Ever since the beginning of cinema there have been plenty of overlooked performances. In each actor’s career there will be one or two performances that he/she aren’t ever truly recognized for, which is a true shame due to the work that’s usually put into portraying a character. From the much longer list I originally composed, I’ve narrowed it down to 10 of the most underrated character portrayals in recent memory. Overlooked by either filmgoers, or The Academy Awards, these performances should have been recognized more greatly.
10. Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, Death Proof, and Planet Terror.
You know that when one of today’s greatest directors (Quentin Tarantino) considers a man “the world’s greatest living actor”, there’s something special about him. As Earl McGraw, Parks brings the character to life through a thick, Southern accent and a long, slow pace. He appears in Tarantino’s Universe several times, usually briefly, and mainly serves the “Soap-Opera-Technique” (as my English teacher calls it) to the audience through his humorous puns and monologues.
9. Nicolas Cage as Terence McDonagh in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
This film, along with Cage, received a LOT of grief, and I can’t see why. This is one of Werner Herzog’s greatest directorial efforts, and it features Nicolas Cage’s greatest performance of the last 20 years. I don’t think there could have been a better actor to play the role of McDonagh. Sure, Nicolas Cage isn’t the greatest of actors, especially due to his more recent roles, but give the man credit for being so fearless with his acting. As Ebert put it, and this is the perfect way of describing the actor, “Cage doesn’t care if you think he goes over the top. If a film calls for it, he will climb to the top hand over hand with bleeding fingernails.” That’s 100% true, and is definitely visible in Bad Lieutenant.
8. Hugo Weaving as V in V For Vendetta
Hugo Weaving is one of the great character actors of his generation, but hardly ever received a chance to shine, until V For Vendetta. We never see his face, other than a very brief, shadowy glimpse, yet Weaving’s presence is constantly commanding. He creates in us a blend of both sympathy and longing for rebellion without ever showing his face. THAT’S how you act.
7. David Carradine as Bill in Kill Bill
Although his presence isn’t very large in Vol. 1 of Kill Bill, in Vol. 2 we get our fair dosage of Bill. He has long, Tarantino monologues about life, death, and Superman, touched with appropriate amounts of violence and emotion. In fact, I would vote his “Superman” speech the greatest monologue given in a film during that whole decade of movies. From his cold-blooded line delivery, to his emotional death scene accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s “The Demise of Barbara, The Return of Joe”, Carradine definitely should have at least been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
6. Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia is a sprawling epic, which leaves logic behind and just goes with whatever it wants to. It’s operatic, exhilerating, and big; but it never truly picks up until Tom Cruise shows up. Cruise makes the film what it is as Mackey, a misogynist motivational speaker who gives one of the funniest speeches of all time (RESPECT THE C) and is truly spectacular.
5. Adam Sandler as Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk-Love
Adam Sandler is a goofball. I can’t say I’ve ever really enjoyed any of his films, other than his earlier material, such as Happy Gilmore. But his strange turn as Barry Egan in Paul Thomas Anderson’s comedy, Punch-Drunk-Love, was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had while watching a movie. Weird, non-expressive, and fueled with an internal temper, Sandler delivers the part perfectly. No other actor could have done it as well, which is a surprise.
4. Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in Hunger
Hunger is one of the most devastating films one could ever witness. Directed by one of today’s greatest upcoming directors, it’s an artistic, visually ravishing descent into the Hell one will endure for his people and his freedom. Michael Fassbender’s preparation for his role as Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican who leads his fellow prisoners on a horrific hunger strike, is daunting and striking. Fassbender sacrificed not only his body, but his mind too for the role. Going on a crash diet, losing quite a bit of poundage, and delivering a fantastic performance all simultaneously should have been enough to garner at least a nomination for Best Actor, if not a win.
3. Matthew McConaughey as Joe Cooper in Killer Joe
If there’s one thing William Friedkin knows how to do, it’s extracting some fantastic performances from his actors. Before this film was released, McConaughey only had given, really, one good performance in his entire career, which was in Lincoln Lawyer. Prior to that he primarily starred in one boringly daft romantic comedy after another. However, he instantly shot up the list of actors to watch after starring in Killer Joe. He gives one of the most disturbing performances of all time, to say the least. Let’s just say that after watching the film, you’ll never look at a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick the same way again…
2. Leonardo DiCaprio in just about everything
I’ve always called Leonardo DiCaprio the most overused-overrated-underrated actor of his generation. The explanation to that is that he’s been in so many good films and has built himself such a great career that it’s almost unbearable, but the poor guy has yet to win an Oscar, which makes me sick. DiCaprio’s greatest role is a toss-up between two portrayals that he should have won Oscars for, both times: Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, probably the most realistic portrayal of a mentally-challenged person cinema has ever seen; and Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, where he made one, big disturbing turn in his career. The fact that DiCaprio hasn’t won an Oscar is complete blasphemy, no matter how popular or overused he is.
1. Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame
Shame, directed by the fantastic Steve McQueen (mentioned above as the director of Hunger), transcends cinematic boundaries by conveying to its audience the life of a man coping with sex addiction, a very real issue in our society. Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, seems like a normal man to the people around him, with a cozy apartment and a corporate job. He gets up and when he goes out into public he smiles and laughs and jokes around. But as the audience, we’re pulled in deeper and we get a peak behind his steel curtain. We soon realize that his life is plagued with darkness. Brandon, being a sex addict, frequently engages in hook-ups with prostitutes, constantly views pornography, and simply can’t seem to stop masturbating, even at his workplace.
I can’t remember the last time I was so heavily moved by a film. The last film that left me with such a heavy weight on my shoulders was Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine”, but Shame tops it by a mile. The performance by Fassbender is haunting and absolutely realistic. Fassbender creates such a realism within the role, it’s almost too tragic to watch, because let’s be honest: We all suffer from our own addictions. We may not be a sex addict, and we may not suffer to the extent that Brandon does, but we all have our own sinful outlets. So, we automatically can relate to Brandon already, and through that, Shame turns into a terrifying drama.
It’s truly beyond me how Fassbender didn’t win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. And it’s REALLY beyond me as to why he didn’t even get a nomination. Is the Academy so old-school that they simply can’t handle a film that deals with real situations that go on in people’s hidden lives? Apparently so. Fassbender’s portrayal is brutally realistic, certainly deserving of an Academy Award, and is, for me, the most underrated acting performance of all time.
Author Bio: Tyler Harris is a film critic and analyst from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema and television keeps him in tune with his writing.