In his acceptance speech at this past January’s Golden Globe Awards, where he was named best supporting actor for his electric impersonation of crackhead ex-boxer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, Christian Bale gave a nod to co-star Mark Wahlberg. But rather than offer a typical co-star backslap, he elaborated on the yin-yang interrelation of actors on screen. “You can only give a loud performance like the one I gave when you have a quiet anchor,” he said, referring to Wahlberg’s stoic turn as Eklund’s kid brother and former Welterweight champion Micky Ward. “I’ve played that one many times, and it never gets any notice. Kudos for that, because otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten away with it.”
Taking Bale’s cue, we decided to take a deeper look at the comparatively understated, tasteful performances that have made ostentatious Oscar-bait palatable. It’s no secret that awards for best acting often go to those who do the most acting—thus the Oscar love for stars who play crazy, sick, disabled, foreign, or trashy. This doesn’t mean that high-volume or outsize performances can’t be great. Bale swings for the fences in The Fighter, but he hits it out of the park. What’s rarely acknowledged is how such a grandiose performance would be unbearable without a straight man to balance things out, to maintain a baseline of identifiable reality. Even the subtlest, most recessive supporting turn can ballast a big performance, offering the audience a sympathetic counterpoint to characters who are outrageous or mad.
Bale becomes the focal point whenever he’s on screen, but Wahlberg is the steady, beating heart of The Fighter. He carries the film on his conflicted shoulders, internalizing demons while Bale openly spars with them. The accompanying slide show highlights 10 unheralded, minor-key accompaniments to famously major Academy Award-winning turns.
Click here to watch a slideshow on Oscar winner’s co-stars.