Everyone has a list of actors they think is underrated. These people do terrific work on film after film after film yet never seem to get the acclaim and attention of the biggest stars. Sometimes this is how they want it. Not everyone wants the red carpet and the paps and the press. And unfortunately, in our attention-span-of-a-flashcube culture, it’s those who do seek out celebrity, for good or bad or both, that are most remembered, regardless of their artistic endeavors. (Can you name me three recent Nicole Kidman movies?)

By “underrated,” by the way, I don’t mean I like them and so I want to see more of them. I mean they can do things—have a range and techniques—far greater than what they are given credit for.

My list of underrated would begin with Sienna Miller. Now, I know she’s hardly unknown, but she’s never quite been seen as a top-tier actress, I don’t think, and that is a mistake. Her work in Factory Girl and Interview is pretty extraordinary–in the latter, she gives us the classic Hollywood brat better than any American could ever have done. Despite the somewhat contrived plot (it’s about an ordinary guy who bumps into and then is befriended by a famous actress—who’d ever believe that???), her performance is a must-see.

A couple years ago I would have included Claire Danes in my underrated list, but she is now getting lots of accolades (well-deserved) for Temple Grandin and the current Homeland series on Showtime. So instead I’ll mention her costar from The Hours, Ed Harris. Here’s someone who’s been everything from an astronaut to Jackson Pollack, Gene Kranz (NASA honcho from the Apollo years) to E. Howard Hunt (Nixon honcho from the Watergate years). He’s someone who just wants to do the work, and is uninterested in the glitz.

If you missed Lars And The Real Girl then you missed what was in my opinion possibly the best film of 2007, or at the very least the best-written one. (True to form it lost the best original screenplay prize to the inferior and overly-hyped Juno.) Now, this was a whole film full of underrated people—just go to IMDB and read the cast—but the stand-out among the underrated is Kelli Garner. Never heard of her? You should have. She stole that movie and has gone on to do more top-drawer work, but somehow never gets much notice. And she’s drop-dead gorgeous, which mainstream Hollywood loves, making it more of a mystery. She went on to appear in the ill-fated ABC series Pan Am, which was canceled after just a few episodes…or maybe it wasn’t. Depends who you ask. She’s a talent waiting for her break. Too bad she wouldn’t look good in a Goth werewolf or vampire drama, which is all they seem to be making these days. (In case you haven’t guessed, Kristen Stewart would go high on my “Overrated” list, someone who has made a career on a drugged-out look of apathy and too much eyeliner.)

He’s not very active these days, but David Clennon showed his versatility since the 1970s. From the slick lawyer in Being There to the Air Force liaison in The Right Stuff to a strange hippy trippy guru in an episode of Barney Miller, he’s a master of seeming like a totally different person without ever changing much about his appearance, voice or mannerisms. Many peopel today probably remember him as the magnificently oily Miles Drentell, a bearded, sharply-dressed advertising executive in the TV show Thirtysomething. For such a fine actor he’s won little professional recognition. Perhaps his modesty is at fault. When nominated for his work in Thirtysomething, he modestly said “all” he did was wear the clothes and say someone else’s lines. Keep talking like that and people ignore you! Take a bow, Dave—you deserve it.

One of the best films of two years ago was Up In The Air, the ripped-from-the-headlines dramedy that starred George Clooney and … do you remember his co-star? Not Anna Kendrick the young hyper-ventilating co-worker, but his romantic co-star, the willowy, smart-but-sexy business excutive? I’d never heard of Vera Farmiga before this film, and I can’t imagine why, because she really held her own and more against Mr. Charmig in every scene and even stole some of them out-and-out. Clooney has so much natural charisma as an actor that he tends to blow others off the screen if they aren’t careful, yet Farmiga never looks like she’s working hard to keep her space with him. She’s also been excellent in other dramas, such as the somewhat underrated Nothing But The Truth, a political thriller. I’m happy to see she has ridden the momentum that came from Up In The Air to direct some of her own projects she cares deeply about. (BTW, also under-appreciated in Up In The Air was Amy Morton, who played Clooney’s sister. She may not have had any”big” moments, but she was pitch-perfect in every scene she was in.)

Jimmy Carter continues to get less recognition than he deserves. No, I don’t mean the ex-president, but actor Jim Carter, who can play everything from broad comedy to commanding drama. I was impressed to see him twice in one week on PBS a while back, playing both the butler Carson in the British drama Downton Abbey and an imperious Roman head of a doomed household in Pompeii: The Last Day (really good, by the way; you should track it down and see it). But of course one look at his credits shows he’s done darned near everything, and he’s definitely busy. But how many people know him by name?

Allison Janney. A lot of people know her by name, but I find it fascinating that earlier in her career she was told she’d only be able to play lesbians and aliens because she was so tall and big-boned! Check out her work schedule lately: lots of roles, and they can’t all be lesbians and ETs. (And I thought ETs were usually short anyway.) She has played lesbians, though, Quite well. (See The Hours, a movie she was originally cast in as the florist in a bit part (!) before convincing them she should be Meryl Streep’s Number Two.)

She may have peaked too soon (about twelve months ago), but I thought Aly Michalka was going to strike it big this year. She had a TV show on the CW that was doing well (Hellcats), several movies, and she was releasing music, as she also has a singing career. Don’t know much about the music career, but her show got canceled, the movies came and went, and she doesn’t seem too busy these days. Too bad. Maybe she’s facing a backlash against pretty, pouty blondes in the wake of so many talentless 20-somethings we’ve been flooded with recently, but I think she’s got more talent and more potential than her clones.

I’m sure there are many others I’ve omitted, but that’s a good start. Who are your favorite underrated actors and actresses? Let me know who I’m forgetting—I’ll probably slap my head and agree with you. There’s a lot of underrated talent out there.

One response

  1. Hi John,
    Happy New Year! I agree with so much of what you said. I loved the movie, Lars and the Real Girl. I definitely thought that one was under-rated. I also think Allison Janey is the best. I love when people prove critics wrong. Julianne Margules was told by an agent that because of her dark looks she would only get work in Europe. She showed them!


    January 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm

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