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20 Great Underrated Early Performances From The 2015 Oscar Actor Nominees

20 Great Underrated Early Performances From The 2015 Oscar Actor Nominees

Oscar nominees don’t just come fully formed. Well, sometimes they do (think of young Quvenzhane Wallis a few years ago). But almost all of the time, an actor receiving an Academy Award nod is the culmination of years, or even decades of hard work, of day-playing and TV guest spots, leading to character-actor roles in both movies they could be proud of, and some that they might not be, until the stars aligned and they landed a meaty role in a movie that picked up great reviews and managed to last the distance over the long, strange awards season.

For many of these actors, their Oscar nomination is the peak of their careers to date (for Meryl Streep, it’s just “that thing that happens in February”). But you wouldn’t want to undervalue the fine work that all of these performers have done until now, and so, to celebrate this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, we’ve picked one undervalued performance from the early careers of each of the acting nominees, that we’re particularly big fans of. You can read about them below, and suggest your own picks in the comments section below. Stay tuned for plenty more Oscar coverage across the rest of the week too.

Best Actor

Steve Carell – “Bruce Almighty” (2003)
Steve Carell’s career is one of the more curious ones here, from Groundlings improv expert and “Curly Sue” bit-player to “The Daily Show” correspondent and Apatow comedy headliner to an unrecognizable turn in perhaps the darkest nominated movie this year, “Foxcatcher.” For us, at least, we remember the first time that we remember being impressed by Carell on screen was in some unlikely surroundings: Tom Shadyac’s comedy “Bruce Almighty.” The film, starring Jim Carrey as a reporter granted the powers of God, is deeply lousy, mean-spirited, creepy and the absolute nadir of the star’s high-concept comedy run. But Carell, in a brief role as a douchey rival of the lead, steals the show, not least in a role that involves him speaking nonsense (at Carrey’s godly behest), a improv-y bit that’s easiest the funniest thing in the film, and was an early demonstration of Carell’s skills. Sadly, it didn’t carry over once Carell blew up and got his own ill-conceived spin-off, 2007’s “Evan Almighty.”

Bradley Cooper – “Alias” (2001-2003)
We certainly weren’t expecting the only actor to have written about every time we’ve done this feature to be Bradley Cooper, particularly given that he’s got a relatively slim list of early credits (one more nomination and we’ll be forced to write about “Midnight Meat Train” or something). But it seems fitting this time around to turn a spotlight on the first place that most people saw the star, in J.J. Abrams’ breakout series “Alias.” Cooper played Will, the unrequited cub reporter Buttons to Jennifer Garner’s spy badass Cinderella, and though the show quickly ran out of things to do with him, Cooper was always a winning presence, grounding the show’s over-the-top espionage theatrics in the real world (by mostly being unaware of them). And his desperate pining for Garner’s Sydney were one of the show’s most effective attempts at mixing action-adventure with twentysomething romance. Cooper got stuck playing douchey comic roles for a while after this, but much of the promise that’s seen him win three Oscar nods in a row can be found here.  

Benedict Cumberbatch – “Hawking” (2004)
Fun (and at this point, fairly well-reported) fact: only one actor has already played a part that one of their rivals received their nod for. Namely, that’s Benedict Cumberbatch: nominated here for “The Imitation Game,” but who a decade ago played Stephen Hawking, as more recently occupied by Eddie Redmayne to Oscar-nodded effect in “The Theory Of Everything,” in BBC TV movie “Hawking.” Penned by “Criminal Justice” writer Peter Moffat, we’d argue it’s actually superior to “The Theory Of Everything” — there are some lower production values, but it’s much more successful at interrogating Hawking’s science, and though Cumberbatch (very early in his career, and taking on his first lead role) isn’t quite as technically impeccable as Redmayne’s more recent turn, he’s probably better at exposing the man’s interior life, despite the script focusing away from Hawking’s marriage.

Michael Keaton – “Night Shift” (1982)
Steve Carell isn’t the only comedian to be picking up their first Oscar nomination this year. “Birdman” star Michael Keaton began his career as a well-regarded, though never especially famous, stand-up comic, and many of his most notable early roles were funny ones. The first, after a string of small-screen turns, was “Night Shift,” and it’s still one of the best of them. An early directorial vehicle for Ron Howard, the film sees morticians Keaton and Henry Winkler decide to set up a prostitution ring part-time out of their workplace. It’s a pretty skeezy premise, but fun regardless, not least because of Keaton’s manic, devilish energy, which plays beautifully on Winkler’s lower-key against-type performance, and carries the movie along with cocky charm. The film wasn’t successful enough to launch the string of Keaton/Winkler comedies we’d have love to have seen, but it did make Keaton a star, paving the way to his reinvention with “Birdman.”

Eddie Redmayne – “Savage Grace” (2007)
Older than his boyish face suggests (he’s 33, and has been acting professionally for thirteen years), Redmayne’s been visible on screen for a decade now, first breaking through in Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd,” as the son of Matt Damon’s central character. He’s good there, but better in the following year’s “Savage Grace,” a deeply uncomfortable Greek tragedy of an indie from director Tom Kalin. Based loosely on a real-life incident, it takes full advantage of Redmayne’s upper-crust looks to see him play the schizophrenic, gay scion of a wealthy family who sleeps with his mother (fellow nominee Julianne Moore) before killing her. It’s a tough watch, but brilliantly acted by everyone involved (Stephen Dillane and Hugh Dancy are both great too), but Redmayne’s turn, louche and intense and passionate, like the child of a character in a Whit Stillman film and a Gus Van Sant film, might be its highlight.

Best Actress

Marion Cotillard – “Love Me If You Dare” (2003)
It might have felt to some that Marion Cotillard was an overnight sensation after winning her Oscar for “La Vie En Rose” in 2008, but that was far from the case: she’d made her English-language debut in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” in 2003, had starred in international action hit “Taxi” in 2000, and first turned heads in Arnaud Despechin’s “My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument” in 1996. But probably our favorite of her early roles is opposite her future real-life partner Guillaume Canet in Yann Samuel’s twisted rom-com “Love Me If You Dare.” It’s an odd, uneven film, a quirky romance about two young Belgians who vie for possession of a tin box in a series of escalating dares, but which loses much of its appeal by being kind of mean-spirited. But Cotillard’s typically luminous, and admirably unafraid to make her character Sophie unsympathetic at the same time. Much better was to come, from “La Vie En Rose” onwards, but it’s this film that suggested the leading lady she might yet become.

Felicity Jones – “Northanger Abbey” (2007)
Like co-star Eddie Redmayne, it feels like Felicity Jones has been on the verge of stardom forever without quite tipping over: she first became a familiar face thanks to UK kids’ TV series “The Treasure Seekers” way back in 1996. 2011’s “Like Crazy” provided a big-screen breakthrough, but she’d been a TV regular before that, popping up in the decent “Prisoner”-esque “Cape Wrath” with Tom Hardy and David Morrissey, an Agatha Christie-themed “Doctor Who” episode, and an adaptation of “The Diary Of Anne Frank.” But her most impressive turn was probably in a 2007 ITV adaptation of “Northanger Abbey.” The book is the strangest and least successful of Jane Austen’s completed novels, both straight-ahead romance and Gothic pastiche, but the Jon Jones-directed adaptation does a pretty good job at making it work, thanks in part to the casting. Everyone (including a very young Carey Mulligan) does good work, but it’s Jones, playing lead Catherine Morland, after being cast a week after graduating from Oxford, who really shines: naive and yet forceful, she’s a a perfect Austen heroine.

Julianne Moore – “Safe” (1995)
Julianne Moore’s finally poised to win her first Oscar for “Still Alice,” after four previous nods, and she’s had a long route to this point: several years on soap “As The World Turns” in the 1980s, followed by supporting movie parts in thrillers like “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” and “Body Of Evidence” and then breaking out in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” She’s great in that, and in Andre Malle’s “Vanya On 42nd Street,” but our favorite of her early performances is in Todd Haynes’ brilliant “Safe.” A modest, low-budget indie that the Village Voice named the best film of the 1990s, it sees Moore play Carol, a California housewife who develops a condition which sees her become convinced that she’s allergic to everyday household items. Like the best of Moore’s performances, “Still Alice” included, she’s a raw nerve here collapsing in front of her eyes, but she also has an immediate connection with Haynes and his cheeky satirical side, having fun with Carol’s more Stepford-ish quality, and the level of delusion that she may or may not be under. She’s great in “Still Alice,” but we wish the Academy had paid more attention twenty years earlier.

Rosamund Pike – “Pride & Prejudice” (2005)
We could be wrong, but Rosamund Pike might be the first person to debut as a Bond Girl (her ice maiden Miranda Frost is one of the few redeeming features in “Die Another Day”) before going on to become an Oscar nominee. One shouldn’t dismiss the films between her dabbling with 007 and “Gone Girl” though: she’s excellent in “Fugitive Pieces,” “An Education” and “The World’s End,” among others, but Pike’s most underrated turn might be in Joe Wright’s adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” in which she plays elder Bennett sister Jane. The 2005 film is pretty much perfectly cast throughout (though fans of the 1990s Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle miniseries are prone to disagreeing), and while the film belongs to Keira Knightley, who picked up her first Oscar nod for it, Pike is luminous and heartbreaking as Jane. She and Knightley share a real sisterly bond in a way that some adaptations don’t manage to pull off, and when her romance goes south, it’s genuinely distressing to see.

Reese Witherspoon – “Freeway” (1996)
In some ways, the sex and drugs of “Wild” marks a return to the more rock-and-roll side of Reese Witherspoon that we first saw on screen in the 1990s, from breakout in grungey media-madness pic “S.F.W” to the less-prim-than-she-seems Tracy Flick in “Election.” Perhaps her most gleefully unhinged performance of that period is in Matthew Bright’s darkly funny “Freeway,” a white-trash riff on the story of Red Riding Hood that sees Witherspoon’s redneck teen out for vengeance on paedo murderer guidance counselor Kiefer Sutherland. Witherspoon really goes for broke, embracing the film’s exploitation credentials with gusto, but despite the film’s occasionally juvenile would-be-shocking approach, remains curiously likable throughout. “Wild” might be rather more respectable, but she was drawing on similar talents to get her latest Oscar nod.  

Best Supporting Actor

Ethan Hawke – “A Midnight Clear” (1992)
Ellar Coltrane isn’t the only “Boyhood” star we’ve seen grown-up on screen: Ethan Hawke has been working his craft for almost thirty years, even before his time-traveling collaborations with Richard Linklater
on both the “Before” trilogy and this year’s Best Picture nominee, and
was delivering some impressive performances long before his first nod,
for 2001’s “Training Day.” Everyone knows his early turn in “Dead Poets Society,” but our favorite early Hawke turn is probably in Keith Gordon’s little-seen, but very, very good World War II picture “A Midnight Clear.” The film stars a murderer’s row of early ’90s faces (Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Frank Whaley)
as an intelligence unit who find a surrendering German patrol, and
everyone delivers wonderful performances in that rarest of a beasts, a
genuinely original and distinctive war picture. To say that Hawke is the
stand-out would be to elevate one person in a fine ensemble above the
others, but this was the clearest early indication that Hawke wasn’t
just going to be some teen heartthrob, but an actor of rare depth and
feeling.

Robert Duvall – “Countdown” (1968)
Obviously we all know that Robert Duvall made his debut in “To Kill A Mockingbird” as Boo Radley, and in very impressive fashion (fingers crossed for a big role in that sequel!). But the 84-year-old, now the oldest-ever male acting nominee for his role in “The Judge,” didn’t immediately leap to stardom, spending much of the 1960s in minor supporting roles in mostly forgotten movies before things picked up again in the ’70s with “The Godfather” and co. But the hidden treasure of that period might be in “Countdown,” an early, and mostly forgotten Robert Altman picture cashing in on Apollo mania. Duvall plays Chiz, the NASA commander heading up a secret program to send an astronaut (James Caan) to the moon in a desperate race with a rival Soviet picture. The film is Altman before Altman, before he really developed his voice as a director, but Duvall is the film’s undoubted highlight, bringing real texture — jealousy, humor, a grudging paternal love — to his role, the kind of qualities that he’s been doing for nearly fifty years since.

Edward Norton – “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996)
Edward Norton is a tricky one for a feature like this, given that he received his first Oscar nomination for his debut role nineteen years ago, in above-average courtroom thriller “Primal Fear.” Norton became an overnight star, but word had already gotten around, with the actor landing some big gigs with legendary filmmakers even before his first film hit theaters. He’s very good in an admittedly unshowy performance in Milos Forman’s “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” but we prefer his charming turn in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” playing the fiance of Drew Barrymore. Allen’s spry, sweet tribute to classic movie musicals is one of our absolute favorites of the director, and Norton’s delightfully semi-competent delivery of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” is one of its absolute highlights.

Mark Ruffalo – “You Can Count On Me” (2000)
Like his fellow Bruce Banner, Ruffalo exploded seemingly overnight, but unlike Norton, Ruffalo had been working in small supporting roles and theater for a while, and also failed to get a nomination first time at bat. Which is a damn shame, because his turn in Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count On Me” (which did get nods for its screenplay and Laura Linney’s performance) remains one of his very best. Lonergan wrote the part specifically for Ruffalo after working with him on the premiere of the writer/director’s stage hit “This Is Our Youth,” and it fits him like a glove. Ruffalo plays the feckless estranged brother of Linney’s single mother, the pair forced back together in an uneasy extended visit, and the character couldn’t be better suited for Ruffalo’s trademark blend of Method intensity and laidback charm. Despite its Oscar-nominated status and wide critical acclaim, the film’s still underseen: check it out if you’re a more recent Ruffalo fan that missed it at the time.

JK Simmons – “Oz” (1997-2003)
J.K. Simmons’ (near) certain Oscar win will be the best kind: a hard-working veteran character actor who’s never been a matinee idol or leading man, but has consistently elevated pretty much everything that he’s done. Most first came across him in Jason Reitman’s films, or more likely as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies, but Simmons’ real breakthrough came on the pioneering HBO drama “Oz,” the show from which the DNA of every subsequent hit cable drama, from “The Sopranos” to “Better Call Saul,” can be traced. Simmons was a key cast member across the show’s six seasons as Vernon Schillinger, the neo-Nazi leader of the titular prison’s Aryan Brotherhood, and a homophobic rapist while he’s at it. Simmons is almost impossibly terrifying, laying the groundword for his fearsome drum instructor in “Whiplash,” but the actor’s dizzying range was also displayed as he somehow made you feel sympathy, or at least pity, for one of the vilest characters is television history too. 

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette – “Flirting With Disaster” (1996)
Originally making her debut in “A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” Arquette appeared in films like Sam Shepard’s “Far North” and Sean Penn’s “The Indian Runner” before cementing her stardom in “True Romance.” She went on to be great in films like Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and David Lynch’s “Lost Highway,” but our favorite of Arquette’s earliest performances is probably in David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster.” The filmmaker’s second picture, a world away from his more respectable latter-era movies, is a raucous farce that sees Ben Stiller’s Mel and his wife Nancy (Arquette) heading out on the road soon after the birth of their first child in an attempt to track down his biological parents. Though she’s not best known for comedy, Arquette’s absolutely terrific here, ensuring that the (mostly) supportive wife character doesn’t fade into the background, deftly wringing laughs out of even minor moments, and summing up that beautifully frazzled post-pregnancy state of mind that’s seen on screen relatively rarely. There are showier performances in the film (most notably Richard Jenkins’ scene-stealing ATF agent), but Arquette’s one of the subtler delights in it.

Laura Dern – “Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains” (1982)
Coming from Hollywood royalty (she’s the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd), Laura Dern got started at a very young age, appearing briefly alongside her mother in Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” among others. But when she was cast in Paramount’s punk-sploitation picture “Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains,” her parents weren’t so keen, and Dern had to sue for emancipation in order to be able to complete the picture (she was only thirteen). Following the surprising and meteoric rise of the titular punk band, the film was barely seen for the best part of thirty years, with a tumultuous production, a brief theatrical release and only occasional TV airings keeping it alive, but nevertheless became a cult classic, and major influence on the Riot Grrrl movement. And no wonder: while the film’s uneven and compromised, there’s a real energy and passion behind its femme-punk message, and though Dern very much takes a backseat to bandmate Diane Lane, she shines when she gets the chance, paving the way to her real break out a few years later with “Mask” and “Blue Velvet.”

Keira Knightley – “Pure” (2002)
With two Oscar nominations now under her belt, Keira Knightley has won over most of the doubters that she seemed to attract disproportionately early in her career: sure, she might have been a little stiff and uneasy in “The Hole” and “Bend It Like Beckham,” but her talent’s always been on display, and if more people had seen “Pure,” she might have gotten an easier ride over the past decade-and-a-half. Made just pre-”Pirates Of The Caribbean,” Gilles MacKinnon’s drama about a young boy dealing with his mother’s heroin addiction is sometimes unrelentingly bleak in that British kitchen-sink manner, but is also hugely powerful, thanks in part to a brace of strong performances from Molly Parker, David Wenham and, especially, young lead Harry Eden. Knightley makes as strong an impression as anyone though, as a pregnant young waitress who’s also struggling with a heroin problem. It’s a definite example of casting-against-type, but Knightley perversely feels easier in her skin here then she does in some of her other early parts, convincingly desperate and desperately convincing.

Emma Stone – “Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past” (2009)
Perhaps the nadir of Matthew McConaughey’s pre -aissance slide, “Ghosts Of Girlfriend Past” is a terrible, terrible movie, saccharine, tonally misjudged and mostly woefully unfunny (and doubly disappointing for coming from Mark Waters, then coming off the excellent “Mean Girls”). But there’s one major redeeming feature, and that’s a young Emma Stone, playing the Ghost Of Girlfriend Past of the title. Stone was very early in her career: then only 19, she had a few teen TV credits under her belt (most notably sadly short-lived show “Drive” with Nathan Fillion and Melanie Lynskey) before breaking out with “Superbad.” That film led to her shining in otherwise dire comedies like “The Rocker” and “The House Bunny” before “Zombieland” let her graduate to leads, but her redeeming powers are never in clearer evidence than in “Ghosts Of Girlfriend Past,” where she dons frizzy hair and braces to play McConaughey’s teen ex. Unleashing her deft old-school comedienne chops, she’s responsible for the only laughs in the movie, but also a surprising amount of gravitas for one so young. When she rejects a sleazy Michael Douglas at the film’s end, it’s like a metaphor for her being destined for bigger and better things.

Meryl Streep – “Heartburn” (1986)
You wouldn’t have thought that an actress with three Oscars and nineteen total nominations could have such a thing as an overlooked performance, but it’s a testament to the legendary status of Meryl Streep that she has a brace of performances that weren’t recognized by the Academy that only serve to reemphasize her greatness. Streep’s a tricky one to go for as well, because voters were on to her from the start: “The Deer Hunter” was only her second movie. But in terms of deeper cuts from the Streep canon, we’re particularly fond of “Heartburn,” which reunited Streep with Nora Ephron, the writer of the earlier “Silkwood.” Telling the thinly-veiled story of Ephron’s marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein (whose surrogate is played here by Jack Nicholson), it’s a flawed, but interesting piece of work, but one that deserves reevaluation if only for the central performances. Two full decades before Streep reinvented herself as a comedic force of nature and made herself a bigger star than ever with the likes of “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Julie & Julia,” this was her first chance to display her funny bone, and Streep is so good here that you wonder why more filmmakers didn’t take advantage of her light touch before. The chemistry between her and Nicholson is palpable, but more importantly, Streep shifts between comedy and real, earned pathos on a dime, in a way that’s much more successful than the film itself. The film’s certainly not part of the Streep canon, but there’s certainly an argument that it deserves to be.

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