So, let’s be clear, when supporting characters truly steal the show, that’s a bad thing. You want your supporting characters to be memorable or fun, but to not steal anything away from the main action.
(Incidentally, this is #21 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
So with this post, we’re talking about supporting characters who really did stand out, but did not necessarily “steal away” anything from the movie’s leads, or were not the only good part of the film.
Now, there are a lot of characters one might think of for this that I’m going to reject. One main reason is that the character is so important to the story that I’m not sure if you can really consider them to be “supporting characters” anymore. For example, one could argue that Lt. Gerard in The Fugitive “steals the show” because Tommy Lee Jones is so good in the part, but can your really say he’s a “supporting character”? Really, he’s more the lead of his half of the movie (a “co-lead” if you will). I feel a similar way about Malone (Sean Connery) from The Untouchables. He’s just too much at the center of the show to say he’s someone who steals it. The same goes for Kevin Kline from A Fish Called Wanda, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) from The Karate Kid, Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting, and so on.
I’m also rejecting lots of characters who are a movie’s main villain. So, like The Dark Knight‘s Joker, or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s Khan, or Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs, or even John Malkovich from In the Line of Fire. These guys “steal the show” for sure, but they are the primary antagonists in their films, and given enough screen time that they are nearly as significant to the story as the leading character. So I’m not counting them here.
So here’s what we’re looking for: supporting characters who were genuinely “supporting” – non-leads who helped or hindered the protagonist along the way of their journey, who stand out as especially memorable in their films, whether the movie was overall as good as they were or not. Phew, hope that makes sense.
So, understanding that there’s probably hundreds of examples that I haven’t thought of or haven’t scene, let’s go through a few…
Donald Brown (played by Jackie Jenkins)
in National Velvet (1944 – directed by Clarence Brown)
National Velvet is about a young girl played by Elizabeth Taylor who ends up dressing like a boy in order to enter a race with her beloved horse “Pie”. Donald Brown is her little brother who gets up to all sorts of mischief along the way. But he really stands out to me because of a bit where he completely loses all his faculties because he simply stayed up too late listening to his friend tell a bedtime story about a horse that was trapped on an island. In a moment familiar to many parents, he winds up being carted off to sleep amidst hysterical cries about the fate of that horse, and an utter refusal to be consoled with the truth.
Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen)
in Singin’ in the Rain (1953 – directed by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)
Singin’ in the Rain is still what I’d call my all-time favorite film. The film is full of great dancing, cinematic choreography, funny performances and a surprisingly layered script. Yet with all that going for it, it’s hard to overlook Jean Hagen’s performance as Lina Lamont. Her shrill voice contrasted with her movie star looks, combined with her odd mix of intelligence and dumbness, all make for a memorable if atypical screen villain. She has many of the movies best lines, including “If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin,'” and “I make more money than Calvin Coolidge…put together!!”
Igor (played by Marty Feldman)
in Young Frankenstein (1974 – directed by Mel Brooks)
Young Frankenstein is overall a very funny movie, but a big portion of the laughs goes to Marty Feldman’s hunchbacked lab assistant, Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”). Feldman’s bugged out eyes and comic timing make him a standout amongst a whole cast of talented comedians, including Gene Wilder, Madeline Khan and Cloris Leachman. When you can “steal the show” from a group like that, you know you’ve really got something going.
Burt Gummer (played by Michael Gross)
in Tremors (1990 – directed by Ron Underwood)
I just recently extolled the virtues of Tremors, but part of the appeal is the fun collection of townspeople who find themselves beseiged by the “Graboids” – giant subterranean, carnivorous worms. But by far the funniest of these characters is Burt Gummer, a rampant survivalist, who along with his wife Heather (played by Reba McEntire!) has giant armory in his basement. His reaction to a creature breaking in only to fall victim to this collection of weaponry is one of the film’s highlight moments.
Miss Bates (played by Sophie Thompson)
in Emma (1996 – directed by Douglas McGrath)
Emma is full of lots of good performance by a great cast, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Alan Cummings, Jeremy Northam, Ewan McGregor and Toni Collette. Yet, in that field of talent, it’s still Sophie Thompson in the relatively minor role of Miss Bates that stands out to me. Miss Bates is a comical figure who is suddenly turned into a pathetic one when Emma is thoughtlessly cruel to her. Seeing Thompson shift abruptly from being unintentionally annoying to deeply shamed and wounded is powerful, and makes for a simple but brilliant cinematic moment.
Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
in Jerry McGuire (1996 – directed by Cameron Crowe)
Cuba Gooding Jr’s character approaches the “co-lead” status that I mentioned up above, but doesn’t quite get there. He’s definitely a scene-stealer, though, with his chant of “Show me the money!” being one of the movie’s best moments. In a way, Jerry McGuire is about the main character’s relationships with two people who both upstage him – Gooding Jr’s Rod, and Renee Zellweger’s Dorothy.
Spike (played by Rhys Ifans)
in Notting Hill (1999 – directed by Roger Michell)
You know, this is the third time I’ve referenced Notting Hill in this series. Maybe I like that movie more than I thought. Anyway, as I’ve said before, a big part of the success of Notting Hill is due to the ensemble of talented actors playing William Thacker’s friends. And the biggest oddball of that lot is for sure his roommate Spike, a character you’d hate to know in real life but in a movie is a hilarious and ultimately endearing presence.
King Julien (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, voice only)
in Madagascar (2005 – directed by Tom McGrath & Eric Darnell)
Madagascar has got a lot of funny characters, but still King Julien stands out thanks to the madcap improvisation of Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s incredibly annoying, but it’s hard not to be drawn to him whenever he’s on screen doing his shtick. Incidentally, the Penguins would probably have gotten a mention here if they hadn’t burned up their credit on that bad movie of theirs.
Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson)
in Iron Man 2 (2010 – directed by Jon Favreau)
Iron Man 2 may well be the worst movie on this list, making this the only example where the scene-stealing supporting character is a positive element in spite of the movie, rather than because of it. You’ve got to remember that this was back before the Marvel Cinematic Universe had really gotten rolling, so back then each new superhero that appeared was really a big deal (so far, we’d only seen Iron Man, War Machine, and the Hulk!) So having Natasha Romanoff involved was sort of a big deal. A lot of her appearances are nothing special – and indeed confusing and inconsistent, just like lots of the film. But then she gets her one action scene where she flips and twists down a hallway full of bad guys, taking them out with a fighting style full of acrobatics and weaponry that made her superiority completely believable. It was really the one bright spot in an otherwise dud film.
Olaf (played by Josh Gad, voice only)
in Frozen (2013 – directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)
Fairy tale animation has a long history of creating supporting characters who are more interesting than the leads, or at least more memorable. It’s because the leads are traditionally more “normal” romantic figures, while the supporting characters are the ones who make us laugh and keep the kids from getting bored. But out of all such characters, I’ve chosen Olaf, the talking snowman from Frozen. Olaf is legitimately a supporting character, unlike other popular choices like the Donkey in Shrek or Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, who are more like “co-leads” as mentioned above. And he’s quite a funny character, much more so than his co-stars, and presence certainly brightens up the film.
Batman (played by Will Arnett, voice only)
in The Lego Movie (2014 – directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)
The Lego Movie was surprisingly hilarious, and the best character in it was Will Arnett’s Batman, who was basically the Batman we’ve all been joking about for years, finally brought to life on the big screen. He gets lots of great moments, including my favorite line when he is offered a way out of a dangerous predicament by Lando Calrissian of all people, even though it means abandoning his friends and his girlfriend: “If this relationship is going to work out between us I need to feel free to party with a bunch of strangers whenever I feel like it. I will text you.” Of course, later this turns out to be a ruse, and he’s still working to help his friends. Overall, the character is fantastic. I haven’t seen his spin-off movie yet, hopefully it’s better than Penguins of Madagascar or Minions (other popular animated supporting characters who graduated into their own movies).
Groot & Rocket (played by Vin Diesel & Bradley Cooper, both voice only)
in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014 – directed by James Gunn)
I”m putting these two together because they are a bit of a double-bill act, often stealing their scenes together. Guardians of the Galaxy is a successful ensemble film, and everyone does their part well, but there is no denying the enduring appeal of Rocket and Groot – one a talking raccoon, the other a talking tree. They shine in every scene they’re in, and are a big part of why the so-called “Guardians of the Galaxy” work so well on screen as they do. And for supposedly comedic characters, there’s a lot of drama in watching Rocket react to Groot’s death. We’re looking forward to seeing more of these guys in the sequel, out any day now. Hopefully, it’ll live up to the hype.
Col. Nathan R. Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson)
In A Few Good Men (1994 – directed by Rob Reiner)
Now, at first you might think that Jessup falls into one of the exclusions that I’ve mentioned above – that he’s the primary antagonist or even more like a co-lead of the movie. But actually, Jessup’s actual screentime is pretty short. He’s only in four scenes, and Jack Nicholson only worked for something like ten days on the movie. I’m not sure how much screen time he actually has, but it’s pretty small, all things considering. It’s just that his performance is so commanding that when we think of the movie, he is pretty much all we remember. He stars in the movie’s most powerful scene (the courtroom at the end) and has the movie’s most famous line (“You can’t handle the truth!”). He is indeed the ultimate example of the supporting character who steals the show.
Edited to Add:
Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles)
In A Few Good Men (1949 – directed by Carol Reed)
I can’t believe I forgot this one, but Orson Welles only has a few minutes of screen time in The Third Man, and only one significant dialogue scene, but he absolutely steals the show. It’s intentional, in fact, as his character (thought dead) is one they’ve been talking about throughout the film. When he is revealed as both alive and played by Orson Welles (whom we had all been waiting to appear since he showed up in the opening credits), he then gets all our attention. A great appearance in a great movie.