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Who is the Best Supporting Actor of the 1980s?

Best Supporting Actor 1980s

We’ve had some weak decades for supporting performances before, but that is definitely not the case here. The top eight performances are remarkably strong in their own ways, which made this a hard decade to judge ultimately. Still, judging is what we do, so it had to be done.

Once again, I must remind you that in creating this ranking I have decided to limit myself to Academy Award winners only. No also-rans or snubs allowed, which makes it considerably easier to limit the field. I may comment on snubs or performances that should have won when appropriate, but in this decade that won’t be the case often.

Don Ameche-Coccoon10. Don Ameche, Coccoon (1985)

When you come down to it, this performance really just comes down to adorable old man. Don Ameche does it well, acting the part of a retired man re-discovering his youth with enthusiasm and comic verve, but there really isn’t much heft to his performance at all. His part doesn’t even have the touching moments we get from Wilford Brimley talking about life and death with his grandson. Ameche was a character actor for many years, so his Academy Award for this feel-good movie about aliens offering denizens of a retirement home the chance to live forever feels like a way of saying thanks for the service more than anything else. He’s adorable, but that’s about it. In a surprisingly strong field for supporting actors, there really isn’t anywhere else for this performance to go.

Should have won in 1985: I might have gone with Klaus Maria Brandauer in Out of Africa or, more likely, William Hickey in Prizzi’s Honor.

John Gielgud-Arthur9. Jon Gielgud, Arthur (1981)

I know a lot of people cite Gielgud’s performance as Hobson, the butler to Dudley Moore’s titular bad boy, as the epitome of dry British humor, so it may come as something of a surprise that he’s at the bottom of the list. The truth is that there isn’t much more to the character than that. The only thing that saves him from the last spot is the tender sweetness Gielgud brought to his scenes where Hobson sets Arthur on the correct course in his life. While on his deathbed, no less. There’s a fatherly care that raises the character above being a mere butler, but it comes fairly little and fairly late in the game. His primary purpose is still to provide a sort of acid wit and a very proper foil to Arthur. He does it well, but at the end of the day here we are.

Should have won in 1981: without much competition, Gielgud deserved the win.

Jack Nicholson-Terms of Endearment8. Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment (1983)

This kinda hurts, because I actually really like Jack Nicholson in this movie. I don’t necessarily believe him as an astronaut, but his character never actually goes into space so we don’t really have to deal with that. Instead, he gets to focus on the human moments where his vagabond retired spaceman slowly woos Shirley MacLaine as a high-maintenance mother dealing with empty nest syndrome. The chemistry between Nicholson and MacLaine is sublime, giving essential groundwork for the sad family drama playing out at the movie’s forefront. So why is Nicholson all the way down here? Because at the end of the day he’s basically coasting. Nicholson has a way of playing himself, and his effortless charisma lets him get away with it, but looking back there is a sort of sameness to his roles. You can’t fault him for playing to his strengths, but you can focus on the actual acting triumphs in his repertoire instead.

Should have won in 1983: to be fair, Nicholson earned the win.

Sean Connery-The Untouchables7. Sean Connery, The Untouchables (1987)

Connery is great as the spry, feisty, and frequently brutal Jim Malone, who signs on with Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness to take down the seemingly untouchable (natch) gangster Al Capone. Connery has a sprightly step and a twinkle in his eye as Malone tutors Ness in the ways of the underworld, creating the template for the ruthlessness necessary to take the country’s biggest mobster down. You really believe that Connery is the tough guy whose street smarts drive the whole operation, but like Nicholson, Connery is coasting on his own innate charisma in many moments. And while the movie suffers once Malone has been spectacularly killed off, there’s no big moment to the role, either. It seems that this award was mostly a sort of lifetime achievement award to the legendary James Bond actor.

Should have won in 1987: I have a soft spot for Vincent Gardenia’s philandering father in Moonstruck. I can live with this turnout, but Gardenia was also more natural and un-forced.

Haing S Ngor-The Killing Fields6. Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields (1984)

Somewhat alarmingly, much of The Killing Fields, a movie about the violence of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, rests on the shoulders of an untested man with no acting experience at all. Haing S. Ngor was a Cambodian refugee living in California when he was cast in the key role of Dith Pran, the real Cambodian man who assisted a New York Times reporter in discovering the truth about Pol Pot’s regime. Pran miraculously survived the horrors of Pot’s regime for four years after the Times reporter was forced to flee the country, ultimately making his way to a refugee camp outside the country, where he could be rescued. The second half of the movie is largely Pran’s story. Casting a man who was not an actor to portray the horrors he was subjected to seems like madness, except that for Ngor it wasn’t really acting. He had survived it all himself. His ability to portray Pran, and so successfully, is an honor both to Pran, to himself, and to all of his countrymen and women.

Should have won in 1984: Ngor deserved it.

Kevin Kline-A Fish Called Wanda5. Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

There have been a lot, and I mean a lot, of dim-bulb funny men in movies. Rarely, however, are they executed as well as Kevin Kline’s Otto, a low-level thug with delusions of grandeur. He speaks nonsensical Italian to get Jamie Lee Curtis in the mood for love (“Benito Mussolini!”), is in serious need of anger management classes, and he absolutely hates being called stupid. Kline is an actor who can do drama very well, but he really comes to life with comedy. In a wild comedic caper that frequently dips into the bizarre, Kevin Kline ran away with the show. I mean think about that for a second: this movie stars several alums of Monty Python, including John Cleese. Comedic capers with dips into the bizarre are what made them famous. Yet Kevin Kline stole the entire movie. Ladies and gentlemen, that takes immense skill.

Should have won in 1988: Kline ran away with the competition.

Louis Gossett Jr-An Officer and a Gentleman4. Louis Gossett, Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Louis Gossett. Jr. took the role of unforgiving drill sergeant who makes his recruits lives a living hell and not only made it an Academy Award-winning role, he somehow managed to give it legendary status. His astonishingly profane insults are among cinema’s best, and most certainly paved the way for R. Lee Ermey, cinema’s other insanely abusive, iconic drill sergeant from 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. We don’t know much about Gossett’s Sgt. Foley, and he never changes as the movie progresses. He’s just a pretty messed up guy who knows exactly how to be mean to people. The lack of growth does harm him a bit in the ranking here, but there’s no denying that this is one of cinema’s most iconic performances of all time. That’s the sort of thing that just can’t be denied, eh Mayo-nnaise?

Should have won in 1982: John Lithgow was amazing in The World According to Garp, but I can live with the way things turned out.

Timothy Hutton-Ordinary People3. Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People (1980)

First off, I love Ordinary People. You may remember that from my ranking of the Best Picture winners from the 80s. My only real problem with Hutton’s place on this list is that he’s not a supporting actor. If you ask me, his Conrad is the leading male role in the movie. Conrad’s journey from a depressed, self-loathing, suicidal teen to a depressed, self-loathing teen that’s cautiously hopeful for the future forms the entire spine of the plot. Everything that happens follows his arc. But here we are. And truth be told, Hutton would never have won in the lead actor race, where he would have squared off against Robert De Niro’s iconic performance in Raging Bull. Conrad is the unlikely survivor of a tragic accident that claimed the life of his picture-perfect older brother. Now Conrad is left with survivor’s guilt and the the heartbreaking belief that his mother wishes it had been him instead–a belief that is all the more heartbreaking as it is slowly revealed to be accurate. His relationships with his parents and his therapist (played to perfection by Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Judd Hirsch, who was also nominated in this category) are deeply felt and grow as time passes in the script. Hutton’s performance is nothing short of a revelation. He imbues Conrad with all the necessary fragility and, ultimately, resolve to carry the movie. And he breaks your heart, which is no small feat. You just want to give Conrad a hug.

Should have won in 1980: you could make a convincing case for Joe Pesci in Raging Bull, but I still like Hutton.

Denzel Washington-Glory2. Denzel Washington, Glory (1989)

These days, it comes as no surprise to describe a Denzel Washington performance as towering and full of angry bravado. It’s his specialty. It could almost be called his calling card–worthy of the scorn I gave Nicholson and Connery when calling them out for coasting in their performances. But Washington, to his credit, doesn’t employ it as lazily as they sometimes do. And anyway, back in 1989 it was something of a jolt to see such a powerful performance–and Washington was too early in his career for anything to be called routine. Here, Washington plays Trip, an angry former slave who signs on with the 54th–the Union army’s only all-black unit of soldiers–to fight in the Civil War. Trip burns with rage and resentment. He’s in your face and unforgiving, but it’s all a big show to mask the deep hurts he carries inside (not to mention the hurts he carries in the form of flogging scars on his back). You can sum his performance up with the powerful moment Trip defiantly refuses to break eye contact with his superior officer while getting flogged, releasing just one single tear. It’s a shocking, unforgettable moment.

Should have won in 1989: Washington owned this year.

Michael Caine-Hannah and Her Sisters1. Michael Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

In creating this ranking, I moved people around a lot. The only two performances that never moved at all were Don Ameche and Michael Caine. Essentially, that means that I came into this list knowing exactly who the best and worst were. I’m iffy on Woody Allen films, so when I saw Hannah and Her Sisters I never expected to be blown away. But I was. By the performances, I mean. The movie is only so-so–the constantly swelling music in the background gave me a headache after a while, for one thing; Woody Allen’s insistence on writing himself into all of his scripts is another complaint. As the husband of the titular Hannah, Michael Caine goes on an astonishing journey. He becomes totally, helplessly infatuated with Hannah’s sister Lee (yep, that makes her his sister-in-law), and desperately chases after her. Nervously. Awkwardly. Guiltily. Aggressively. Somehow charmingly. They begin an affair. Inevitably perhaps, things begin to fall apart. Caine somehow manages to convincingly embody all of those emotions and make it look easy. He makes the situation, and by association the entire plot, believable. It’s astonishing how good he is in this movie. There’s no question about it in my mind: in a surprisingly strong decade for Best Supporting Actors, Michael Caine deserves the crown.

Should have won in 1986: Caine absolutely deserved his first win.

For more, please check out my Academy Awards page. Up next: Best Actress of the 80s.


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This entry was posted on May 11, 2015 by in Academy Awards and tagged , , .
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