By Hannah Lodge
Traditionally, supporting actor performances of note – and award consideration – are meaty roles that border on being co-leads. Looking back on the last several years of Oscar winners, you’ll see a long string of these kinds of performances, like Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” or Mahershala Ali in “Green Book,” that feature a significant amount of screen time and a measured performance from the actor inhabiting the part. 2021 may finally buck that trend. In a field with few clear and traditional favorites, smaller, more true supporting roles are raising eyebrows amongst awards pundits. From blockbusters like “Dune” to ensemble pieces like “House of Gucci,” actors are proving that you don’t need a considerable amount of screentime to pack a punch in your performance. While there are many to choose from, I want to focus on four standout supporting performances from this year, all of whom are household names who have starred in Marvel and DC franchises to boot but are garnering strong notices for their work. Instead of making their mark with leading or weighty supporting roles, these four actors stole the show with significantly smaller parts than they traditionally receive. And all four did so with an unexpected, chaotic level of energy and gusto that stayed with audiences and made us cheer for the deaths of their more traditional leading man personas in hopes that we’ll see more layered character actor work from them in the future.
Bradley Cooper – “Licorice Pizza”
Paul Thomas Anderson rarely misses, and it’s no surprise that “Licorice Pizza” is one of my favorite films of the year. Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman as friends with mutual respect and a considerable age gap stopping them from becoming more, this coming-of-age film is an ode to 70s Hollywood and growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Dripping with nostalgia, there are plenty of performances here to recommend, with both Haim and Hoffman as the break-out successes of the year for their work here.
But of the many aspects in “Licorice Pizza” to recommend, the one with the best impact-per-minute of screen time has to be Bradley Cooper’s performance as the real-life figure Jon Peters, a film producer and former hairdresser who dated the likes of Barbra Streisand and Pamela Anderson. Cooper plays Peters as a Hollywood insider who has enough ego to feel like he’s invincible and who has consumed enough cocaine to convince everyone else he is, too. Every moment Cooper’s on screen – which isn’t many, maybe 10 minutes tops – he completely dominates the film, stealing the show entirely by the film’s end despite the small limitations of his role. Even with such a short amount of screentime, we’ve seen Supporting performances such as Beatrice Straight in “Network” go on to win an Oscar. Given Cooper’s love within the industry, I think there’s enough material here to put him in contention for Best Supporting Actor this year.
Jared Leto – “House of Gucci”
Based on real events, “House of Gucci” stars Adam Driver and Lady Gaga as Maurizio Gucci, heir to the Gucci fashion kingdom, and his wife, Patrizia Reggiani, who tries to manipulate the business as much as she can, even when it means cutting down members of her own family.
While I can’t say “House of Gucci” was a great film (there were several long stretches I struggled with), there were still moments where I was thoroughly entertained. Surprisingly, the most enjoyed sequences revolved around an actor I generally loathe otherwise: Jared Leto. Arguably the most familiar with the traditional “supporting” actor role on this list, Leto has recently made a name for himself in high-profile parts such as the Joker in “Suicide Squad” and will be seen soon in the leading role of Michael Morbius in the long-delayed “Morbius.” But here, he takes a step back to a smaller and more humbling part.
In his performance as shirked and overlooked family member Paolo Gucci, Leto, as he usually does, goes all-in, complete with ridiculous makeup and prosthetics. But instead of bringing the neglected, Fredo-esque energy to the film that it feels like the script demands, Leto goes full-on garish cartoon and shows up for a part in the 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” Riffing with Al Pacino, playing to the rafters, and bringing an unexpected and borderline outrageous comedy to the role; it shocks me to my core to say that Jared Leto was my favorite thing about the whole movie, for better or worse. His performance will likely be divisive enough to make him a dark horse in awards races, but what he did here works against all odds and elevates an otherwise mixed film which is a significant achievement.
Ben Affleck – “The Last Duel”
“House of Gucci” and “The Last Duel” are both Ridley Scott-directed efforts that reversed my expectations this year. I’ve written more about “The Last Duel,” but suffice it to say it looked like the kind of film that I’d enjoy as a guilty pleasure at best in contrast to the awards-worthy nature of “House of Gucci.” Their release schedule and promotional material indicate the studios thought so, too. As you might have guessed, my feelings were the opposite.
But one thing I especially didn’t see coming was the impact co-writer Ben Affleck would have in his small role as Count Pierre, a cousin of the King. Affleck’s take on the Count is akin to a 1300s-era spoiled frat boy. Affleck brings a surprising mimbo energy: “My family is, like, super powerful and well connected, and have you seen how hot the ladies are at my awesome parties? Anyway, let’s do shots!” It’s a bizarrely casual choice for a role in a dramatic period piece. Still, Affleck brings small bursts of levity to an otherwise obviously heavy story in both tone and subject, making him a clear standout amongst this year’s Supporting Actors. He also has another more traditionally awards-baity supporting role in George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar” as a cool uncle, but I prefer his more arrogant and loose work here.
Jason Momoa – “Dune”
Although it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be mentioned as an awards contender, leading man Jason Momoa’s take on a role I expected to be much blander in director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” turned out to be one of the more memorable and lovable supporting parts I’ve seen any A-list actor deliver this year.
“Dune” is a triumphantly cohesive assembly of a very difficult to adapt novel by Frank Herbert. The film is full of the lush visuals we’ve come to expect from Villeneuve, and a plethora of successful performances help to elevate the material into something more commercial and enjoyable than initially expected. Of a cast filled with all-stars like Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Timothée Chalamet, and more, Momoa’s role is the one that sneaks up on you to prove you don’t need the most screen time to be the most visible character. Starring as trusted family confidante and famed fighter Duncan Idaho, it’s not precisely that Momoa is stretching his artistic range here. Instead, he brings the exact “My MAN!” feel-good bro energy of “Aquaman” and repurposes it for a much smaller part in a more serious film. And somehow, it works. The warmth Momoa brings to the part helps craft one of the more meaningful connections and relationships with Paul Attredies, arguably stealing the show and proving once again his physical abilities in each of his sword-fighting scenes. If you’re a “What We Do in the Shadows” fan, know that Duncan Idaho is the Jackie Daytona of “Dune.”
What are some of your favorite Supporting Actor performances of the year? Do you think any of the performances mentioned above will be nominated for awards this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Hannah and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @hjlodge