Early Roles Supporting Actor

After a long, punishing Oscar season that started about 50 weeks ago (although we suppose it only really kicked in in August or September), we're now about a week-and-a-half out from the 2013 ceremony. For all of our grumbling, it's always a key fixture in the cinephile calendar, and as such, we're going to be commemorating the approaching ceremony in various ways over the next ten days or so.

To start off, we're looking back. There's a wide range of actors up for nominations, from a nine-year-old newcomer to an 86-year-old veteran (competing against each other no less), but they almost all have something in common -- their Oscar nominations are only the most recent in a series of great performances. So, we're going to be looking at the nominees in each category and examining one of the earliest performances that saw them get attention, and in some cases, are overlooked in favor of more recent work.

And so, we're starting off with the Best Supporting Actor nominees. Remarkably, all five have won Oscars before, and four of them in the same category. As such, it's like a sort of best-of-the-best contest, and they've each been doing strong work for years. Check out our picks below of the early highlights, and let us know your own favorite performance of the nominated actors in the comments section. And come back tomorrow for the Best Supporting Actress nominees.

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
Alan Arkin - "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" (1966)
Though he only won his first Oscar six years back for his supporting turn in "Little Miss Sunshine," Alan Arkin earned his first nomination, for Best Actor, forty years earlier, and forty-six years before this year's ceremony. What's more, it was for the actor's first notable screen appearance, in Norman Jewison's comedy "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" It's a little hard to see these days why the Academy were so enthusiastic about Jewison's charming, but slight comedy about a Soviet submarine that gets lost and causes panic on a New England island, with the nominated for four Oscars altogether, including Best Picture. But it's still an entertaining picture (like a less overblown version of Spielberg's "1941") and Arkin's performance is still a treasure. The actor plays Lt. Yuri Rozanov, the second-command of the stranded Russian sub, who comes ashore with a few men, disguised unconvincingly as Norwegians, to get a boat to get them out of a tight spot. Jewison cast the actor on the basis of his sketch comedy past at Second City, and Arkin's free-wheeling, sharp-on-its-feet comic sensibility still feels fresh today. In fact, you can draw a straight line from this to Sacha Baron Cohen's work, and not just because of the accent and tache.

Bang The Drum Slowly
Robert De Niro - "Bang The Drum Slowly" (1973)
While "Mean Streets" might have been the film that really put Robert De Niro on the map after the likes of "Bloody Mama" and "Hi, Mom!," there was one earlier great performance by the actor, even if it came only two months before Scorsese's film hit theaters. De Niro's first big studio lead came with John D. Hancock's "Bang The Drum Slowly," an adaptation of the beloved baseball novel by Mark Harris (previously filmed for TV, starring Paul Newman). De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a not-especially-talented, but slow-witted catcher for baseball team the New York Mammoths, who at the beginning of the film, is diagnosed with incurable Hodgkin's disease. The film centers on the relationship between him and best friend, pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), who helps to keep his diagnosis secret, and supports him in his final days. The subject matter has the potential to be treacly and manipulative, in a "Brian's Song" manner, but for the most part, Harris' adaptation of his own novel is more concerned with the baseball, and the team morale, than with being a weepie. There's a low-key, melancholy feel to the film, thanks in part to De Niro's turn, which never patronizes his character or begs for sympathy, the actor turning what could have been a stock role into a three-dimensional human being. And he has chemistry in spades with Moriarty, who went on to star in "Law & Order." The film isn't quiet a classic (though it is one of the better baseball movies to this day), but it's notable as the first major indicator that De Niro was going to be a force to be reckoned with.