A movie is only as good as the sum of its parts and 2017 was full of supporting performances that demonstrate the thankless yet essential role supporting characters play in a film’s success.
With awards season in full swing, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and glamour of the lead performances. You know the ones – those showy, demanding performances with the show-stopping scenes and heartfelt monologues. No one ever doubts or undersells the importance of those performances.
While those lead actors do their work, supporting performers toil to build a world for the story, adding greater conflict and emotional stakes. These supporting roles make up the best friends, the family, the adversaries, and more. They make things more complicated, more complete, adding an essential layer to a film. The strength of a film’s ensemble is crucial to the success of a film.
In honor of those supporting performances, look back at the wide variety of incredible supporting performances this year, many of which deservedly stole the spotlight.
Best Friends Forever
There is no underselling the importance of a best friend and several of the year’s movies made that point loud and clear. The intimacy of one’s relationship with a best friend gives the audience the opportunity to see a protagonist in a different light. A best friend provides a foil that knows and understands the protagonist better than the audience.
For example, Beanie Feldstein as Julie in Lady Bird gave us the opportunity to see Lady Bird herself in a more relaxed, less confrontational environment. She brought out a softer side in Lady Bird, while also providing an important contrast to Lady Bird’s story. The film subtly crafts an arc for Julie that is all her own.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip gave hands down the best comedic performance of the year as the wild and charming Dina. Haddish may not be the film’s lead, but she stole the show with her unparalleled comedic timing and attitude. The brilliance in Haddish’s performance, beyond the comedy itself, is that she’s able to show off how different friends can be from one another and the strengths that they derive from those differences.
In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water both Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins play best friends to Sally Hawkins’ character Elisa. They demonstrate a deep compassion for their friend, taking dangerous risks for the sake of her happiness. These relationships function in a way that is just as moving as the film’s central romance.
O’Shea Jackson in Ingrid Goes West and LilRel Howrey in Get Out are both stars in their own right, grounding their films in a very specific and similar way. Jackson demonstrates a warm charm amidst the film’s deep dive into the protagonist’s neuroses, bringing a necessary calm to an otherwise chaotic story. Howrey’s performance operates similarly, but uses a dose of comedy to contrast the horrifying events in the film. Both Jackson and Howrey try, in their own ways, to save their lead counterparts and do so in a way that brings an important layer of empathy to both films.
Moms played an undeniably important role in this year’s supporting performances. In fact, they were so crucial and the performances so outstanding that three of the biggest best supporting actress Oscar front-runners play the role of a mother.
Mary J. Blige’s performance as Florence Jackson in Mudbound is a deeply felt, controlled performance akin to a mighty iceberg – revealing only a fraction of its immensity. It’s a performance steeped in nuance that connects with audiences due to Blige’s strength as a performer.
Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck, a film that’s unfortunately fallen beneath the radar during the fall movie season, takes a small role to enormous heights. She does not have a single line of verbal dialogue, but still communicates her emotions to the audience with ease through her expressions and body language. The film’s climax is almost entirely based on the emotional catharsis she communicates with her eyes.
Laurie Metcalf’s performance as Marion in Lady Bird is another of the year’s strongest supporting performances. She plays, with remarkable precision, the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter. She channels all the expectations and disappointments that accompany parenthood in a way that is simultaneously empathetic and critical.
In I, Tonya, Allison Janney plays Tonya Harding’s abusive mother LaVona. Despite the film’s rather insensitive approach to domestic abuse, Janney brings strength to the role that elevates the material and charms the audience with a dark wit.
Bria Vinaite’s performance in The Florida Project also falls under the complicated mom category, with a performance that captures the difficult position of a mother struggling to provide for her child despite difficult and even dangerous circumstances.
Edie Falco in Landline as well as both Holly Hunter and Zenobia Shroff in The Big Sick round out the list of movie moms that gave stellar supporting performances. All of these women channeled the complexity of motherhood without allowing it to be their sole defining characteristic.
Three supporting performances this year took what might have been one-dimensional characters and turned them into fully fleshed women defined by far more than their roles as sisters to their respective protagonists.
Despite being almost entirely overlooked, Elizabeth Marvel’s performance as Jean is the standout in The Meyerowitz Stories. She plays the role with a dry humor and subtle solemnity that feels lived in and genuine. While the film chooses to focus on her brothers, she is constantly in the margins giving off a remarkable presence that at times eclipses the other performances.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Phantom Thread, Lesley Manville delivers a cold and steely performance as Cyril, the sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ character. Her performance is a master class in loaded glances and subtle movements that speak volumes. Her coldness is wrapped in an air of professionalism and authority that makes her a formidable partner alongside her brother.
Abby Quinn plays Jenny Slate’s sister in Landline. Rather than attempt to match Slate’s charm – which is almost an impossible feat – Quinn forges her own path. The sisters make for a perfectly odd couple that play off one another in a way that feels familiar and lived in. Quinn’s own strength as a dramatic actor gives her plot an added flair.
While the silver screen was full of moms and sisters and best friends that warmed our hearts, there were plenty of adversaries that reveled in their wicked, malicious ways.
In Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton played larger-than-life villains. In a platinum blonde wig and braces, Swinton played twins Lucy and Nancy Mirando – two halves of a huge corporation with corrupt intentions. Gyllenhaal plays Johnny Wilcox, a washed up TV personality and zoologist. With short shorts and a thick mustache, Gyllenhaal pushes it to the limit, filling up the screen with his wild, villainous performances.
In Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, arguably the most controversial movie of the year, Michelle Pfeiffer delivers a piercing and severe performance as an unwelcomed houseguest. She arrives at the home of the film’s protagonist, Jennifer Lawrence, and just won’t leave. Her presence there, which begins as only mildly discomforting, escalates to unimaginable levels. Pfeiffer channels a cool composure while ushering in chaos to tear the home apart. She is easily one of the highlights of the movie.
There was a lot to love in Blade Runner 2049, and perhaps the best thing in this sequel was Sylvia Hoeks’ performance as Luv. She is a fierce adversary that demonstrates superiority over those who get in her way. What’s so remarkable about her performance is that she is able to capture Luv’s controlled ferocity and her inner emotional conflict.
Finally, Alien: Covenant gave us Michael Fassbender playing not one, but two roles. Although one of them is a trusty sidekick, the other turns out to be quite the villain. Ridley Scott has worked to make Fassbender’s characters the heart and soul of the Alien franchise and Michael Fassbender is up to the task.
Several actors this year delivered more than just one great supporting performance. Nicole Kidman had an unbelievably great year, starring in two movies that premiered at Cannes and then two TV shows – one of which earned her an Emmy. Her performances in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Beguiled showcased her range as a performer and her ability to inhabit any role with confidence and individuality.
Alongside Kidman in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Barry Keoghan, delivering one of the most intimidating performances of the year. Capturing a strange, frenetic energy, Keoghan makes himself into a villain without raising a hand against anyone. His performance in Dunkirk, while quite small, still manages to make an impression due to Keoghan’s performance.
After earning an Oscar nomination for Manchester by the Sea, Lucas Hedges appears in two of the biggest Best Picture contenders of the year. His performances in both Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri capture Hedges’ brand of gentle and genuine empathy. He retains a sort of innocence that feels honest and real, elevating roles that might otherwise seem minor or forgettable.
Riley Keough showed up in both Logan Lucky and It Comes at Night this year. Her role in Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky gave her the opportunity to have a little fun. In a bright pink leather jacket and white cowboy boots, Keough doubled as a hair dresser and an expert on cars, all while sporting a southern accent. In the psychological horror film It Comes at Night, Keough plays a mother desperately trying to protect her family. It’s a harrowing performance that breaks through in a film that is too often weighed down by its own bleakness.
On top of starring as the lead in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Colin Farrell appeared in both The Beguiled and Roman J. Israel, Esq. In the former, he stars as an injured but desirable Union solider during the Civil War who finds his way into an all-girls boarding school. In the latter, he plays a high-powered attorney struggling against unexpected challenges. Both roles demand Farrell play in a morally gray area, one in which he vacillates between kindness and cruelty, strength and weakness.
Of all the supporting actors this year, perhaps no one worked harder than Michael Stuhlbarg, who gave phenomenal performances in three of the year’s best movies: Call Me by Your Name, The Post, and The Shape of Water. All three films feature Stuhlbarg delivering his winning blend of generosity and wit. It’s impossible to deny just how much of himself Stuhlbarg puts into his performances and the payoff is phenomenal.
All the rest
There are, of course, those performances that defy clean categorization, but left their mark on this year’s films all the same.
Take Kirsten Dunst in The Beguiled, who captures such an identifiable, genuine sadness in her performance. Every gesture, every glance, every movement feels both purposeful and contributes to her characterization in small ways. So much of the film depends on her ability to channel both profound sadness and hope in a way that is recognizable to the audience. She rises to the challenge time and time again and it’s a wonder to behold.
Despite being one of the smallest supporting roles of the year, Betty Gabriel’s performance in Get Out left a lasting impression on audiences. In extreme close up, she conveys the nightmare that exists at the heart of the film, her eyes welling with tears with a strained smile stretched across her face. It’s a moment of master class acting that raises the stakes of the film in a big way.
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project captures the empathic energy of Sean Baker’s film, making him the perfect conduit for the story’s message. Hong Chau shines in Downsizing, a film undeserving of her performance as an inquisitive, stubborn, and adventurous woman facing incredible odds. Patrick Stewart carries the weight of a long, overworked franchise and finds new ways to connect with audiences. Jason Mitchell balances the weight of the past with the hope for the future in Mudbound.
Of all these supporting performances, Buddy Duress’ in Good Time best captures the true essence of all that a supporting actor can and should be. His character’s arrival and reveal in the story throws a wrench in the plans of the film’s protagonist, making him essential. He adds a dynamic to the film that both complements the chaotic atmosphere, while remaining distinctly separate from it.
Duress provides a counterweight to the protagonist, acting as both a friend and an adversary, a companion and an obstacle. Good Time refuses to allow Duress’ character to be just one thing; he is neither a cheap addition for laughs nor a simple plot twist. He is a fully formed character that supports the story in meaningful ways, remaining independent and memorable in his own right.
If you look at the nominees and winners of the supporting actor and actress categories at the Oscars, you’re sure to find performances that don’t quite make sense. It’s a shame that the wealth of incredible supporting performances are often cast aside to make room for lead performances that happen to get coded as supporting. This year in particular, supporting performances stole the spotlight and deserve to be recognized.