In his review of Sunset Boulevard, Roger Ebert spends nearly half of it talking about Erich von Stroheim's character Max. It's my favorite kind of Ebert review, the kind where he just throws out trying to sum up a film classic and instead just follows his own interests.
"The performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma's faithful butler Max...We might not take (Norma) seriously. That's where Max comes in. Because he believes, because he has devoted his life to her shrine, we believe. His love convinces us there must be something worth loving in Norma."His description of Max always fascinated me because I think it nails down a very important concept. The idea that a film can rise or fall, not just on the protagonist, but also on a supporting character, shoring up the film's foundations without calling attention to the fact. Without Max, Norma Desmond could so easily have been a campy parody, despite Swanson's superb performance. Without Alida Valli's haunted devotion, would Harry Lime be nearly as memorable a villain? Well, I got to thinking about the subject and just had to make a short, by-no-means-conclusive list. For the sake of a title, let's call them "tentpole" characters.
1. Lew Ayres in Holiday
In Holiday, Katharine Hepburn plays the upscale but troubled Linda Seton, a free spirit who's been stifled all her life by her controlling father. Now, when it comes to fiction, I'm usually quite willing to sympathize with rich, beautiful people, but man does Linda test that limit. And I say that as someone who loves this film. This is a wealthy woman in 1938 with the gall to say this: "Compared to the life I lead, the last man on a chain gang thoroughly enjoys himself." It's all I can do not to yell, "Oh cry me a river, rich girl!" This is where Lew Ayres comes in. He plays Linda's brother Ned, a melancholy alcoholic who has given up his musical ambitions to grind his soul to death in his father's office. He is Linda's confidante as she slowly comes to realize her love for Johnny Case (Cary Grant), her sister's fiancee. Ayres plays this witty, unhappy man to perfection. Without once even raising his voice for sympathy, Ayres shows us how this man has been worn down by convention and family duty. He has no fight in him, except when it comes to Linda. He shows us everything Linda stands to lose. And because of that, we're on their side.
2. Patricia Neal in The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still cuts its way through the overheated, pulpy jungles of '50s science fiction like some vast, frozen iceberg. It's a smart, suspenseful movie, but so cold. Even the scenes of Klautu bonding with the little boy carry that feeling of unease. We are faced with the unhappy prospect that these advanced aliens will come down and intone, in the wise voice of Michael Rennie, that humanity better get with the program or else. But the humanity personified in scenes of generals barking orders or by the furrowed brow of Hugh Marlowe doesn't really put up much of a show for itself. Thank God then, for Patrica Neal. She's the only fully realized human character in this film; it's her warmth, confusion, and courage that we cling to. Neal had the great gift for creating characters who feel lived-in, from the practical but yearning Alma in Hud to the coolly cynical lover in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Her characters never feel like they started existing the moment the director yelled "Action." Would "Gort, Klaatu barada nikto" have been half so memorable without that tremor of mingled fear and determination in Neal's voice? Klaatu may be Space Jesus but Helen is our true savior.
3. Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager
People like to cite Now, Voyager as one of the definitive romantic films. But for my money, the real force behind the story isn't the swoony love story of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, it's the battle of wills between Davis and Gladys Cooper. Cooper is one of the bitchiest mothers ever put on screen, a woman so ruthless she would throw her rickety body down the stairs just to make her own daughter feel guilty. She torments poor Bette Davis (how often do you get to say that?) into a nervous breakdown, simply by refusing to give any kind of affection or freedom to her offspring. Cooper's performance in such a juicy role is understated. She delivers Mrs. Vale's constant stream of complaints in the kind of everyday, distracted tone you might expect from someone who's been speaking poison so long they've forgotten how to talk any other way. Now, Voyager tells a pretty old story: the ugly duckling who finds love and beauty. It's wish fulfillment. But it would all collapse into a soggy mess without Cooper, who shows us how much heft and emotion there can be in these kind of stories. Especially when the freedom of a human soul is at stake.
4. Ann Sheridan in Kings Row
This selection might be a little biased due to the fact that I love Ann Sheridan and wish she'd gotten more roles like this. Warner Brothers liked to advertise Sheridan as the "Oomph Girl," branding the gorgeous Texan redhead like she was a flavor of bubble gum. But when she got the chance, Sheridan proved she was plenty more than that. She had energy and humor and an irrepressible down-to-earth attitude. There's always a normalcy peeking out from under her performances. In Kings Row, she plays Randy Monaghan, the tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks who grows up into the loving, courageous wife of Ronald Reagan's character. Sheridan gives Randy an overlying pragmatism and intelligence that grounds the romance perfectly. She's the kind of woman who would always be a friend first, a lover second. As the spiritual predecessor to films like Peyton Place and Picnic, Kings Row is the kind of "small-town, dark secrets" melodrama that risks becoming too overblown. Lucky for us that Ann Sheridan is there to remind us that loving people can also just be good common sense.
5. Thomas Mitchell in Only Angels Have Wings
Only Angels Have Wings might go neck and neck with To Have and Have Not for the title of most Hawksian Howard Hawks film. A wisecracking and sexy woman (Jean Arthur) falls in with a group of daredevil men and quickly becomes fascinated by their tough and emotionally distant leader (Cary Grant). The leader is quick with the quips but slow to open his heart. Lucky for poor Jean Arthur, she has Grant's loyal number 2 on her side, "Kid" Dabb (Thomas Mitchell). Mitchell would have had my everlasting gratitude just by virtue of not being Walter Brennan ranting about dead bees but his portrayal of Kid is worth more than that. Mitchell had a way of watching his fellow actors that always gets to me. There's kindness there and understanding, but he never tries to draw too much attention. He bides his time. His gentle regard for Arthur is such a relief after seeing her get constantly embarrassed and berated by Grant. And of course, his character here is a powerful reminder that Grant really is a great guy. He'd have to be to win the loyalty of such a man.
6. Rita Moreno in West Side Story
It's funny how growing older has flipped my perception of West Side Story. As a kid, I was dazzled by Natalie Wood and couldn't understand why Rita Moreno and George Chakiris got all the attention. Now, I get it. In the original Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy isn't just about two lovers who can never be together. The tragedy is also about two families who have mindlessly destroyed all their best, brightest, and most cherished children for an empty rivalry. This is soft-pedaled in the musical by turning it into a very '50s style story of teenagers and grownups who just can't understand. We never see the parents, only ineffectual police officers and a head-shaking storekeeper ("You kids make the world lousy!"). When you take out the family aspect of the story and replace it with street gangs, it muddles everything. Why would street gangs react with such outsized horror at the thought of actually killing each other? It makes characters like Tony and Riff and Maria seem a little like suburban kids who've been teleported into the wrong story. This is where Rita Moreno is so essential as Anita. She's the only one who seems to truly feel the passion and pain of the situation. The near-rape she suffers at the hands of the Jets is still the only part of the film where I want to cringe and look away. But it's more than just one scene. Without Moreno's sexy, vibrant presence at the beginning (I love her back-and-forth with Chakiris), the film would lose a lot of its charm. Just as it would lose so much of the tragedy without her. If we hold onto the Romeo and Juliet connection, then Anita is clearly Mercutio. A plague on both your houses, all right.
7. Julie Harris in East of Eden
I have an ingrained resistance to love triangles and the way they cause presumably intelligent characters to flutter around as indecisively as little kids choosing snow cone flavors. It's even harder when one character stands at the apex, wittering over the hardships of life. In East of Eden however, Julie Harris manages the incredibly tricky feat of convincing us that she really is as sensitive, intelligent, and loving as the other characters think she is. Even as she flirts and falls in love with her brother's troubled boyfriend, Harris never seems truly petty. Offscreen, Elia Kazan would credit Julie Harris for giving James Dean invaluable support, adjusting her acting rhythm to his and calming her shaky costar with long car rides and talks. East of Eden may be a tale of fathers and sons, but Harris is the film's heroine.
8. Diana Lynn in The Major and the Minor
Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor belongs to that rarefied class of romantic comedy where you never know whether to laugh or to be disturbed. Ginger Rogers pretends to be twelve years old so that she can afford a train ticket. In the process, she falls in with Ray Milland, who's charmed by her but believes she's only an innocent kid. Through one of those comedy contrivances, she ends up at Ray Milland's military academy, having to dodge amorous cadets while falling in love with Milland herself. Thankfully Rogers doesn't look even remotely twelve, so watching her prance around as baby-voiced "Su-Su," cooing and smiling and calling Milland "Uncle Phil" isn't nearly as unbearable as it could have been. But the true saving grace of the film is Diana Lynn, as the smart and snarky kid sister of Milland's fiancee. She takes one look at Rogers' Baby Snooks routine and tells her, "Oh stop that baby talk, you're not twelve. " The way Lynn's eyes light up with pure glee as she then offers Rogers a cigarette is unforgettable. Lynn is a blessed dash of cold water in all the movie's silliness; as all the other characters are falling for Rogers' machinations like cartoon lemmings, Lynn sees through it. She forges an alliance with Rogers that is undoubtedly the film's only healthy relationship. And because of that, she becomes the film's greatest ally as well.