Ruth over at FlixChatter is hosting a blog-a-thon next week entitled "Small Roles...Big Performances." The title is fairly self-explanatory but the idea is to highlight a supporting performance (or performances) in a movie that you find particularly appealing. Make sure you check out FlixChatter for the full list of participants and their entries. Should make for some awesome reading!
When Ruth opened up the floor on this topic, my mind immediately went to the work of Barry Pepper in Steven Spielberg's war masterpiece Saving Private Ryan and while there are any number of outstanding performances that fall into this category, Pepper's is the one that I appreciate above all. A talented actor who always seems to be overlooked in Hollywood, Pepper has had a few starring roles (most notably Knockaround Guys and my favorite sports movie of all-time, 61*) and a handful of superb supporting roles through the years (his work in 25th Hour is exquisite, not to mention The Green Mile, We Were Soldiers, etc.). But 14 years after Saving Private Ryan debuted, it is Private Jackson that still stands out among the rest.
I was 15 when Saving Private Ryan was released and I can still remember everything about my viewing from who I went with right on down the mood as we exited the theater behind a group of WWII veterans. It's a movie that has the power to change you as a person, a gift that so few films have. There are quite a few outstanding characters within Saving Private Ryan; Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), even Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) whose cowardice I cursed and hated even though I knew that deep down, I'd probably fall right in line with him. But as the film progressed, I became more and more enthralled with Jackson, the left-handed, Bible quoting sniper whose precision was impeccable and whose persona was irresistible.
To be honest, I don't think Pepper had a lot to work with in terms of strength of character or quality screen time. Hanks, Davies, Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, etc. all were handed more well-rounded characters than Private Jackson. That's not meant as an attack on Spielberg or the film (which is one of my 10 favorites), it's just the reality of making a movie. There are only so many pages to go around in a script; someone is bound to get squeezed. Pepper, though, handled Jackson like the seasoned pro he wasn't given that, for all intents and purposes, Saving Private Ryan was his major motion picture debut (if you don't count the Howie Long action movie Firestorm which I certainly don't). There's a subtlety and quietness to Jackson and Pepper used this to suck the audience in. He displayed an uncanny ability to draw attention to his character even when he's not doing much. As such, he became memorable when I'm not sure he would have been in other hands.
Moreover, Pepper brought a downhome authenticity to the role and mixed it perfectly with just the right amount of arrogance, resulting in a character who was believably cool even though he most certainly was not trying to be cool. He has a natural swagger about him that stems from honesty, not braggadocio. When he tells his squad that, "...If you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir...pack your bags, fellas, war's over. Amen." you believe him. It's an incredible performance and one that made me a lifelong fan of one of the industry's most underrated actors.