4 Knockout Movie Performances (By Forgotten Side Characters)
Some acting performances echo throughout pop culture for decades. We hear quotes from iconic characters batted around in drunk party circles, repurposed for advertisements, and even immortalized into band names. If an actor truly kills it in a role, it's not long before a swath of fans and thirsty voyeurs map out their every move, creating discussion boards to theorize on the satisfaction of watching Nicole Kidman put Tom Cruise in such a tailspin that he infiltrates a masked orgy, or seeing Ashton Kutcher play a hapless dude who simply cannot find his car.
And while The Oscars and other awards shows often snub great performances because Hollywood is run by five mega-rich people in a group chat, the memory of the avid viewer is long and sometimes concerningly dedicated. Still, even with the collective memory of a million fan cams, there are some performances that vanish into a foggy abyss of collective amnesia.
In some cases, it's a movie that never took off but featured an actor who committed harder to their role than Jim Carrey does to giving psychedelic-fueled red carpet interviews. In other instances, a well-known movie hides a knockout performance in the shadows of the background, and a side actor's commitment gets buried under the public's thirst for the Hollywood Chrises ...
Tony Shalhoub As Prophet Jack In Life Or Something Like It
The 2002 non-starter (according to reviews and budget loss) Life or Something Like It was a movie that tapped into the ultimate existential question: what would you do if you had a week left to live?
In this movie, a blonde-wigged Angelina Jolie plays an ambitious Seattle TV reporter dead-set on getting promoted and telling the news big-time (she also dates one of the Mariners). Her romantic foil is the flannel-wearing cameraman Pete (played by Edward Burns), who is deep because he has a son, listens to Social Distortion, and hates his job. They end up kissing after he passive-aggressively insults her (obviously), and while there's plenty to unpack in this movie's romantic conceit, knockout performer Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame is truly the one who carries the plot and the heart.
Shalhoub plays a homeless man named "Prophet Jack," known for his uncanny ability to tell the future and speak to people's lives. When Prophet Jack tells Jolie she has a week to live, she writes it off at first, but after his predictions about an earthquake and a Seahawks win come true, she's plunged into a philosophical journey to figure out what matters most.
While the role of a homeless prophet could easily get phoned in and come across as weirdly classist, ableist (when you consider assumptions of mental illness), or straight-up dehumanizing, Tony Shalhoub fully embodies this man with empathy, conviction, and his trademark depressed gaze into the abyss. With Shalhoub's performance, you can feel the heavy weight of Prophet Jack's gift, how resigned he's become to his fate as a man who sees beyond the veil, but also how he's retained his sense of humor and desire to connect with his neighbors and city.
In a scene where Jolie visits Prophet Jack's home encampment, we see the pair play cards and drink together, learn how he discovered his abilities, and the details that color his life. The inclusion of this scene gave Shalhoub an opportunity to elevate Prophet Jack beyond a plot gimmick and flesh him out into a character with more depth than those with twice as much screen time. When I think of a side character that deserves their own movie, Prophet Jack is at the forefront of my brain, and that is fully because of Shalhoub's committed and conscious performance.
Diana Maria Riva As Stella In What Women Want
Despite its mixed reviews, the 2000 romantic comedy What Women Want quickly became a household name due to both its box office success and the fact that it gave the world the image of Mel Gibson dancing in pantyhose (a sexual awakening for many) then spent the rest of the movie punishing him for being a douche.
While most would associate the movie with Gibson's performance as a disoriented advertising executive navigating the world of women's thoughts, or with Helen Hunt's role as the ambitious career woman who works across from him, the hidden knockout act took shape in Diana Maria Riva's embodiment of Stella, a maid who has had it up to here with Gibson's nonsense.
In a role with very few lines, Riva was able to convey the complexity of a woman who needs to keep her job but cannot stand her boss and his inability to see past himself. One of her first appearances shows her cleaning up after Gibson fell asleep using various beauty products in the bathtub (this is, of course, when he gets electrocuted into reading women's thoughts). Through voiceover, we both learn that Gibson can read her thoughts and that she has a lot of ongoing inside jokes about him he's been wholly unaware of.
While this could easily be a passing side role, Riva's strength in this character lies in her microexpressions. A whole character comes through in the different emotions Stella moves through in a short matter of minutes while smizing at Gibson as her brain considers all the other places she'd rather be.
The trope of a housekeeper or maid role is often confined to only the exterior of someone's personality. We see a housekeeper smile and do their job with an occasional secret eye roll. But Riva's performance gives a heavy amount of insight into what she's like outside of Gibson's myopic abyss, and that is largely due to the commitment, and nuance Riva brings to her character.
While Riva had already been on television during the filming of What Women Want, this was her first film role. It's clear she took it seriously as an opportunity to both flex what she could do with a relatively small role, but also champion a character that often gets relegated to the sidelines. At one point, while she's cleaning underwear off Gibson's floor, Stella loudly thinks, "I have other places to be, a life of my own," and it's clear that not only is it true, but that her life is far more compelling than Gibson's Sisyphean trudge up the hill of his own ego.
Peter Boyle As Ox Callaghan In While You Were Sleeping
The 1995 Sandra Bullock vehicle While You Were Sleeping was a success by all accounts. It made money, charmed audiences, and featured a stacked cast full of hard-hitting actors who genuinely seemed like they were having a good time.
The movie centers on a
delightfully horrific absurdist plotline, a lonely woman (Bullock) saves a handsome man Peter's (played by Peter Gallagher) life when he falls on the CTA train tracks (the fact that she does more than act annoyed he fell immediately shatters our suspension of disbelief). She then lies to the hospital, claiming she's his fiancée in order to check in on him, and the lie grows when a nurse mentions her to his family, and she doesn't tell the truth on time. To make things juicier, Peter's brother Jack (played by a well-shampooed Bill Pullman) is also conveniently handsome, and we soon see a love triangle play out between Bullock, Pullman, and Gallagher (who is in a coma).
By description alone, one would assume this is a movie centered on an uneven love triangle (since a man in a coma can't really spit game), and that's certainly central, but the bigger story here is Bullock's relationship with the Gallagher family and their deeply Chicago debates over food and sports.
This is where our unsung star character Ox Gallagher (played by Peter Boyle), comes into play. Boyle is one of the first family members to interact with Bullock at the hospital, and after sufficiently giving her the grumpy suspicious dad treatment, he warms up to her and even invites her to family gatherings so she can feel less alone in her grief over her "fiancé's" state.
Boyle fully embodies Ox as an empathetic but very traditionally masculine father figure. He is stubborn and loves to argue, he has passionate opinions about sports and the way culture is evolving, but he's also one of the first to register how lonely Bullock's character Lucy is.
We see him sitting in church in one scene, batting away Jack's suspicions about Lucy's sudden appearance in the family's life. While Jack is technically right to sense something "off" about Lucy's lie, Ox's emotional protectiveness and desire to let this woman join their family is deeply endearing but also feels lived-in. His expressions of care are largely concealed under layers of teasing, and that's what makes his character feel so vividly familiar.
When Peter wakes up from his coma, and Lucy eventually reveals her lie, and that she's fallen in love with Jack and the entire Callaghan family, Ox can be seen reacting just as strongly as the sons in the love triangle (to be fair, he's been conscious longer than Peter). In a moment that is equal parts vulnerability and comedic timing, Ox asks Lucy: "You fell in love with me?"
All his jokes aside, it's clear Ox has grown attached to Lucy as a daughter, and his quick acceptance of her is central to the plot, as it propelled her into keeping up the lie in order to have community.
While Bullock and Pullman both received accolades for their performances in While You Were Sleeping, one of the real stars was Peter Boyle, carrying the movie with Chicago dad jokes and subtle emotional care.
Time Winters As Frances The Milkman In A Little Princess
Alfonso Cuarón's 1995 family drama A Little Princess, loosely based on the 1905 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel of the same title, was a riches-to-rags story that went on to receive Oscar nominations for art direction and cinematography after underselling the box office.
While the story centers on a young Sara Crewe (played by Liesel Matthews), who is forced into servitude at her boarding school after it's reported her father died at war, one of the most memorable performances comes from Time Winters, who plays a milkman named Frances who is embarrassingly in love.
The boarding school, which is full of rich, emotionally neglected children and large ornate pianos, is run by the cartoonishly evil Miss Maria Minchin (played by Eleanor Bron), who tortures them for being little and bosses around her long-suffering and spineless sister Amelia Minchin (played by Rusty Schwimmer). However, while Amelia's life is one mostly composed of simultaneously enabling and being victimized by her child abuser sister, there is a glimmer of romance that peeks in through the door every week when the milkman Frances arrives, and they exchange wanting glances.
From his first appearance on-screen, Winters fully steals the spotlight with his commitment to this milkman's longing and clumsy crush. There are gentle but abruptly withdrawn brushes of the hand, he forgets to leave the milk in a flurry of butterflies and anxiety, and he stumbles over his words in a way that is both childish and all-too-real for anyone who has biffed it in front of a love interest.
Each time Frances drops off the milk, there is another layer of crush built upon his last appearance, and the smoldering gazes and awkward small talk between him and Amelia fills the room entirely. In one moment, we see little Sara and Becky (the only Black girl who is also a servant at the boarding school, played by Vanessa Lee Chester) giggling at the obvious romantic tension as they do their kitchen chores.
In a movie that largely centers on childhood trauma as experienced through the lens of World War I, classism, and a boarding school director that achieves Matilda levels of cruelty, Winters' performance as Frances infuses the movie with a heaping dose of romantic chemistry. The palpability of his attraction and affection towards Amelia is so strong, it rivals some of the most well-known romantic pairings (I'm looking at you, Baby and Johnny) despite having far less screen time to develop rapport. Much of this is done through body language, the nuances of how Frances moves his arms and face in the presence of this woman he longs for, and the ways they both can't see how obviously they're acting like smitten 12-year-olds at the roller rink.
It's only when Amelia soaks in the childhood wisdom of Sara that she gains the courage to make plans to secretly elope with Frances, which results in a comical yet touching scene where we watch Frances temporarily think she rejected him, only to open up into full euphoria when he spots her crashing out of a window.
Given the limited screen time, Winters could've easily phoned in the character of Frances and let him be a wacky side character without layers. But the full-bodied emotion he brought to the role not only created rare successful physical comedy but also carved out space for his character to show a lovable and devoted man who was ready for love and would risk his milk route if needed. With Amelia, Frances was finally recognized and seen for his charms, and that brought him out in the rain, ready to whisk her away.
Top Image: Paramount Pictures