Attack of the Killer Second Bananas

Nothing bums big actors out than having their performances overshadowed by modern-day Eve Harringtons. Just look at what happened to Annabeth Gish when Julia Roberts took a bite out of Mystic Pizza.

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In the fondly remembered but not especially good 1988 film Mystic Pizza, the unfortunate Annabeth Gish--and everyone else in the cast--gets completely upstaged by the then-unknown Julia Roberts. She is so much more glamorous than anyone else in the film that she stands out like a Little Sister of the Poor at a Christina Aguilera Lookalike Contest. Roberts, previously seen in Firehouse and Satisfaction, used Mystic Pizza as a launching pad to stardom.

In the fondly remembered but not especially good 1996 film Beautiful Girls, the unfortunate Annabeth Gish--and everyone else in the cast--gets completely upstaged by the belligerently cute Natalie Portman, a snow angel who periodically surfaces in this hell of a movie, which she used as a launching pad to stardom.

And in the utterly forgotten, universally ridiculed, though rarely seen 1994 film Wyatt Earp, the unfortunate Annabeth Gish--and everyone else in the cast--gets completely upstaged by the sardonic Dennis Quaid, who used the film as a launching pad to, well, other things. I'm not saying all this is a reflection on Ms. Gish's acting ability or screen presence. But it does make you wonder why the producers of "The X-Files" thought she was the right person to save that sinking ship.

The triumph of the second, third, fourth or ninth banana in a film that clearly belongs to someone else is one of the great joys in going to the movies; what seems like just another feminist flick about pissed-off women out on a cross-country crime spree unexpectedly turns out to be the dawn of Brad Pitt's career. Often the second banana syndrome is like a trapdoor cruelly sprung on the unsurprising star of the movie. When Antonio Banderas sauntered into The Mask of Zorro, he honestly expected that to be his film. Instead, it made a star of the unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones. When Matt Damon starred in the lush, chilling The Talented Mr. Ripley, his first big Hollywood vehicle since breaking out in Good Will Hunting, he thought he had it made. Instead, Jude Law stole the spotlight as the tanned, charismatic Dickie Greenleaf. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper honestly believed--or at least hoped--that the notoriety of Easy Rider would vault them into the Pantheon of the Immortals. Instead, it did basically nothing for either of them but made a star of Jack Nicholson. When veteran gamine Winona Ryder, who served as executive producer--whatever that means--of Girl, Interrupted, she hoped the film would finally cajole the public into taking her seriously. Instead, the pouty Angelina Jolie wins the Oscar. No wonder Winona turned to crime.

It is not our purpose here to ridicule those who have been upstaged by the less famous. It is no reflection on Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Michael Rooker, Michael Biehn, Jason Priestley and Dana Delany that they get blown completely off the screen by Val Kilmer in Tombstone, nor does it diminish Keanu Reeves's and Jeff Daniels's fine work in Speed that the thing most people remember about the film is the perky Sandra Bullock. It is not Arnold Schwarzenegger's fault that costar Jamie Lee Curtis and sidekick Tom Arnold stole the show in True Lies. Finally, in no way should our remarks here be construed as an attack on Ms. Gish. Capricious cruelty is not the American way. And it is certainly not the Movieline way.

No, what we seek to accomplish in these pages is simply to celebrate the rich diversity of the second banana universe in all its myriad variations. By doing so, we may succeed in "contextualizing" the very concept of upstaging, and perhaps make it abundantly clear to even the most casual film buff why second bananas are pivotal to the success of some motion pictures.

Viewed holistically, there are three basic kinds of second bananas: those who make a good film better, those who make an otherwise bad or mediocre film at the very least watchable, and those who actually wrestle the film away from the star. In the first class can be found such performances as Frank Sinatra as a doomed hotshot in From Here to Eternity, Marisa Tomei as an ethnic stereotype in My Cousin Vinny, Juliette Lewis as daft jailbait in Cape Fear and Renee Zellweger as a charming cutie pie in Jerry Maguire. Perhaps the finest recent example of this phenomenon is Jack Black's turn as a demented record store geek in High Fidelity. In all of these instances, the second banana provides a periodic diversion away from the main action of the film, serving in effect as a human grace note, whatever that means.

Our second category consists of films that have few or in some cases no virtues other than those provided by the second banana. Beautiful Girls is a farrago of retried, mystically pizza-like tripe about a bunch of small-town losers who have never gotten over high school. Showcasing such generic Hollywood confections as the aging stud (Matt Dillon), the one that got away (Lauren Holly), the long-suffering replacement girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) and the garrulous porker with the heart of gold (Rosie O'Donnell), this sad excuse for a film only comes alive when the precocious Natalie Portman bounces onto the screen. Bubbly, sassy, charming and cute, Portman serves as a kind of cinematic bedouin who enables the parched and desperate filmgoer to traverse this Sahara of a motion picture without dying of thirst, if you catch my drift.

Our third category consists of films like The Fugitive and Tombstone where the ostensible stars of the motion pictures, whether they realize it or not, get completely upstaged by the supporting players. Before his memorable turn as the brash, cynical marshal tracking down Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Tommy Lee Jones had made a slew of movies with names like Jackson County Jail and The River Rat. Then, when he was finally handed the opportunity to run with the ball in The Fugitive, the crackling, sarcastic Jones stole the spotlight away from the earnest, plodding Harrison Ford and turned himself into a star overnight.

Breaking out from a second banana role doesn't always guarantee career longevity, however, as evidenced by the surprise player in Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado. Released in 1985, Silverado was the first major western to come along in years. Starring Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Kline as enigmatic, multicultural, fundamentally virtuous cow-pokes pitted against the forces of unalloyed evil (Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum and Jeff Fahey), Silverado had a remarkable cast (it also starred Rosanna Arquette, Linda Hunt and John Cleese), a tried-and-true premise and entirely serviceable high-plains visuals. Unfortunately, it had a terrible script, no real focus and was doomed by the catastrophic decision to cast the glib, postmodern Kevin Kline as the most anachronistic cowboy ever. The only thing Silverado did have going for it was the young, studly Kevin Costner as a baby-faced gunman with a puppylike disposition and an inexhaustible appetite for violence. Costner grabbed the bull by the horns when Kasdan threw him this bone; in the twinkling of an eye, he was starring in The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. A star was born.

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