Supporting characters are there in film to move the protagonist’s tale forward to some form of satisfying conclusion, and for the most part, that’s exactly how they’ve functioned over the years. However, in some cases, the “support” can take over for the lead star and steer the ship themselves. Consequently, you may end up wanting to spend more time with them than the film's supposed hero.
While we’re sure there are more than just 13 Supporting Characters Who Took Over Their Movie, the following selections represent memorable players, who, either through the needs of the narrative or the strength of their performances, made their flicks all about them, and made us love them for it.
Be warned: SPOILERS will be revealed for many of the entries on our list.
13 Dignam - The Departed
Martin Scorsese’s Americanized remake of the popular Infernal Affairs Hong Kong films centers on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy as he goes undercover into the heart of a South Boston-based Irish gang in hopes of taking down kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and his mole, who works in his department. That mole is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), whose character serves as a wonderful parallel to Leo's main character.
The one person none of these characters count on is the foul-mouthed Dignam, a crazed lawman with his own sense of justice unafraid of risking his career to get the bad guys. Mark Wahlberg contrasts the noble aspects of his character with an almost villainous extremism that you have to respect within the confines of the film’s 151 minutes. He’s awful, hilarious, and pure, and his appearance in The Departed’s closing moments has a way of making all right with the world in spite of the insane events that we'd just witnessed.
12 Dicky Eklund - The Fighter
This time around, it isn’t Mark Wahlberg stealing the spotlight, but rather he is having it stolen from him by a tour de force performance from Christian Bale. The film, which dramatizes the lives and sibling dynamic between real-life fighter Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Bale), is noteworthy not just for being a well-made picture, but also for the transformation that Bale goes through during the film's runtime.
His character morphs from trashy addict, who cares only about himself, into a more focused and supportive sibling intent on helping his little brother achieve what he never could because of his personal demons. Bale's Eklund makes stunning transformations, both mentally and physically, and by the end of the film, it is apparent that we’ve seen the best individual performance in a boxing film since Robert DeNiro in 1980’s Raging Bull.
11 Rocky Balboa - Creed
It may seem sacrilegious to call Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) a supporting character in his own franchise, but if you leave history at the door and go into this film for what it is — a tale about a hungry young fighter, who fights his way up from extreme poverty, into extreme privilege, and feels the overwhelming pressures of both, all because he was the accidental son of a heavyweight legend — it’s clear that this is the start of something new rather than the continuation of something old.
At the same time, Stallone makes the most of that relieved pressure that comes from being letting someone else be the star and turns in his most honest, touching performance in years. (Likely since the 1976 original, though he was awfully good in Cop Land, too.) While Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Adonis Creed, and Ryan Coogler’s style fits the previous six films like a glove, Stallone stole the show on his way to his third Oscar nomination.
10 Jack Sparrow - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Johnny Depp never really takes a supporting role if he can help it. Whenever you put the guy on screen, he’s bringing his A-game no matter where he ends up on the cast sheet. Sometimes it can be a bit much and he can go overboard, but more often than not, he succeeds. With the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, slated for a 2017 release, it may seem hard to believe that Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was originally intended to be an eccentric supporting player — an ally to the film's hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as the latter seeks to rescue his fiancee from undead pirates in 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Depp stole every scene he was in, and became such an iconic figure that the three movies to come after — Dead Man’s Chest, At World’s End, and On Stranger Tides — revolved almost completely around him. Let’s face it, if it weren’t for what Depp did with Captain Jack, we wouldn’t still be looking forward to these films 14 years later.
9 Tommy DeVito - Goodfellas
While Goodfellas is Ray Liotta’s film — it’s told from the perspective of his character, Henry Hill, a real-life mobster-turned-FBI informant whose life story became the basis of the 1990 Martin Scorsese joint — it's Joe Pesci who's the real scene-stealer here.
Pesci plays Tommy DeVito, a not-too-fictionalized version of real-life mobster Tommy DeSimone. When questioned about how close Pesci came to the character, Hill said that the portrayal was “90 to 99 percent” accurate, which says two things: a) “Little Joe” is a fantastic actor when he wants to be; and b) Tommy DeSimone would have been a horrifying person to know in reality.
The brutality Pesci wields in the character makes its stamp in three key scenes, the first being that famous “you think I’m funny” improvisation between him and Liotta in which we get an uncomfortable glimpse at how unhinged he is; the second is when he carelessly shoots a kid nicknamed “Spider” in the foot after verbally humiliating him; and the third is the heartbreaking moment when Spider talks back to him and gets shot multiple times for his courage. The real-life Tommy may have supposedly been an massively built man (not exactly words you'd use to describe Pesci) but we think Scorsese can rest easy with this out-of-this-world casting decision.
8 Samuel Gerard - The Fugitive
Tommy Lee Jones has always been an active guy, so when he stepped into the role of Samuel Gerard for 1993’s adaptation of the classic television series The Fugitive, he wasn’t exactly making a comeback. Still, the role feels like a pivotal one in his career because it was his chance to shine on a big stage. Prior to it, he had either slummed it in movies like Fire Birds, taken a back seat in others like The Package and JFK, or classed up television productions like Lonesome Dove. He wasn’t what one could call an “A-lister.”
Then, he got his big chance to star opposite Harrison Ford, and not only did he rise with that tide of star power, he earned rave reviews and surpassed Ford’s performance. The film was a critical and box office hit thanks in large part to what he brought to it, and it also earned his character a surprise sequel five years later with U.S. Marshals.
7 Inigo Montoya - The Princess Bride
If you’re strictly going by the cast list and the narrative drive of the story, then Westley (Cary Elwes) is the main character of William Goldman’s novel The Princess Bride and the 1987 Rob Reiner film based upon it. But something in Mandy Patinkin’s performance as the outlaw Inigo Montoya rallies you to his cause — that cause being a lifelong hunt for revenge against the six-fingered man who killed his father when he was just 11 years old.
Montoya wants for little else than to confront his father’s killer and inform him to prepare for death, and eventually gets his chance in one of the more memorable and crowd-pleasing duels that you’ll ever watch. Whenever a line spoken by a supporting character becomes the single most memorable thing from the film, you know you’ve got a show stealer on your hands.
6 John Vukovich - To Live and Die in L.A.
William Friedkin’s 1985 action-thriller To Live and Die in L.A. has a terrific cast and one Bullitt-caliber car chase that will burn the rest of the film into your memory. It stars William Petersen (Manhunter, CSI) as Chance, a determined Secret Service agent bent on revenge. His target: Masters (Willem Dafoe at his creepy best), a murderous counterfeiter responsible for killing his partner. Taking a backseat to all of this, however, is John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance’s new partner.
What happens in the film’s climax comes as quite the shock. The big showdown between Chance and his quarry ends with one of Masters’ henchmen shooting Chance in the face with a shotgun. Chance fires at the same time and kills the henchman, thus facilitating Masters’ escape. From there, it becomes Vukovich’s movie as he pursues Dafoe to a fiery finish.
It’s a technique that was utilized once more in the film 15 Minutes, where Robert DeNiro gets top billing but is forced to pass along his duties at about the midway point of the film. To Live and Die in L.A. does it better, though, thanks in no small party to Pankow's wonderful performance.
5 Gollum - Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
In The Fellowship of the Ring, we get a mere glimpse of the Gollum character. It is not until The Two Towers that we really see the inner turmoil of this pitiful creature as he grapples with his love-hate relationship with the Ring, something mirrored in what he feels for himself. Peter Jackson’s digital capture rendering of actor Andy Serkis is a pioneering effort in special FX creation, and unlike a lot of rampant, out-of-control CGI, it serves this world quite well.
While not the first time Gollum has been rendered by filmmakers, Serkis’ voice-work makes this version of the character the most familiar. No one will ever be able to talk about “the precious” again without that familiar caterwaul creeping into their voice, and for many of us, it’s the most memorable thing about the second film in the trilogy.
4 Dr. King Schultz - Django Unchained
When Christoph Waltz broke onto the U.S. film scene with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, it was difficult picturing him as anything less than a scoundrel. Casting directors lined up to get him as a similarly smooth-talking heavy in films like Water for Elephants and The Green Hornet, but it just didn’t have the same effect as it did in that first effort. (Perhaps because Mr. Quentin Tarantino wasn’t handling the reins?)
Well, the only fix for that was to put QT back in charge of Waltz’ next appearance, and when we heard he would be in 2012’s Django Unchained, we couldn’t wait to see what manner of evil he would end up bringing to the screen. Color us shocked when he turned out to be one of the few virtuous characters of the film and the hero of one of the film’s climactic shootouts. Not only did he defy typecasting, but he also did it with such a style and grace that we could see him being the main protagonist in his own film, should Tarantino ever want to venture back into prequel territory. With only two films supposedly left in his career, we're guessing we've (unfortunately) seen the last of the dentist-turned-bounty hunter, who went out like a true badass.
3 Furiosa - Mad Max: Fury Road
The name of the film was Mad Max: Fury Road, but the story seemed like it was all Furiosa’s. You could attribute that to the script, but Charlize Theron had something by-God heroic to her demeanor that took over the screen any time she was on it. And while some complained that there wasn’t enough Max (Tom Hardy), the reality is that he had as much screen time as Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, it just didn’t seem that way because Theron made you feel her plight with each passing minute.
Fans of the series — young and old — didn’t seem to mind it either. While there were some lame-brained detractors preaching a sexist gospel about how Mad Max: Fury Road was a product of the “feminazis,” audiences embraced the film with a $377 million global box office take. It also secured 10 Oscar nominations, winning six. We just hope Furiosa is around whenever George Miller gets around to making a sequel.
2 McLovin - Superbad
The hilarious awkwardness between Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) in the teen buddy sex comedy Superbad would have made for a great two hours on its own, but up the ante with the completely hapless Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and finding time to breath in between laughs becomes all the more difficult. Fogell doesn’t appear until around the 15-minute mark of the movie, but he quickly makes up for lost time, landing a horrible-looking fake ID — “you look like a future pedophile” — taking a punch like a champ, and adopting the name-of-legend “McLovin,” which would become synonymous with just about every underdog you ever knew.
One aside that makes this film even more painfully awkward (in a good way) is that Mintz-Plasse was just 17 years old at the time. That means during the climactic moment when McLovin’ finally scores, Mom had to be on set. It couldn’t have turned out better, in our opinion.
1 Ed Exley and Bud White - L.A. Confidential
The smug and slimy Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the last person you would ever expect to reach down and find his inner heroism, but that’s exactly what happens in 1997’s L.A. Confidential.
There is no question that in the film, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is the main character. Aside from the narrative emphasizing it, the point becomes even more apparent if you remember back to when it first hit theaters. Pearce and co-star Russell Crowe were not the easily recognizable stars they are today. L.A. Confidential is a rich mystery centering on a brutal massacre at a diner that appears to be linked to a conspiracy of police corruption within the LAPD. Exley is a by-the-book guy, but he is also widely hated around the department because of his adept political maneuvering and his willingness to rat out fellow officers if it gets him ahead. This puts him in the crosshairs of the violent, yet crookedly-noble, Bud White (Crowe).
When Spacey gets gunned-down by the main villain in one of the biggest WTF moments in motion picture history, it falls on Exley and White to expose the truth. Their unlikely partnership takes over the film — further proof that in this world, anything can happen.
There you have it, readers: our picks for the most memorable supporting characters to take over their own movie. As confident as we are with the selections, we’re also certain that we may have missed some. What characters do you think should have been on this list? Sound off in the comments section!
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