Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 5, 2013
When people talk about a great supporting character, the character can be good or bad. The character of Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a great supporting character brought to full life in a magnificent performance delivered by Lionel Barrymore. But he’s also the King of Jerks. A selfish, scheming, deceptive, rotten old man. Sometimes when I watch a movie, I not only think the character is a good one and the actor portraying the character does a fine job but I also think, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind that character in my life.” It’s when a supporting character gives the lead the kind of support you wouldn’t mind having in your everyday life.
And let’s start with It’s a Wonderful Life, mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Old Man Potter may be a poisonous snake but you know who’s great? Martini, played by Bill Edmunds. Let me tell something about Martini as a friend. Let’s say you helped him out in the past. You did him a favor, maybe got him a good rate on his first mortgage. Now let’s say you go into his bar, act rude and surly towards him and his patrons. Then let’s say one of those patrons is married to a woman you made cry earlier because your kid got sick and she was her teacher and she had absolutely no control over your kid getting sick and the husband’s so over you and your stinking attitude that he belts you. Well, guess what? Martini’s kicking that guy out and banning him forever even though you were the real jerk in the first place. Martini, that guy’s a loyal friend. (And Sam Wainwright’s nothing to sneeze at either. Sure, the “hee haw” stuff wears down your last nerve but in a pinch the guy authorizes 25 grand in 1945 dollars to you. Click here to go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator. Put in 25,000 for the year 1945. Yep, in today’s money it’s almost $325,000!!! So, um, yeah, I’ll put up with the “hee haws.”)
When it comes to supporting characters you wouldn’t mind having as real life friends, it’s hard to top Thelma Ritter’s gallery of characters but if I limited myself to two, they would definitely be Moe from Pickup on South Street and Stella from Rear Window. You want to talk about support? You got it. Moe won’t rat out her friend Skip even though it costs her her life. I mean, she didn’t know it was going to cost her her life but she knew it was looking pretty bad for her and she still didn’t do it. Not that I’d have anything to hide worth anyone’s life but if someone else had something to hide, like the guy across the courtyard who just may have killed his wife, well then Ritter’s Stella’s your go-to-gal. What makes Stella stand out is how much she dissuades L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) at first but when presented with a persuasive argument, hops on board and helps dig up some clues.
But you know, it doesn’t always have to be life or death. Sometimes, it’s just reliability. Like Jack Ridley (Levon Helm), best friend to Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), in The Right Stuff. Not only will he come through for you when you need him most (like, say that time you broke your ribs and needed to close the hatch on your jet before you broke the sound barrier and he went and sawed off a broom handle for you) but he always has a stick of Beeman’s for you, just when you want it, and never asks for anything in return. And even though you say you’ll pay him back later, and you know you never will, he just smiles and says, “Fair enough.” Great guy.
And speaking of someone coming through for you, how about Margaret Phelps (Jane Alexander in Kramer vs. Kramer)? Imagine you’re getting divorced from your wife. Further imagine Margaret was her best friend, not yours. And yet, Margaret recognizes you’re left holding down the fort and does what she can to help and, in the process, becomes your best friend. Hell, she even goes to court and testifies on your behalf when it comes down to it. Margaret is the kind of person that stands by what’s right, so she might not be loyal to you if you’re in the wrong but she will fight on your behalf to the bitter end if you’re in the right. And, really, isn’t that the best kind of friend to have?
Sometimes, however, you need support at work, not just in your personal life. And that’s where Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn in The Parallax View) comes in. This guy’s an editor of the “tough as nails” variety. And just like every “tough as nails” editor (or police lieutenant or army sergeant or what have you) you expect him to tell you you’ve got one last chance before he kicks your butt out! But not Bill. Oh no, he believes in you. He believes in you to the point that he helps you conceal your own faked death (or escaped death, as the case may be, since you were luckily on the front of the boat when the bomb went off)! Gives you hundreds of dollars, cash, to get around town digging up clues and never once loses faith in you. He loses his life, though, and that’s a killer, because this guy had to be the best editor a newspaper reporter ever had.
Of course, I can’t finish this without mentioning one of the most helpful supporting characters in movie history. He plays for the other team and even shuts down your business from time to time (sometimes he gets shocked, SHOCKED at things) but in the end, when it really counts, and I mean really counts, he comes through for you. I speak, of course, of Capt. Louis Renault, portrayed brilliantly by the great Claude Rains in the all-time classic, Casablanca. Louis has always been on your side and you kind of know it but you didn’t know until that last moment where his true loyalties lay. Then it happened. He gave you the “shoot a Nazi for free” card and let you use when it counted the most. Yes, if you can ignore the horrifying implications of all of it (rounding up the “usual suspects” means someone else, someone innocent of the charges, will take the fall), it’s an incredible act of friendship (but, yeah, those implications are still pretty horrifying). When you walk away with Louis after the plane has safely taken off, you tell him it looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And that’s how I feel about each one of these characters every time the credits roll.
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