Oscar Impact: Typecasting–Second Bananas

The second kind of typecasting is most severely felt by supporting actors, who are doomed for the rest of their careers to play second bananas.

In some respects, the Academy itself is responsible for such typecasting, making the distinction between leading and character players official in the Academy Players Directory, the industry’s chief casting tool. Until the late 1970s, players who won or were nominated for supporting awards tended to remain in this category.

Sidney Greenstreet

A strong screen image, created in a first film and certified by an Oscar nomination, is that of Sidney Greenstreet, who made an auspicious debut as Kasper Guttman, the ruthless villain in The Maltese Falcon. This image suited Greenstreet’s size, being a bulky man of three hundred pounds. Greenstreet went on to play so many master villains that he became Hollywood’s classic screen heavy. Offended by Warner’s relegating him to such narrow range, Greenstreet became doubly sensitive to the critics’ view that he was only capable of playing baddies. Warner never trusted his ability to carry a movie on his own and thus never cast him in a lead role.

Peter Ustinov and Lee J. Cobb

After making his stage debut in London at seventeen, Peter Ustinov suffered from similar typecasting in Hollywood, where he mostly played older, often eccentric characters. Forever associated with screen roles of men much older than his own age. Ustinov never became a leading man. “It was a mistake,” Ustinov later conceded. “For years I played nothing but old and freakish men.”

The same fate was met by Lee J. Cobb, a leading man in the theater but mostly a character actor in film. Cobb played secondary roles, often tough racketeers and stern politicians, earning nominations for On the Waterfront and The Brothers Karamazov.

Gig Young

Gig Young’s lifelong dream was to be a leading man, but his Oscar (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They) and his two other nominations were all in the supporting league. Similarly, Angela Lansbury, Celeste Holm, Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, and Teresa Wright began and ended their screen careers as supporting actresses, especially after winning awards in this category, which legitimized their status.

Though typecasting is still a norm in Hollywood, it is not as rigid as it used to be, particularly for men. In the last three decades, several actors, including George C. Scott, Roy Scheider, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and Robert De Niro, began their careers and won Academy recognition as supporting players, but later made smooth transition to leading roles.

Gene Hackman

Gene Hackman began his career as a character actor, distinguishing himself in secondary parts in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (his first nomination). Hackman’s part in I Never Sang for My Father brought a second supporting nomination–“I guess the Academy is trying to tell me something,” he said. Even so, Hackman was proud to state: “I never approach a film as if I’m playing a supporting character. If I do, then I’m just a supporting character. I approach it as if it’s the most important thing in my life.”

In 1971, Hackman won the Best Actor for The French Connection, after which he has played both leading and supporting roles’ by choice. For his role as a sadistic sheriff in Unforgiven, Hackman won a second, supporting Oscar. Hackman belongs to the new breed of star character actors who get lead roles without conforming to Hollywood’s traditional typecasting, demanding that leading men be attractive and project a romantic image.

Walter Matthau

In recent years, lead actors had to be neither attractive nor romantic to be cast in starring roles. Just look as Walter Matthau’s career. In the 1950s, typically cast in villainous roles, Matthau seemed destined to stay in the supporting league. But he rose to sudden stardom in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, in a role written for him. Matthau went on to star in a succession of comedies, earning a supporting Oscar for The Fortune Cookie, and two Best Actor nominations for Kotch and The Sunshine Boys. Interestingly, the same slouching posture, awkward walk, and nonhandsome face, which had kept Matthau from becoming a leading man in the 1950s and 1960s, were used–and perceived by the public–to different effect in the 1970s. For the first time in his career, Matthau was asked play romantic roles, beginning with House Calls opposite Glenda Jackson.