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Supporting Actors Who Stole The Movie From The Lead

Sometimes the star of a movie is not the best thing about the movie, or even the best actor or actress in the movie. It's all about thievery; if someone in a supporting role steals a scene or two, it's fine — the producer and director put together a good cast, and they play off one another well. But if someone steals more than one or two scenes ... If someone steals three (three!) scenes, or four or five, well, then they've pretty much stolen the whole thing, the entire enchilada. The reward one gets as a result of this theft can vary, but it often includes a higher profile in his or her next movie, or maybe just the right to make another movie. Or maybe nothing else happens, and the supporting actor or actress simply is remembered as the one who stole a film from so-and-so.

That "so-and-so," mind you, could be a star as big as Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, or in a high-stakes project by the likes of Peter Bogdanovich or Stanley Kubrick. A performance can launch a career, or send an already distinguished star into the stratosphere. A performance can also be the thing we remember about a performer after he or she is gone.

Let us now celebrate those supporting cast members who outshone their co-stars — and gave us their best, most memorable performances — with a look at movies where the supporting actor was better than the lead.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

In My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci plays Vinny LaGuardia Gambini, newly minted personal injury lawyer, arriving in rural Alabama to defend a cousin (played by post-Karate Kid, pre-Cobra Kai Ralph Macchio) who's been wrongly accused of murder. Vinny is a slightly ratcheted down version of the cocky, belligerent character Pesci has played in any number of films, from Goodfellas to Casino. He's That Joe Pesci Guy, and one can praise him for it or parody him, but he is a known quantity. Put him in a mob movie, a Lethal Weapon sequel, or a really funny courtroom comedy, he's still That Joe Pesci Guy.

But Marisa Tomei as Vinny's long-suffering fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito? She's every bit his equal in intelligence and feistiness; she dresses outlandishly, spars with him constantly, and is sexy as all get out while doing so. You get the impression she's bailed him out of some seriously tight squeezes in the past (she does so again at the end of the movie), and forgives him for not recognizing it. Moreover, she steals just about every scene she's in, and won an Oscar for her performance. Not bad for an actress whose previous claim to fame was a secondary role in the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World. Not bad at all.

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Show me the money. A star was born with those four words when Arizona Cardinal receiver Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) compelled his agent Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise) to scream that phrase in the last moments of a critical phone conversation — among the last moments Jerry would spend employed at his agency. The star being born, of course, was not Cruise — in 1996, he was among the biggest movie stars on the planet. It was Gooding, a budding leading man (Boyz N the Hood, Outbreak) who, it seemed, just needed the right role to nudge him into the spotlight.

The role of Rod Tidwell almost went to Damon Wayans; as talented as Wayans is, it's difficult to imagine him giving as nuanced a performance. Yes, Rod is brash and arrogant, as are many professional athletes at the top of their game. But in Gooding's hands, we also see his waning self-confidence (when he considers accepting a subpar contract), his devotion to his family, and, for a moment, his memories of actually loving football as more than just a way to make bank (or, as he puts it, "the quan"). These are extraordinary moments that require a light touch, perhaps even an actual inhabiting of the character. Gooding does this, does it well, and in the process gives a star-making performance that's more than just four words (though he does still get asked to repeat them, even 20-plus years on).

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Even with a prime Brad Pitt and a sly, enchanting Mélanie Laurent in the cast, the most memorable character from Quentin Tarantino's WWII thriller Inglourious Basterds is Christoph Waltz's Nazi detective Col. Hans Landa (a.k.a. the Jew Hunter), as calculating and dastardly a presence as has ever appeared in a Tarantino film. One of the chief reasons he comes off as such is the obvious unease just about every other character (short of Pitt's unflappable Aldo "The Apache" Raine) has around him. There's an unspoken fear that Landa brings out in those who encounter him — fear about what he knows, what they suspect he knows, and what kind of pain he's capable of inflicting.

This unease the other characters in the film have with Col. Landa might have something to do with the fact that Tarantino all but sequestered Waltz from the other actors during filming. "Quentin and I talked about it in the beginning to keep me separate from the group," Waltz told Variety. "To stay a little bit on the outside because he doesn't want everyone to become very comfortable with each other." It also has to do with the veneer of charm with which Waltz imbues the character — the smile that can easily turn, the conversational tone he takes while interrogating his subjects, the expressive eyes which can shift in a moment from winsome to an indication of pure evil.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

In Stanley Kubrick's intense, hallucinatory Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket, we are introduced to the violence, uncertainty, and outright confusion of war, from training to trenches. We're also introduced to a slate of characters whose story arcs take us through soldiers' progression of the war in its middle stage, from Parris Island to the Tet Offensive and beyond.

None of those characters leaves quite the mark on viewers like the one left by the troops' drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. From his first moment on screen, dressing down new recruits with remarkably creative vulgarity, through his demise at the hands of Vincent D'Onofrio's Private "Pyle," Ermey projects steely authority and a sadistic streak a mile long. It's sadism with a purpose, though — as an actual retired Marine drill instructor, Ermey understood that Hartman had to break his men down so he could rebuild them into soldiers. His dialogue (which was either improvised or written by Ermey himself, depending on which story he tells) is in its own way just as violent as the many violent scenes in the film, and is more memorable than all of them. Ermey has had many other roles since Full Metal Jacket, but acting as Hartman is when he shone brightest.

Warning: Video NSFW

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Coen brothers stacked their film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men with a bevy of wonderful actors. Tommy Lee Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a cantankerous, seen-it-all veteran lawman with echoes to a number of his roles in other films, from The Fugitive to In the Valley of Elah and beyond. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a quiet, stubborn man who stumbles upon the aftermath of a botched drug deal and makes off with $2 million from the scene. Kelly MacDonald is Carla Jean, Llewelyn's demure wife, who does what she's told and later regrets her acquiescence when her husband meets his end.

Javier Bardem, however, is a frightening wonder as Anton Chigurh, a hitman paid to hunt down Llewelyn and take back the drug loot. Chigurh is a psychopath, a man who prides himself on keeping his word (particularly when he promises to kill someone) and has a fascination with the role of chance in life (as when he flips a coin to determine whether he's going to kill someone). Bardem plays Chigurh with cold precision and layers on a number of peculiar affectations, from his pageboy haircut to his murderously deadpan voice and his weapon of choice (a captive bolt pistol, usually employed to stun cattle before slaughter). He is calculating; he is single-minded; he is cold. And he is one of the great villains ever committed to celluloid, if authorities like Entertainment Weekly and Empire are to be trusted.

The Fugitive (1993)

Tommy Lee Jones might have been bested by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, but he himself stole a film from no less a leading man than Harrison Ford. In The Fugitive, Jones plays Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, a wisecracking, too-old-for-this-crap leader of the team tasked with finding Ford's Dr. Richard Kimball, an escaped prisoner wrongly convicted of the death of his wife.

What makes The Fugitive such a great film to watch, even 25 years after the fact, is the repeated suspense, the cat-and-mouse chases, and the intelligent, exciting way it keeps the viewer engaged, with minimal explosions, little if any CGI, and absolutely no superheroes. Watching Ford's Dr. Kimball root out the reasons he was framed and who did the framing is great. Watching it dawn on Jones' Dep. Gerard, gradually, that Kimball is innocent, even as he continues his pursuit of Kimball through the streets of Chicago, is a wonder to behold, a masterful performance by one of our finest actors at the top of his game.

Jones was so good as Gerard, he got his own sequel (U.S. Marshals) without Ford, and made another tense, suspenseful film worth watching. Still, the second go-round lacks sequences as funny as Gerard's back and forth with his younger team, or as gripping as his high-stakes, high-altitude run-in with Kimball (the famous "I don't care" scene) in the first. Ford might have gotten top billing in The Fugitive, but Jones owns the movie.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Before Dr. Hannibal Lecter became a franchise, he was merely a villain, albeit one of the creepiest, most frightening villains moviegoers had ever seen. Yes, he was once portrayed by Brian Cox in the 1986 thriller Manhunter (the first of two movie versions of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon), but it wasn't until Anthony Hopkins got his claws (and his eyes, nose, and teeth) into the role in Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Harris' The Silence of the Lambs that Lecter became everyone's favorite incarcerated psychiatrist/serial killer/cannibal, the stuff of nightmares.

Even though Hopkins (who won an Oscar for his role) is only on screen for 15 minutes and spends much of that time sparring with Jodie Foster's Agent Clarice Starling (a stunning lead performance that earned her her own Oscar), it is Hopkins' indelible image the audience leaves the theater remembering (and checking the back seats of their cars looking for). Turns out his performance even freaked out Foster a little (a secret she eventually shared with Graham Norton). And who can blame her? The terror is strong in Hopkins' Lecter, but it's a taste worth savoring, like fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Matt Damon's performance in Good Will Hunting is terrific; his character — Will Hunting, a math genius/NIT janitor — is by turns brash, vulnerable, arrogant, and, in the end, hopeful (anyone who thinks that tin-can Chevy Nova his friends gave him is actually going to make it from Boston to California has more optimism than sense). Damon reveals a depth that his previous starring role — in Francis Ford Coppola's take on the John Grisham novel The Rainmaker — only hinted at. It was truly a breakout achievement.

Damon did great work, but what most viewers remember about the film is Robin Williams' supporting turn as Sean Maguire, community college professor and therapist who takes on Will as a patient after Will's had one too many brushes with the law. The first session between the two leaves Sean reeling, his own weakness exposed (he lost his wife to cancer) even as he begins probing for the causes of Will's violent behavior. The resulting scenes between the two run the gamut of emotional gravity, from an early conversation in Boston Commons where Sean lets Will know his self-sabotage is transparent (the immortal line "Your move, chief" comes from this scene), to a hilarious story about Sean's late wife's flatulence, illustrating the idiosyncrasies in someone that can only be experienced through allowing oneself to be vulnerable. Williams is stunning — quite deserving of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for his role.

Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman is a tough nut to crack — quiet, brooding, secretive, only works at night, etc. His chief adversary, the Joker, conversely, is all flamboyant energy, evil intelligence, and, well, just plain evil. If it takes an actor with something special to put on Batman's cowl and cape and still project heroism, it takes someone with manic brilliance and a kind of vulgar swag to pull off a truly vicious Joker.

Bat-fans initially booed Michael Keaton's turn as their hero in Tim Burton's 1989 film, but the selection of Jack Nicholson as the Joker was simply perfect. While some viewers struggled to envision Mr. Mom as the Caped Crusader, Nicholson chewed up every single scene he was in, whether enthralling (and later poisoning) Gotham's citizens while playing Prince's music, wooing the voluptuous Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), or siccing his painted thugs on people. He was the much-needed antidote to Keaton's pursed-lipped millionaire-turned-vigilante.

Christopher Nolan's Batman films (with Christian Bale as the Bat-guy) had a darker realism about them, and thus the Joker (in The Dark Knight) had to be a moodier, more brutal sort. Enter Heath Ledger in a defining (and Oscar-winning) take on the villain, one who exacted horrible violence on his victims (as opposed to less realistic, cartoonish harm) with no reason given except possibly "He's nuts." Whereas Nicholson's take on the character was larger than life, you can imagine the possibility of reading about a Ledger-Joker-like character in tomorrow's newspapers. Both performances are unforgettable and truly elevate their respective films.

Paper Moon (1973)

In the annals of film, there have been any number of fine actors who have played grifters and other con artists, but none were as young, nor as immediately successful in their acting careers, as Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. As wisecracking, manipulative, cigarette-smoking, nine-year-old orphan Addie Loggins, O'Neal emerged from the film an instant star (and Oscar winner — the youngest to have ever won the award), her performance outshining even that of her father, Ryan O'Neal, and Madeline Kahn, who had received top billing.

Not that getting Tatum's performance on film was easy. She had never acted before, and was reportedly difficult on the set; according to Turner Classic Movies, director Peter Bogdanovich called working with her "one of the most miserable experiences of my life." Regardless of how much effort was required, she shines in every scene she's in and gives a debut performance that is hard to match, much less exceed.