In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives such an epochal performance that the brilliant actors surrounding him are too often overlooked. But we’d do well to remember that Brando was playing off the likes of Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger (all nominated for the best supporting actor award at the 1954 Oscars); surely the heights that his craft soars to in the film were made possible in part by the fineness of the cast as a whole. It’s Eva Marie Saint, however, who is Brando’s greatest sparring partner in the film. For her screen debut, she turns in an eloquent study of grace under pressure, playing Edie, the love interest of Brando’s Terry Malloy, and the sister of a man in whose murder Terry is complicit. In the scene below—the pair’s tremulous first date—it becomes clear that Terry has met his match. Watching Saint again got us thinking about some of our other favorite Oscar-winning supporting turns. Below are appreciations of and clips showing four of them—these roles may not be leads, but the performances are anything but minor.
A New Jersey native, Thomas Mitchell was a ubiquitous character actor in the 1930s and ’40s, turning up in an astonishing array of films today regarded as classics, including Make Way for Tomorrow, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame—and, in the performance that a glimpse of his doughy, turtle-like features calls most vividly to mind for us, It’s a Wonderful Life, where he appears as the ruinously absentminded, alcoholic Uncle Billy Bailey. But it was his embodiment of another heavy drinker, Doc Boone, in 1939’s Stagecoach, that earned Mitchell his Oscar for best supporting actor (a category only in its fourth year at the time). To John Ford’s timeless tale of a motley crew braving a ride through Monument Valley, Mitchell brings both levity and pathos. Though he starts out as comic relief, he ends up a model of resolve in the face of violence. Look closely and Stagecoach is a tale as much about Doc’s redemption as it is the Ringo Kid’s heroics. In this scene from before the journey begins, Boone befriends one of his fellow passengers—who has a very specific appeal for him.
In Douglas Sirk’s smashing sudser Written on the Wind, Dorothy Malone’s face is a marvel of sneering lips, trembling cheeks, arched eyebrows, and flared nostrils—and don’t get us started on her hip-swiveling, hair-tossing dancing. Expressive from head to toe, Malone is a force of nature in brash Technicolor as Marylee Hadley, the trouble-making, nymphomaniac daughter of an oil tycoon. She and her alcoholic brother (Robert Stack, a best supporting actor nominee) are so spoiled they seem to want to spoil everyone else’s life, too. Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall are the film’s reliably glamorous leads, but it’s Malone who sticks to your ribs. Whether taunting strange men at bars or throwing herself at Hudson, her crush since childhood, as in the clip below, she’s acting with every gloriously defiant part of her body.
“Nosy, funny,” is how Mia Farrow’s Rosemary describes her new neighbor Minnie Castavet after the dotty older woman pays her a first visit in Rosemary’s Baby. We may have met the eccentric Minnie in an earlier scene, but this is her true grand entrance. Ruth Gordon is gangbusters in the part; the sassy, diminutive Hollywood workhorse (a writer as well as an actor, she was nominated for multiple screenplay Oscars) might have at one point seemed a counterintuitive choice to play a character who may or may not be an Upper West Side witch, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Minnie has many outrageous moments, but Gordon is most amusing in the mundane ones—like this scene, where Minnie barges into Rosemary’s new home, asks the price of the furniture, inspects cans of food, and guilt-trips the younger woman into coming over for dinner. She may not appear particularly monstrous, but she’s a true space invader.
Of all the melancholy folks populating the Texas town of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s masterful evocation of 1950s America, Cloris Leachman’s hollow-eyed Ruth Popper may be the most haunting. A neglected housewife married to the high-school football coach, Ruth is, like nearly everyone we meet in the film, slowly imploding, but she finds momentary release in an affair with the teenage Sonny (Timothy Bottoms). Leachman had achieved success as a character actor in the fifties and sixties, onstage, on television, and in the movies. Her intensely moving work in The Last Picture Show, which came out while she was regularly appearing on television screens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, proved her remarkable versatility. Even in the few short minutes of this scene, in which she steals an illicit public kiss from her young paramour, you can see the many faces of Cloris Leachman; she moves seamlessly between chasteness, girlish passion, and withering guilt.