5 Movies Made Better by Supporting Performances

By D.G. McCabe

I haven’t done a list post in a while, and after watching Cold Mountain (2003) the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about movies that are completely altered by the performance of one supporting actor.  Here are some examples that come to mind.

Cold Mountain (2003) – Renee Zellweger

Cold Mountain isn’t a great film.   The story of Jude Law’s one dimensional soldier trailing through the wilderness to return to his two dimensional sweetheart, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) is about as original as white bread and just as flavorful.  So why is it worth watching? The answer: Renee Zellweger.

Zellweger won her first, and so far only, Oscar for playing Ruby Thewes.  When Ada is having trouble surviving on her own during the Civil War, a neighbor sends Ruby to her assistance.  Ruby is tough, smart, and determined.  She turns Ada from a somewhat helpless southern belle into a tough and independent woman.  She also has a knack for pointing out the ridiculousness of the main story at the exact right moment, giving the movie a sense of humor it is otherwise lacking.

American Hustle (2013) – Jennifer Lawrence

Now that last year’s award season hype has passed, can we agree that American Hustle isn’t that great of a movie?  If we get past Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale’s physical transformations, are their performances really that groundbreaking?  I would say no. American Hustle would only have about as much depth as a decent, old Hollywood caper if we were left with only them and Amy Adams.  Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence is in this movie.

Lawrence plays Rosalyn, the estranged wife of Bale’s character.  In a film with an overabundance of slick characters, Rosalyn is blunt and unpredictable.  She certainly wouldn’t make it as a hustler or government agent (the other characters).  This is great fun for the audience since it provides us with much needed comic relief in an otherwise joyless film.  Think of it this way – American Hustle is classified as a comedy, but without Jennifer Lawrence, how many moments of actual comedy would there be in it?

Batman Forever (1995) – Jim Carrey

The first two performances on our list changed average movies into Oscar nominees.  Jim Carrey’s performance as the Riddler in Batman Forever changed the fate of the film industry. For all intents and purposes, Batman Forever is just as bad of a film as Batman and Robin (1997).  The movie’s one saving grace is that Carrey’s Riddler is at once psychotic and hammy, but shows a dark side that would put the portrayal at home in the later Christopher Nolan adaptations.

It is probably Carrey’s performance which stood between Batman Forever being a box office smash and a disaster.  Since it was the former, the studio green-lit Batman and Robin.  If Batman Forever was a bomb, it may have been quickly written off and Hollywood would have moved on to the next, probably mediocre, Batman project.  But two weak films in a row resulted in an eight year lull, which allowed room for Nolan’s grittier interpretation of the character to set the standard for serious superhero movies.  So next time you’re enjoying 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” you should thank Jim Carrey for turning a horrible movie into merely a bad one.

Burn After Reading (2008) – Brad Pitt

Burn After Reading is sometimes ranked in the realm of the Coen Brothers’ better comedies (think The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)).  This critical success would have been impossible without Brad Pitt.  The movie’s plot is disjointed, its characters are unlikeable, and the resolution of its story is disappointing.  However, it’s hilarious, and Brad Pitt is the main reason why.

We’re used to seeing Brad Pitt as a quiet hero (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)), a suave hero (Ocean’s Eleven (2001)), a macho hero (Troy (2004)),  or a regular-guy hero (Moneyball (2011)).  We rarely see him as a dimwitted sidekick.  Thankfully in Burn After Reading, Pitt sells it, and I mean really sells it.  You can tell he’s having a blast as the brainless, clueless Chad Feldheimer, and by extension, so is the audience.

Animal House (1978) – John Belushi

Yes – the most iconic role in one of the most influential comedies of the 1970’s is not a leading role.  Its an ensemble cast sure, but to the extent that lead roles exist in Animal House they belong to Otter (Tim Matheson) and Boon (Peter Riegert).  John Belushi’s Blutto is never really developed as a character, and instead is just a vehicle for gags.

But what gags they are.  Belushi took Harold Ramis, Chris Miller and Doug Kenney’s script and turned it into a landmark of American comedy.  Sure the other characters have their moments, but as countless dorm-room walls around America can attest to, this movie was, is, and always will be Belushi’s.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe