This was originally written for Taste of Cinema, the original post is available here – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-underrated-movie-performances-from-veteran-actors/
There are more actors than you think that are universally recognised as all time greats. There have always been those sitting comfortably at the top, known by anybody with even a mildly passing interest in cinema, such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Tom Cruise, however for those more interested by film there are a shocking amount of instantly recognisable faces belonging to stars.
However, just because they’re well known and big deals in Hollywood doesn’t mean that they aren’t sometimes in projects that don’t receive the deserved attention, and it certainly doesn’t mean that their performances receive praise, so… let’s take a look at ten performances from some of the most recognisable and famous actors in cinema that deserve more credit than they’ve had up to this point, shall we?
1. Johnny Depp in Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Now, as someone who can’t typically stand Johnny Depp in much other than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam), this one came as quite a surprise. As a mega-fan of Michael Mann’s films, especially his 21st century films, the temptation was enough to tolerate Depp, however it turned out that he gave a complete showstopper of a performance as John Dillinger.
Stripping back his usual over-the-top and comic antics as charismatic pranksters in most of his other films (an unfortunate case of typecasting!), Depp plays Dillinger completely straight and manages to slip perfectly into the role of the harsh gangster whom Mann paints as more delicate than one would think – certainly more human. Depp is so well suited to what Mann wanted for his portrayal of Dillinger that it’s honestly quite arresting, as Depp works with Mann to shatter the tired tropes of the crime biopic by humanising the criminal at the centre as opposed to sensationalising them. It’s an incredible film helped a great deal by Depp’s shocker of a performance.
2. Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)
Of course, Pattinson is generally very acclaimed now thanks to films like The Lost City of Z (Gray), Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie), High Life (Denis) and a few others that he has carefully chosen in the later half of the 2010s, however, many will also remember the absolute critical blasting that should have shot down his career before he ever got to show his talent over his turn as Edward in the Twilight adaptations.
Cosmopolis came out before Robert Pattinson had become a newfound star, born again as a great character actor in indie films, and yet it must be the film that started this total 180 shift in his career. Based upon a book by the great Don DeLillo of the same name, Cronenberg and Pattinson focus intently on trying to capture the very unique, distanced style that DeLillo communicates so well on page with the camera. Pattinson is so brilliant at detaching himself and delivering the (intentionally) obtuse and clunky dialogue with his co-stars, marking the moment of re-birth for a young star who now has proven himself as an assuredly strong performer.
3. Isabelle Huppert in Amateur (Hal Hartley, 1994)
Similarly to the style of David Cronenberg and Don DeLillo as mentioned above, Hal Hartley’s character always deliver their dialogue in an intentionally clunky and awkward fashion. Hartley overwrites a little, blocks his sets a little awkwardly and lets the characters all bask in the slight discomfort that comes from his excellent scriptwriting, and in Amateur, it is Isabelle Huppert who makes a surprising turn in the spy thriller comedy that Hartley would go on to really perfect a decade later when he directed the astoundingly good Fay Grim in 2006.
However, Huppert’s performance in Amateur is a huge part of what makes the film so charming. Helped along by a host of Hartley regulars, Huppert acts as a fish out of water stuck in Hal’s brilliant world of cautiously timed cause and effect that always sees things play out exactly as a playwright would dream they could.
Perfect timing, hilarious coincidences and the hand of fate controlling a huge group of characters, pulling them all together and orchestrating a distinctly merciless brutality upon them when they do finally meet mean that Amateur becomes a wonderfully funny film of worst (and best) case scenarios, and Huppert acts as the slightly more solid centre to the chaos that ensues. She stands out in all the right ways and gives one of her most surprising performances to date in a film that generally deserves much more recognition.
4. Tim Roth in Meantime (Mike Leigh, 1983)
After getting his career started with the brilliant Alan Clarke film Made In Britain just a year before (with an absolute beast of a performance as a second wave skinhead in 80s Britain), Tim Roth starred in a film for the other truly great British filmmaker of the time, Mike Leigh, in what would be one of his greatest and most underrated projects – Meantime. It seems that the curtain is slowly being lifted on this one, seeing as it recently received a Criterion upgrade and has been discussed much more since, becoming known as one of the prime examples of a film documenting life in Thatcher’s Britain, however the credit is still most definitely due, and shining a little more light on a personal favourite is always fun.
Meantime focuses itself upon a family struggling with unemployment in London in the early 80s, a problem that effected a huge amount of people in the UK generally at the time. Taking a slow burn approach to try to detail the boredom of wiling away the days in any way possible – of wasting the time that otherwise could be used so crucially – Leigh does a fantastic job of authentically capturing the life of the lower class unemployed whilst also ensuring that the film stays plenty entertaining via his usual improvised character work and his subtle yet hilarious dialogue.
It’s certainly one of his best works, and by using Tim Roth as the centre-point of the drama (giving him an entirely different role to the one that kick-started his career a year earlier), the film becomes all the more touching and meaningful.
5. Robert De Niro in The Fan (Tony Scott, 1996)
Let’s face it – De Niro needs absolutely no introduction. He’s been in practically all of the greatest crime films of the last fifty years or so, from his work in the early 70s with Brian De Palma and Scorsese all the way to his more varied work today (seeing him try comedy has been wonderful, even if it hasn’t always gone so smoothly), and he shows no real signs of stopping after giving one of the best performances of his career in the recently released The Irishman (Scorsese). In Tony Scott’s The Fan, he tries something a little different but similar enough to some of his other works that he still feels plenty confident enough to pull it off, and it shows.
Channelling more of his energy from The King Of Comedy/Cape Fear (Both Scorsese works too!), in the film De Niro plays Gil Renard, an obsessive fan of his favourite baseball player Bobby Rayburn (played by Wesley Snipes, who also gives a really good performance here!) whose obsessive behaviour turns expectedly more sinister.
Whilst the film doesn’t exactly try anything new, Scott’s stylised direction (as usual!) and De Niro’s high energy performance bring out the best of this type of film and really improve what would otherwise be more mediocre than great. De Niro toes the line between a seemingly nice gentlemanly type and the much darker, much more unpredictable version of himself that comes out when he or his obsession are in any trouble. This is a great watch for any fans of Joker, for sure.
6. Willem Dafoe in Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, 2019)
The pairing of Dafoe and Ferrara appears to be one that is gathering much more attention after Tommaso and Siberia were both announced in quick succession. Whilst Siberia was far more divisive due to the oddball storyline (I personally think it could be Ferrara’s weakest film in about thirty years… but the opinions on the film range a great deal!), Tommaso seemed to please many more by giving the audience a look into the life of Ferrara through Dafoe, who essentially acts as a version of Ferrara behind the scenes – an artist struggling with bringing his latest work to life and struggling even more maintaining his sobriety and domestic stability.
Seeing Ferrara return from his fiction film hiatus with such a powerful and personal project was wonderful as never before has Ferrara done something like this – there have only ever been subtle nods towards his own ideals throughout the majority of his films – and Ferrara didn’t hold back either, bringing out all of those demons that you’d think he would never bring forward without needing to.
Dafoe takes all of these personal demons and manages to carefully bring them out of himself in a way so convincing and often more subtle than expected that the audience could easily think that he were playing himself, even doing great with the Italian language parts of the film too. As far as personal films go, Tommaso is one of the best of the 21st century, and is a must watch for artists generally – it is absolutely incredible.
7. Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
Jim Jarmusch is likely most known for his irreverent and quirky style, usually making his films consist of strong dialogue and character work with minimal plot, but Ghost Dog sees him take things in a slightly new direction. Gone are the everyday people, in are the mafia and assassins… a weird change for sure, and one that seems to turn a lot of his fans away from what is one of his finest films.
Starring Forest Whitaker as what feels like a blueprint version of Laurence Fishburne’s bird-loving killer in the John Wick trilogy, the film does a brilliant job of allowing Jarmusch’s usual good eyes for the beauties of the everyday and mundane to flourish whilst also going for the great traits of a typical crime underworld film, with Whitaker managing to execute both pretty flawlessly whilst making it look easy. His usual charisma helps, as does his love for the birds and even the RZA soundtrack, but Whitaker does most of the hard work in bringing his oddball character to life and even more in making him feel relatable given his profession as hitman.
8. Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)
Whilst Gena Rowlands certainly received a great deal of praise for her showstopper of a performance in A Woman Under The Influence, in which she may give the greatest performance of all time (it’s definitely among the greatest!), her turns in other Cassavetes films always seen to receive a little less praise than they should. Opening Night sees Rowlands as Myrtle Gordon, a stage actress who is mentally torn apart after an encounter with a fan gone horribly wrong.
Winning her the Silver Bear for Best Actress in 1978, Opening Night reflects plenty on the home life of Cassavetes and Rowlands (who were husband and wife) too, giving insights into how their relationship works and how it is held together by their mutual need to express themselves through cinema. Rowlands carries just about every emotion there is, portraying an intense emotional mix between anxiety, passion and pain – surely a cocktail for disaster for a woman under as much pressure as her character in A Woman Under The Influence three years before.
9. Al Pacino in The Panic In Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)
Whilst his career exploded a year later thanks to a starring role in Coppola’s The Godfather (needless to say, a masterpiece!), leading to the assumption that Pacino’s career actually began with such a performance, many have forgotten the wonderful film that preceded it for Pacino – that film being The Panic In Needle Park. In the film, Pacino plays a young heroin addict who falls in love with Helen (played by Kitty Winn, who gives her best performance too – the scene on the boat is stunning), the film taking a fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing the harsh realities of drug addiction and hustling in Manhattan’s Needle Park.
It’s a hard watch, Pacino making it so with his young and naive puppy-dog eyes and the terrific way that he consistently grounds his performance by acting directly on the line between a teenager and an adult (someone who thinks they have their grips on things, but really don’t), but it fully warrants watching with its wonderful verite approach to New York City, an approach that is still replicated now (a notable recent replication would be Heaven Knows What by the Safdie Brothers, another film about a couple of drug addicts in NYC, and also another great film). Schatzberg directs beautifully, and Pacino fills the demanding boots of his performance excellently considering that this was his first starring role.
10. Rooney Mara in Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
Saving the worst for last, maybe – Rooney Nara’s turn in David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of the most praised female performances of the 21st century so far, blowing people away with how she brought the dark world of the story to the screen so well. After some great smaller roles in films like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and The Social Network (Fincher again, this time in 2010), Mara made something of a comeback as a leading star when she appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s taut mystery thriller Side Effects in 2013.
Considering that the film presents a great amount of unpredictables twists and turns intended to provoke the audience throughout, Mara’s performance becomes similar to that of a wicked chameleon as she constantly has to adapt the subtleties in her performance to match the perspective of Jude Law, the psychiatrist trying to unravel the mystery before his life and reputation is shredded before his eyes.
Mara is never fully predictable, and manages to execute these constant shifts with seemingly little effort as the audience desperately tries to, and fails to, pin her character down and understand what she’s trying to do. When all is finally revealed, the twist works so smoothly largely thanks to Mara’s incredible turn as Emily.