A great film is nothing without its cast, and a compelling lead depends upon his or her supporting cast. While most of the weight in movies is given to the main character, the actor playing the best friend, the sidekick, or the villain is often given a more difficult task than the protagonist — they must be intriguing to the audience, but aren’t allowed as much screen time to do so, and the story isn’t told from their point of view.
Some of the men on this list have been stuck in supporting roles their whole careers, while others built up to leading man status. Even some of the biggest stars have found that the meatiest parts come from playing a side character. These are performances that stood out amongst the crowd, making the film that much better, even from the sidelines. Here are 15 Roles That Should Have Won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
15. Arthur Kennedy – Bernard Castle – Trial (1955)
In the 1955 film, Trial, a jilted law professor, David Blake, begins working with a small-town lawyer on a case that turns out to be more than he bargained for. Blake discovers that the lawyer, Bernard Castle, is a leader in the Communist revolution, and has only taken on the case of a young Mexican-American boy accused of murder to fuel his own agenda. Blake is eventually able to use his knowledge of the law to have Castle found in contempt of court.
The political agenda of the plot aside, Arthur Kennedy is cunning as Bernard Castle. Kennedy plays the character as desperate, aggressive, and persistent, fixated on his goal. Castle is clearly a very talented lawyer, but Blake finds the cracks in his armor as the cool, careful leading man.
The film’s only Academy Award nomination was Kennedy’s for Best Supporting Actor, but he lost to Jack Lemmon for Mister Rogers. Kennedy, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 75 from cancer, was nominated for a total of five Oscars throughout his memorable 50-year career, but never won.
14. Dennis Hopper – Frank Booth – Blue Velvet (1986)
As far as controversial films go, Blue Velvet is on many cult favorite lists. The noir thriller follows Jeffrey Beaumont as he finds himself wrapped up in the mystery of a missing man and his son, and the suspicious characters around town. Jeffrey is drawn to the wife, Dorothy, whom he becomes intimate with, all while pursuing Sally, the police chief’s daughter.
Dorothy is also involved in a sexual relationship with Frank, and Jeffrey witnesses an encounter between the two, during which Frank exhibits some very dark sexual proclivities. Dennis Hopper as Frank is the most well-known actor in the cast, and the disturbing yet fantastical role is said to have revitalized his career.
Though director David Lynch received an Academy nod, Hopper was not nominated for his supporting role. In fact, Hopper’s only acting nomination from the Academy was for his role in Hoosiers the year prior to Blue Velvet. He had also been previously nominated for Best Original Screenplay for co-writing Easy Rider. Hopper passed away in 2010 from prostate cancer.
13. James Earl Jones – Terence Mann – Field of Dreams (1989)
Quintessential late-’80s classic Field of Dreams revolves around a struggling farmer, Ray, who builds a baseball diamond on his cornfield and communicates with sports legends of the past. He soon befriends author Terence Mann, and the two work together to fulfill the whispered prophecy, “If you build it, they will come.”
Terence Mann is played by accomplished actor James Earl Jones, who comes through as the signature tough, disgruntled man who eventually warms up, and becomes a catalyst for the final outcome. Mann gives the most powerful speech of the film, painting a picture for Ray about the constant comfort of the sport and assuring him that people will support his venture.
Field of Dreams was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. But despite his impressive career, Jones has only been nominated for an Oscar once, for his lead role in The Great White Hope, the film adaptation of the play of the same name. Jones received an Honorary Academy Award in 2011, but there’s still time for him to win an Oscar for a future role.
12. Ralph Fiennes – Amon Göth – Schindler’s List (1993)
The groundbreaking and world-renowned film, Schindler’s List, tells the semi-true story of a German man who becomes a hero to a group of Polish Jewish when he saves them from death at the hands of the Nazis. Liam Neeson plays the leading man, Oskar Schindler, who develops a relationship with officer Amon Göth and tricks him in order to rescue some of the prisoners.
Ralph Fiennes was a relative unknown at the time of his casting, but director Steven Spielberg said that he saw a subtle evil in the actor’s eyes. Fiennes studied up on the real Göth, and was so convincing that an actual Holocaust survivor was scared by him when he was in costume. Fiennes later confessed that the role “had a profoundly disturbing effect on him.”
The film swept many of the major categories at the Academy Awards, but despite his nomination, Fiennes lost the Oscar that year to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive. The actor earned a Best Actor nomination for his role in The English Patient in 1996, but has yet to win an Oscar. Still, Fiennes has a history of choosing powerful roles, so there’ll likely be more chances for him to take one home.
11. Samuel L. Jackson – Jules Winnfield – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Widely considered one of the greatest films of the last 30 years — if not of all time — Pulp Fiction garnered much attention from audiences and critics alike. Quentin Tarantino’s circular narrative follows hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in their violent dealings at the hands of their gangster boss.
The part of Jules, a spiritual man who grows increasingly tired of his life of crime, renouncing it at the end of the movie, was played by Samuel L. Jackson. He was Tarantino’s first choice for the role, but didn’t win the director over until his second audition. Jules’ bible quotes and feisty dialogue are part of what make him memorable, and he’s likely the most quoted character in oft-quoted film.
Jackson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role, but lost to Martin Landau for Ed Wood. The actor’s career, both before and since, is monumental, having appeared in over 100 films in 45 years. Despite this, he has only been nominated for the one Oscar. It’s long past time that Jackson be honored by the Academy.
10. Alan Rickman – Colonel Brandon – Sense and Sensibility (1995)
While Hollywood has a love-hate relationship with adaptations of classic novels and plays, Sense and Sensibility fared well for a period drama. Based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, and adapted for the screen by (and starring) actress Emma Thompson, the film depicts two sisters and their struggles with love.
Marianne, the younger of the two, immediately catches the eye of a kind and wealthy man, Colonel Brandon, played by Alan Rickman. This was one of Rickman’s few romantic lead roles, and showed a more gentle, sympathetic side of him that wasn’t often seen on screen. Rickman later became best known for his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise.
Sense and Sensibility garnered several Academy nominations, but only Emma Thompson won for Best Adapted Screenplay. Rickman did, however, win the BAFTA for his performance. Sadly, Rickman was never nominated for an Oscar, and passed away in 2016 from pancreatic cancer.
9. John Goodman – Walter Sobchak – The Big Lebowski (1998)
As commercial failures go, The Big Lebowski has far surpassed expectations, becoming a beloved cult classic. The complicated plot involving a case of mistaken identity, kidnapping, drugs, and a whole lot more is primarily enjoyable due to the hilarious cast of characters, specifically The Dude and his best pal, Walter.
Walter Sobchak, played expertly by John Goodman, is a Vietnam War veteran with a few screws loose. He convinces his laid-back pal to take action, resulting in the twisted events that follow. Goodman, well-known for his leading role in the TV sitcom Roseanne at this time, shows a grittier side to himself as Walter. His frequent collaborations with the Coen brothers have also demonstrated his range over the years.
Despite numerous acclaimed roles, Goodman has never been nominated for an Academy Award. He did, however, appear in back-to-back Best Picture winners The Artist and Argo. As he continues to appear in multiple films per year, it’s likely that Goodman will eventually get the Oscar recognition he has long-deserved.
8. Ed Harris – Richard “Richie” Brown – The Hours (2002)
In a film led by and grounded in the emotions and trial of three women, Ed Harris’ role is unique. The Hours follows Clarissa in the present day, Laura in the 1950s, and Virginia in the 1920s– all of whom are linked by feelings of depression and how they relate to Virginia’s book Mrs. Dalloway. Harris portrays Richard, a poet who is dying of AIDs, and good friend of Clarissa.
While the film is truly about the women and their pain, Richard plays the unique role of connecting Laura and Clarissa: he is Laura’s child, and was deeply affected by her depression and ultimate decision to leave her family. In a final powerful moment, Richard tells Clarissa how much he loves her, and rolls out the window to his death.
The remarkably moving role earned Harris the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but he lost to Chris Cooper for Adaptation. This was Harris’ third nomination in the category and fourth overall, following nods for Apollo 13, The Truman Show, and his star performance in Pollock.
Harris continues to act in multiple movies each year in addition to moving performances on TV (see last year’s Westworld) and stage, so him finally taking home an Oscar is likely not far off.
7. Ken Watanabe – Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto – The Last Samurai (2003)
When retired Civil War Army Captain Nathan Algren is recruited to train imperial soldiers in Japan in The Last Samurai, he gets a lot more than he bargained for. After his life is spared by Samurai leader Lord Katsumoto, he learns about and develops an appreciation for the Japanese culture they’re working to protect from the imposing Westernization of the 19th century.
Ken Watanabe, an accomplished Japanese actor, took the role of Katsumoto with no other American film credits to his name. Rather than the usual hardened villain, Katsumoto is a sympathetic character, and the perspective of the film quickly shows that, despite his Samurai title, he’s not the antagonist of this story. The role is a nuanced and compelling one, played expertly by Watanabe.
For his performance, Watanabe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; only the fourth Japanese actor to be considered in the category. Though he lost to Tim Robbins for Mystic River, Watanabe continues to act in both American and Japanese films, as well as on stage, and was last year became the first Japanese actor to be nominated for the Best Performance By a Leading Actor Tony for his role in the 2015 Broadway revival of The King and I.
6. Paul Giamatti – Joe Gould – Cinderella Man (2004)
An uplifting tale of hardship and perseverance, Cinderella Man was tailor-made for the Academy. Boxer James Braddock is injured, but returns to the sport after his family and many others fall on hard times during the great depression. Helping him along the way is his friend and former manager, Joe Gould. Played by Paul Giamatti, Gould gets him back into the ring and encourages him.
Giamatti has made an entire career out of playing the manager/friend of the protagonist. Cinderella Man is a great example of what he does best: dramatic, convincing speeches, snarky side comments, and a surprising balance of grit and humor.
After being harshly snubbed by the Academy for Sideways, Giamatti was the only actor nominated from Cinderella Man. He lost to George Clooney for Syriana, and has not been nominated since. But the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was practically made for Giamatti, so it’s only a matter of time before he scoops one up.
5. Adam Sandler – Charlie Fineman – Reign Over Me (2007)
An arguably underrated drama, Reign Over Me starred Don Cheadle, who had recently been nominated for an Oscar for Hotel Rwanda, and Adam Sandler, a comedic actor who had only recently begun dipping his toes into more serious roles. It’s no surprise, then that the film was largely ignored, despite its moving premise: Alan Johnson, a hard-working dentist and family man, becomes reacquainted with his college roommate, who has begun to descend into madness following the death of his family on 9/11.
Sandler portrays Charlie Fineman, who lost his wife, three daughters, and their dog, when their plane was used to attack the World Trade Centers. The role takes Sandler’s twisted comedy and gives it a powerful purpose: He shows the real toll that a devastating loss can take on an otherwise sane person. Through Alan, the audience slowly learns what it means to be there for someone, and the various ways in which we react to tragedy.
Neither Sandler nor the film were considered by the Academy. Since Reign Over Me, Sandler has mostly stayed away from drama, returning to his comedy roots and his production company Happy Madison. It just goes to show how easy it is to become pigeonholed in Hollywood.
4. Mark Ruffalo – Paul Hatfield – The Kids Are All Right (2010)
An enjoyable dramedy with exemplary performances, The Kids Are All Right depicts a couple, Nic and Jules, and their teenage children, whose lives are disrupted when they meet their sperm donor and the kids begin to see him as a father figure. Meanwhile, Jules begins a sexual relationship with Paul, the man in question.
Even as the “bad guy,” Mark Ruffalo could never be a true villain. Paul never has poor intentions, but begins to fall for Jules and imagine what it could be like to really be a father. Ruffalo plays him as bright, kind, and supportive, but a little unsympathetic, as he’s unable to truly see the anguish he has caused.
The film received numerous accolades, including four nominations from the Academy, but Ruffalo lost the Best Supporting Actor to Christian Bale for The Fighter. Though this was his first nomination, it wasn’t his last — he’s since been nominated twice more in the same category, for Foxcatcher and Spotlight. The way his career is taking off, it doesn’t seem farfetched to speculate that Ruffalo have an Oscar soon enough.
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Lancaster Dodd – The Master (2012)
Inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the practice of Scientology (among many other things), Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed The Master, the story of a broken, angry man who, in his distress, begins to follow the teachings of a cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The late Hoffman’s role as Lancaster Dodd is likely not the strangest he ever played, but is certainly one of the most compelling. The actor expertly embodies a charismatic leader who manages to brainwash those around him, while crafting his own rules and beliefs. Few other actors could tackle such a complicated role with such apparent ease.
Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Dodd, losing out to Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained — an equally captivating and psychotic role, but also, the actor’s second time winning the category in four years. Fortunately, Hoffman had won for his starring role in Capote years prior, so when he passed away in 2014, it was not without Academy recognition.
2. Barkhad Abdi – Abduwali Muse – Captain Phillips (2013)
If there’s one thing Tom Hanks loves, it’s staring in biopics. Captain Phillips stars the acclaimed actor as the commander of a ship that is taken over by Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse. Phillips is captured by Muse and his right-hand man, Nour Najee, and begins to discover more about why they are forced to make money this way.
Barkhad Abdi is intense as Muse. He conveys the leader’s fear in small glances, while overall maintaining his composure over his crew. The first-time actor was cast after a worldwide search, and was surprised by the universal acclaim for his performance.
Abdi was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to Jared Leto’s phenomenal performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Coincidentally, Abdi will next appear alongside Leto, in this year’s much-anticipated sequel Blade Runner 2049. Abdi’s acting choices in the next several years are of vital importance, as the steam from a breakout role tends to die down without another pivotal performance to reaffirm talent.
1. Idris Elba – Commandment – Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Based on the novel of the same name, Beasts of No Nation beautifully tells a haunting story of child soldiers in West Africa who are drugged, raped, and brainwashed by NDF leaders who force them to fight. After Agu’s family is killed, he is taken in by a troop, led by a leader known only as the Commandment.
Idris Elba is compelling as the Commandment. He shows a descent in demeanor and character — in the beginning he’s very clean cut, but as the regime falls apart, so does he. The Commandment’s domineering presence over Agu and the others is undeniably scary, and Elba captures this fully.
Though Elba’s television career had been most recognizable up until this point, it was surprising that he did not receive an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this role. Elba has in recent years taken to commercial franchises with his performances in Star Trek Beyond, the upcoming reprisal of his role as Heimdall in Thor: Ragnarok, and the leading role in the adaptation of Steven King’s The Dark Tower. Hopefully he’ll be looking at an Oscar nomination sooner rather than later.
The Academy Awards will air Sunday, February 26th @ 7PM EST.