The trouble with awards season, especially when it comes to actors who often attract nominations, is that there’s a risk that it delegitimizes their work if it doesn’t get recognized. If Meryl Streep, say, has countless nominations, than there could be a temptation to think of her performances in less awards-friendly fare as “lesser” work, whereas in fact, the opposite can be true—even in films that are of otherwise questionable quality, the actors can still give remarkable performances.
That’s something that we’re always conscious of here. And having picked out some underrated and overlooked performances by this year’s Oscar-nominated supporting actors and actresses last week, we now turn our eye to the leading categories—ten performers who are all justifiably nominated for great work this year, but who have equally notable turns tucked away in the quieter corners of their resume. Take a look at our picks below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
Christian Bale – “Harsh Times” (2005)
Still only just forty, Christian Bale has had a fascinating career spanning over 25 years that’s seen him go from child star to teen musical actor to romantic lead to Bateman to Batman to blockbuster lead to gaunt indie star to the looser, funnier performer that’s emerged in David O. Russell‘s films. But one of his most impressive, and little-seen turns, comes in a film that combines at least a few of the above in “Harsh Times,” the 2005 directorial debut of “Training Day” writer David Ayer. In his first-post “Batman Begins” role, Bale plays Jim, a former Ranger with a hair-trigger temper and a fondness for the darker things in life, who spends a few days with his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) back in L.A., only for the pair to get into all kinds of trouble. It’s a fairly unapologetic, more tattoo-heavy tribute to “Mean Streets,” with Bale essentially as the Johnny Boy surrogate, and it has most of the flaws of Ayer’s other work—some unconvincing badass dialogue, contrived plotting, an uneasy balance between gritty reality and movie bullshit. But it’s pretty engaging throughout, and mostly because of Bale’s performance: in a turn not quite like anything he’s done before or since, he’s a self-destructive tornado, the friend that everyone has who’s consistently making your life worse, but you love anyway. And Bale, of course, nails the charisma, the monstrous aspects of Jim, and the sad, traumatized ex-soldier underneath. It’s far from one of his best movies, but Bale is enormously magnetic throughout.
Bruce Dern – “Black Sunday” (1977)
Given that he’s some way from his ’70s heyday and not much of a household name among the general public, you could probably argue that many of the performances that made Bruce Dern‘s name—”Silent Running,” “The Driver,” “The King Of Marvin Gardens,” and even his previous nomination for Hal Ashby‘s “Coming Home“—could be deemed as underrated these days. But we’ll take any chance we can get to shine a light on John Frankenheimer‘s terrific thriller “Black Sunday,” and given that it features one of Dern’s best performances, it felt like the perfect choice here. Based on a novel by “Silence Of The Lambs” author Thomas Harris that follows a Palestinian-backed plot to detonate the Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl, it takes a somewhat silly premise and treats it deadly seriously, with a clever and unique structure that spends as much time with Black September operative Marthe Keller and Dern’s traumatized Vietnam vet pilot working with her, as it does with the nominal heroes, Mossad agent Robert Shaw and the FBI’s Fritz Weaver. The result is a film that really digs into the motivations of the villains, and in particular, it’s Dern that gets a chance to shine, with an atypically accurate portrayal of mental illness for the genre. His Michael Lander is a man broken by his time in Vietcong activity and by being abandoned by both his family and his country, and though he’s a maniac, he’s one that you feel for more than little. It’s by some distance the best performance in the movie, and one that sits alongside the very best of his work.
Leonardo DiCaprio – “Revolutionary Road” (2008)
As far as deeply subversive casting choices go, the idea of reteaming the stars for the biggest cinematic romance of modern times for an adaptation of one of American literature’s most bruising and painful tales of marriage has to be right up there. Sam Mendes‘ “Revolutionary Road” isn’t an unqualified success—it’s a little too theatrical and distanced in a lot of ways. But a few years on, there’s a lot to recommend it, not least the performances. In fact, looking back, it’s curious that Leonardo DiCaprio was so overlooked at awards time, as the film clearly sees him doing some of his best work ever. DiCaprio is Frank Wheeler, the perfect-on-the-surface suburban father married to Kate Winslet‘s April, a sort of Don Draper without the charm or self-confidence, an ambitious, frustrated, semi-feckless embodiment of the American dream. It’s an incredibly smart use of DiCaprio, both for the pain brought by his pre-existing screen history with Winslet, and for its use of some of his less-tapped resources, a capacity for portraying weakness and superficiality that’s glossed over in something like, say, “Blood Diamond” (but which Martin Scorsese makes full use of in “The Wolf Of Wall Street“). By the devastating conclusion, it’s almost impossible to think of anyone else in the role, and we can’t think of many higher compliments.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – “Kinky Boots” (2005)
For at least a decade, we’ve considered Chiwetel Ejiofor about the most exciting actor out there, and so as such, we’d consider almost everything he’s done up to this point underrated. From his star-making turn as the quietly heroic immigrant doctor in “Dirty Pretty Things,” to South African activist roles in “Red Dust” and “Endgame,” to his pretentious musician in Woody Allen‘s “Melinda and Melinda,” to low-key but magnetic supporting turns in things like “Inside Man” and “Talk To Me,” to the smart, sinister villain in “Serenity,” to terrific ass-kicking lead in David Mamet‘s “Redbelt,” he’s one of those actors who knocks it out of the park every time. But the one we’d like to highlight here is the one that’s perhaps the part that’s furthest from his Oscar-nominated role in “12 Years A Slave,” in the mostly unseen British comedy “Kinky Boots” (which has recently got a new lease of life, after being adapted into a hit Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein and Cindy Lauper). The film itself—which sees Joel Edgerton try to turn around his struggling shoe business by teaming with Ejiofor’s drag queen to make the very specific footwear of the title—is very formulaic, and is somewhat problematic in the way that it makes Ejiofor’s character so asexual. But the performer is a goddamn force of nature as Simon/Lola, taking a character who so easily be could be a collection of cliches and finding the real person underneath. The gift he shows for comedy (and for music!) here is one that needs to be tapped more, particularly after the heavier work in ‘Slave,’ keeping Lola light on her feet without abandoning the pathos, and he finds a way to make it theatrical without breaking the reality of the film. It’s a truly wonderful performance that elevates the movie around it, and though he got a Golden Globe nomination for the film, the turn deserves a lot more attention than it’s had before now.
Matthew McConaughey – “Frailty” (2001)
The narrative has it that, after a promising start to his career with “Dazed & Confused,” “Lone Star,” “A Time To Kill” et al., Matthew McConaughey squandered his promise on a series of dreadful rom-coms before waking up for his recent career renaissance a few years back. It’s neat, but it does overlook a few more interesting parts in that darker decade or so of his career—the guilt-stricken lawyer in ‘Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” the ridiculously enjoyable Colonel Kurtz-esque dragon-slayer in “Reign Of Fire” and the desperate agent in “Tropic Thunder.” And best of all, there’s “Frailty,” a pulpy but very well done directorial debut from Bill Paxton. A performance that, more than any, prefigures the kind of work he’s been doing more recently (in fact, it’s eerily reminiscent of “True Detective” in some ways). It sees McConaughey as Fenton Meiks, a Texan man who walks into the office of an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) and confesses that his father and brother were serial killers who believed that they were killing demons in the name of God. It’s a difficult role—he’s mostly there as a narrator until the closing stages, and an unreliable one at that—but McConaughey takes to it with aplomb, subduing both his Southern charm and the character’s true nature, before being truly chilling when he finally plays his hand. At the time, it felt like an unusual reminder of the promise he once held, now, it seems more like a glimpse of the better things that were to come.
Amy Adams – “Sunshine Cleaning” (2008)
It’s easy enough to forget, now that Amy Adams is such an Oscar fixture, that the actress really hasn’t been around for all that long, as her rise to fame was positively meteoric after her first Oscar nod for “Junebug” in 2006. The actress is someone who has a habit of improving almost anything she’s in, from lowbrow comedies like “Talladega Nights” to half-formed prestige pictures like “On The Road” to otherwise skippable blockbusters like “Night At The Museum 2” (which is obviously very bad, but she’s terrific as Amelia Earhart in it). But one that we think is somewhat overlooked is “Sunshine Cleaning,” one of her first post-“Junebug,” post-“Enchanted” chances at a lead role. The film—about a pair of sisters (Adams and an also-very-good Emily Blunt) struggling to get by, who set up a crime-scene-cleaning business—is a little bit Sundance-by-numbers, the kind of movie that seems to have had an exact formula of comedy and pathos to combine with its indie-pop soundtrack and high-concept premise. But it has some agreeably rough edges, and more importantly, two terrific lead performances. Adams initially appears to be in the same kind of wheelhouse of upbeat optimism as “Junebug,” which threatened to see her typecast before she struck out into newer territory, but it’s actually something a little different. Her character Rose is putting a brave face on life, but is certainly beaten down by the various indignities, humiliations and tragedies she’s had to suffer over the years, and the moments where Adams lets the mask slipped are all the more heartbreaking because of the perkiness of the role otherwise. And there’s a simmering anger that not enough filmmakers take advantage of with the actress. If you skipped the minor indie hit but are an Adams fan, you should probably rectify that situation now.
Cate Blanchett – “Little Fish” (2005)
In general, Cate Blanchett has specialized in higher-status characters—most of her best-known parts, from her breakthrough role as Queen Elizabeth to her first Oscar as Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator” to being an elf queen in “Lord of the Rings” have seen her as the person in control. “Blue Jasmine” is atypical in that it depicts the downfall of a once high-status character, but it’s not entirely out of step, as anyone who saw the quiet desperation of her performance in 2005’s “Little Fish.” Her first real return to Australian cinema since she became a star sees her play Tracy, a former heroin addict now clean for four years, and trying to stay that way, despite the influence of an old dealer boyfriend (Dustin Nguyen) and an ex-sports star pal (Hugo Weaving, giving arguably the best performance of his career). You’re so used to seeing Blanchett play icons and goddesses that it’s deeply refreshing to see her take on something so low-key and naturalistic, and she’s as good here as she is otherwise, whether playing the quiet desperation as Tracy tries to escape her troubled past, or the deep hunger that bursts up when she comes into contact with the drug that ruined her life. The film (directed by Rowan Woods) comes off the rails as it heads into melodrama in the closing stages, but the performances, not least Blanchett’s, shine through nevertheless.
Sandra Bullock – “Infamous” (2006)
2006’s “Infamous” was undercut and overshadowed by the previous year’s “Capote,” which took a virtually identical premise to Oscar-winning success. And there’s a degree to which that’s fair—the latter is a truly remarkable film, the former is a more traditionally Hollywood affair, glossier and shallower, and more sloppily made. But it’s not without its pleasures, in the shape of a Toby Jones performance as Truman Capote that’s only overlooked because of the titanic one that Philip Seymour Hoffman gave, and a lovely and atypical supporting turn from Sandra Bullock as “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee. Bullock is an actress who very rarely takes on anything but lead roles, and at the time, she was mostly seen in romantic comedies or weepies, but her take on Lee is easily one of the best performances of her career. Given more prominence than Catherine Keener‘s performance in “Capote,” Lee’s a loyal friend to the film’s subject, but there’s a tiredness and frustration to the performance that feels more authentic and fully-realized, to the extent that you come out feeling like you’d rather have watched a movie entirely about Lee than the cruder retelling of the earlier movie that you just sat through. Warm, precise and beautifully drawn, it makes you wish that Bullock spent more time than she does on character parts like this.
Judi Dench – “Nine” (2009)
On stage, Judi Dench is known as well for her work in musicals as she is for her Shakespeare, despite not being known particularly as a singer: her performance as Sally Bowles in the London debut of “Cabaret” helped to make her a star, and her rendition of “Send In The Clown” in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” is still talked about in hushed tones by London’s theaterati (watch it and have your heart broken here). But on screen, she’s not had much chance to flex her musical muscles, with one significant exception: in Rob Marshall‘s 2009 “Nine.” The film was famously a whopping great disappointment, somehow managing to miscast Daniel Day-Lewis and generally coming across as a misfire. But the benefit of an episodic structure is that it’s a film that works much better while watching clips of its few highlights (Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz‘s scenes) than as a whole, and Dench’s particular showcase is one of those points that makes it look like an infinitely better movie than it really is. Dench is typically good value as the costume designer to Day-Lewis’ film director when she’s just speaking, but she’s positively transcendent when performing her big number, “Folies Bergeres,” a tribute to French showgirls and their outfits. Without the aid of effects or make-up, Dench seems to get four decades younger, letting her lovely, croaky voice evoke days gone by, and lending wry humor that’s somewhat lacking elsewhere in the film. Marshall might be clinically unable to break out of the proscenium arch when he shoots a musical number, but in this case, that’s a benefit: stage veteran Dench is absolutely magnetic in a way that, say, Day-Lewis or, uh, Fergie aren’t when their turns come.
Meryl Streep – “Heartburn” (1986)
You wouldn’t have thought that an actress with three Oscars and eighteen 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. You could go with the the meaty lead role of “Plenty,” the villainy of “The Manchurian Candidate,” the unexpected comic grotesque of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events,” the country musical act of Robert Altman‘s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and even her sharp vocal turn in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” But we’d just give the edge to her performance in Mike Nichols‘ “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.