopped noticing.
Malden continued to play interesting characters in movie and movie, from Baby Doll and The Cincinnati Kid to Billion Dollar Brain and The Cat o’ Nine Tails. He even ventured into television with a very successful series, The Streets of San Francisco, which is, frankly, where I first came to know him. He was excellent as always.
Speaking of actors not nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite a great supporting performance, John Cazale could give Karl Malden a run for his money for “Actor Most Often Overlooked in Movies with Big Leads.” Oh hell, he’d probably just win the award outright. He was mentioned in the comments of this post a couple of weeks ago as one of the actors whose career would have been great had he lived longer. But while he was alive, he was shamefully overlooked. Would you like to know what he wasn’t nominated for? Well, let’s see. He wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather. Okay, that’s a big movie with Marlon Brando (again!) and a young Al Pacino in a mesmerizing performance (nominated for Supporting, not Lead – covered here) so it’s a little bit understandable, I guess. But there’s no excuse, none, for overlooking Cazale’s superb turn as Fredo the Arrogant/Fredo the Repentant in The Godfather, Part II. Now that’s a performance! He takes Fredo into territory only hinted at in the first film and turns in the best performance in the movie. And that’s saying a lot because the great performances in that movie are legion.
Next came another film with co-star Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon. Pacino was nominated for Best Actor in a role that took all the attention (“Attica! Attica!”) but even when others were willing to concede there was more than just Pacino’s performance happening in the movie, it was Chris Sarandon they pointed to. And don’t misunderstand, that’s another great performance in the movie. Chris Sarandon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his brief, touching serio-comic role. But Cazale. Cazale. I can still get a chill just thinking about the end of that movie and it’s Cazale’s skills in building up that character (his insecurities and fears, such as when he thinks people might think he’s gay) that make it so powerful.
But let’s go back a little further now and explore some early work that definitely falls into the category of “Damn, I’m in a Movie with an Actor Playing Such an Over-the-Top Lead There’s No Way I’m Getting Noticed.” Fear not, I noticed! I am referring to Fredric March’s career making performance in the title role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from 1931 and directed by the great Rouben Mamoulian. And while I have no argument with anyone praising March’s performance, I’d like to note just how amazing Miriam Hopkins is as barmaid/singer Ivy Pearson. Honestly, most of what March does works so well because Hopkins does such a good job playing terrified, disgusted and utterly defeated. She does it so well that at a time when many actors were struggling to get their footing in front of camera with a microphone over their head (it was the early sound period and there was an uneasy mix of silent pantomime holdover and overly enunciated stage acting), Hopkins comes off as a completely real, flesh and blood bar singer, stalked and enslaved by a brutal animal of a man. It’s a great performance that I wish got mentioned a little more.
More than two decades later, another actor, Humphrey Bogart, played the role of a captain in the Navy so insecure, so petty and so paranoid that he immediately created an icon out of the character of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Queeg with his metal ball bearings, rolling around in his hand while his head processes strawberry thievery and broken tow lines, is the classic “I’m Going to Get Nominated for This Thing, Easy” type of performance that a skilled actor like Bogart can turn into a thing of beauty. But there are two other excellent performances in that movie, too often overlooked (Van Johnson and Jose Ferrer), and one great performance, sinfully unrecognized (Fred MacMurray). MacMurray had this happen to him his whole career. I’m telling you, he, Malden and Cazale could have had a nice time at a bar one night, commiserating. Like Cazale, MacMurray was never even nominated, not even for the multi-nominated The Apartment which benefits from another great MacMurray supporting performance. But really, he’s hard to beat in The Caine Mutiny. Even now, when I think back on that movie, I usually think of him first, Bogart second.
Continuing on, and since this is all about performances in movies where there’s a big, justifiably famous lead role, one could hardly find a better example for an actress than Maggie Smith’s stunning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But it’s Pamela Franklin, all of nineteen at the time, that holds the main story together. It’s a performance easily missed in a movie with a performance as engaging and charismatic as Smith’s but it’s a damn fine one nonetheless. Franklin didn’t do many more dramatic roles, certainly none like that, but did have a short career in the seventies, making some notable films along the way, including The Legend of Hell House.
As always, I could go on and on and on but I’ll wrap it up there. There are so many big lead roles that have become immense in popular culture that it’s sometimes hard to look behind the front-man to see the other actors all working at the top of their form. Jack Hawkins gave plenty of great performances but often in movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai (Alec Guinness, Colonal Nicholson, “What have I done?”) or Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O’Toole, T.E. Lawrence, “The trick is not minding the pain.”). How many small but great performances are there in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Playing support in a movie with a lead role guaranteed to grab all the attention can’t be an easy thing for an actor but a necessary thing to make the whole enterprise work. The least we can do is make sure they all get the recognition they deserve, from the big lead carrying the show to the amazing supporting actor… carrying the lead.
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