Monday, March 10, 2014

My Favorite Underrated Actors

I love watching good acting, but there are some actors who I think don't get nearly the credit they should for the roles they're in. So I figured I'd compile a list.

These are eight of my very favorite actors who I feel are unknown, or underappreciated, or have an undeservedly bad reputation. Roughly in order from "least underrated" (meaning they get at last SOME of the attention they deserve) to "most underrated" (meaning WHY IS THIS PERSON NOT EVERYONE'S FAVORITE ACTOR?).

8. Michael Shannon

He's lowest on the list because this guy actually does get a good deal of recognition an accolades... from people who know who he is. He's an actor who I will watch in just about anything, but he's most fun when he's playing people who are a little unbalanced -- he does that so well! My favorite roles of his are in weird little movies that most people haven't seen, although he's gotten a shot at some larger roles like in Man of Steel (which I have yet to see, but it's part of my movie challenge list this year so I'm looking forward to seeing him in it).

Favorite role: Bug. First thing I saw him in, first thing I loved him in.

7. Jesse Eisenberg

Eisenberg has his fair share of love from the crowd as well, but for some reason when it was announced that he was going to play Lex Luthor, the Internet FREAKED OUT. The old "He's basically Michael Cera" comment started making the rounds again (which I've never understood at all -- they project quintessentially different personas to me). Sure, he's done some silly comedies that haven't been great, but has he really not proven his acting chops to the American public with The Social Network? I for one love Eisenberg and look forward to seeing what he continues to do.

Favorite role: The Squid and the Whale. He easily pulls his weight in this movie up against some other great actors (one of which we will get to later on this list).

6. Jack Lemmon

Few people will argue with you if you tell them that Jack Lemmon is a great actor, but he never seems to be on anyone's "favorites" list either. Well, he's easily my favorite "classic" movie actor, but he also had some great roles in more modern movies as well, staying active as a performer almost right up until his death in 2001. He's one of those actors who are instantly likable for me as a protagonist, and he was so versatile -- I love how he could tackle both comedic and dramatic roles brilliantly.

Favorite role: Really, really tough to choose this one, but I think The Odd Couple wins. It just ever slightly edges out Some Like It Hot.

5. Tom Cruise

I used to think I didn't like Tom Cruise, but when he has a chance to do something really good, he nearly always delivers. Turns out he just also picks a lot of blah movies with one-note action star characters -- which, yes, he does phone in a lot. But just look at his work in Tropic Thunder, Magnolia, Rain Man, Vanilla Sky, Collateral, or even the awesomely ridiculous Rock of Ages (where he was easily the best part of the entire movie), and it's clear that he's capable of so much more.

Favorite role: Magnolia. Man, was that an uncomfortable character.

4. Jeff Daniels

Most people, sadly, only know Jeff Daniels as Harry from Dumb & Dumber, but OH MY GOSH, he is so much better than that movie. I've been delighted to see him getting recognition for his work in Aaron Sorkin's TV show The Newsroom lately, but I've been a fan of his since I first saw The Squid and the Whale in 2005. That was a situation where I saw him in that movie and instantly started looking up other things he's been in. In The Newsroom and The Squid and the Whale he plays the same sort of arrogant quasi-pretentious snob, but then you watch him in something like The Purple Rose of Cairo, where he exudes childlike innocence, or the TV version of The Goodbye Girl, where he's a passionate stage actor, and he's equally awesome in those.

Favorite role: The Squid and the Whale. He captures that character so very, very perfectly.

3. Toshirô Mifune

He's another one who is underrated not because nobody acknowledges his talent, but because he's relatively unknown. If you don't watch Japanese cinema, you'll have no idea who he is. I know him entirely from films by Akira Kurosawa, as he has played the main character in quite a few of them. He has a wonderful raw, rough energy to him that takes him far beyond the typical rugged action hero character and makes him captivating to watch, whether he's playing a hero samurai or a notorious outlaw or a wealthy businessman or Macbeth.

Favorite role: Seven Samurai. In an ensemble cast, he just exudes so much personality and is a delight to watch.

2. Kevin Kline

While most of the actors on this list are known for their dramatic work, Kevin Kline is an actor who I love most in comedic roles. His serious stuff is fine, but give him the right comedic role with plenty of opportunities for hamming it up and he will find all the right line deliveries. I particularly enjoy him when he's playing someone a little bit pompous and over-the-top, and he does that a lot. His portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac (unfortunately opposite the truly awful Jennifer Garner) is probably my true favorite role of his, but it was a TV show broadcast rather than a movie... and he's certainly been in plenty of movie roles I love as well. If he's in a comedy, I'll make a beeline for it.

Favorite role: A Fish Called Wanda. So many little moments that crack me up -- he says all his ridiculous lines with such certainty.

1. Sam Rockwell

The more I see things with Sam Rockwell in them, the more I really do have to ask myself why he hasn't gotten ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD. From EVERYONE. I can only assume because, like Michael Shannon, he does a lot of low-profile flicks that aren't mega blockbuster. I've never seen him in anything where I didn't absolutely love him -- he might just be my very favorite actor at this point. He's got this crazy energy about him, but he's not always big and over-the-top like some of the others on this list -- sometimes it's just that you can see that crazy energy simmering just underneath the calm surface. He pulls off dramatic stuff and comedic stuff and takes on roles that I can't possibly see anybody else doing right.

There was a meme going around on Facebook a little while ago casting American actors as various incarnations of the Doctor from Doctor Who, and he was one of the options. That was actually the meme that made me decide to write this blog, because nobody else seemed to be nearly as excited I was about even the hypothetical made-up imaginary idea of Sam Rockwell as the Doctor.

Favorite role: UM. THIS IS HARD. I think I'm going to have to go with Seven Psychopaths. But I could happily choose three or four other roles, because he is so good in everything.

What do you guys think? What underrated actors would make it into your list?


  1. I was in the pro-Eisenberg-as-Luthor camp the moment I heard that news. It's one of the few things I've heard so far about that movie that interests me. I think as long as the material they give him is even halfway decent, he'll prove to be the greatest screen Luthor yet.

    I liked and respected - but didn't quite love - The Social Network, and his performance had a lot to do with that. I loved Zombieland, including his misfit Columbus and his chemistry with the others. He was really the glue of that cast (though I did get a kick watching Woodie Harrelson interact with Abigail Breslin). I think the Cera conflations are really just due to that one role, which admittedly did feel like a typical Cera character, but to insist that they're somehow "the same guy" is absurd.

    I'd throw out Adventureland as another solid performance of his. Kristen Stewart almost seems awake and engaged in her scenes with him, and that's saying something!

    Jack Lemmon is a guy whose work I've been meaning to explore for ages but for one reason or another, I just haven't gotten far yet. I have, of course, seen most of his collaborations with Walter Matthau (Grumpy Old Men, The Odd Couple and their sequels, and Out to Sea), plus My Fellow Americans. My appreciation for his work in The Odd Couple increased significantly when I came back to it in 2012, in light of similarities between his character's experiences and my own.

    Tom Cruise is that one guy who stands in the middle of the Venn diagram between people I'm pretty sure I would dislike if I actually knew for real, but whose work somehow wins me over more often than not. About a week ago, I stayed up and did a marathon of all four Mission: Impossible movies, which reminded me how fun he is to watch. For my money, his finest performance is in Eyes Wide Shut, which we've discussed elsewhere.

    I'll have to think on my picks.

    1. To me, the main thing that makes Eisenberg feel very different from Cera to me is that Eisenberg always projects a certain cockiness, while Cera ALWAYS seems insecure and uncertain. Even in Zombieland, where he played a sort of self-deprecating character, it still had a geekcentric arrogance to it. I always get the sense that his characters, while acknowledging their weaknesses, think very highly of their own intelligence. (Making him a BRILLIANT choice for characters like Mark Zuckerberg and Lex Luthor.) I haven't seen Adventureland yet, but it's been on my list for forever.

      If you're looking for a good dramatic performance from Lemmon, I highly recommend Glengarry Glen Ross. It has a terrific ensemble cast in general, but Lemmon's character is the one I remember most.

      Ah, I had somehow forgotten about Eyes Wide Shut. You're right, even though I didn't care for the movie as a whole, Cruise was wonderful in that. I think I agree with you that we wouldn't necessarily gel as real-life friends, but I think he deserves a lot more respect as an actor than he gets from the rest of America.