Talented actors who aren’t A-Listers have bills to pay. Though they take great artistic pride in their work, in order to make a living they must sometimes find a way to do their best in movies that aren’t as good as they are.
On this list, a movie fan will certainly find both names and films they recognize and admire, and they’ll definitely feel a little dejected in knowing that the majority of most of these performer’s careers will be filled not with awards, but only underappreciated performances like these.
In the list, the actual plots of the films aren’t fully explained, because most of the titles referenced are movies that everyone reading this article will be at least somewhat familiar with. The main reason for the list is giving praise to actors who are making an excellent effort in a movie that doesn’t live up to what they’re doing.
Note: in many of the movies referenced on the list, the actors singled out aren’t the only good performances given in the film, (Romeo + Juliet and Titus the main examples), but the reason they are being recognized is because without their contribution, an already flawed film would be lesser still without their presence.
15. John LaZar in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970, Russ Meyer)
Time has been very kind to the Russ Meyer/Roger Ebert collaboration that the two men created with studio money mostly to amuse themselves. An appreciation of camp and a script that gained a new life and audience when elements were borrowed by the Austin Powers franchise sparked renewed interest in the late 90s.
Though it can’t be called legitimately great by any formal critic, it can still be admired for all the things that make it an enjoyable experience, primarily the painterly cinematography, the beautiful people constantly partying, and the singular performance of John LaZar.
Playing the Phil Spector-inspired music impresario Ronnie “Z Man” Barzell, LaZar is so captivating that he forces the viewer to take their eyes off of actual Playmates when he is onscreen. Speaking mostly in Elizabethan English and never without a cigarette holder, the actor foppishly glides through his scenes, dominating any sequence he appears in.
When the film comes apart rather ludicrously at the end, the reason a viewer sticks it out and is still entertained is due only to Z Man. This is a grand performance and showy role that Bette Davis or Joan Crawford would have killed for.
14. Jennifer Coolidge in American Pie (1999, Paul & Chris Weitz)
In 1999, everyone thought this movie was frightfully side-splitting and totally realistic, mainly because everyone was uncouth and hormonal. And though most of the jokes have aged like expired yogurt, there remains a glimmer of hilarity that remains watchable every time it is happened across on cable.
Playing the ultimate teenage fantasy woman of susceptible young men, (the boozy and experienced de-flowerer), Coolidge manages to be both magnetically alluring and undeniably hilarious in her short time onscreen.
13. Martha Plimpton in 200 Cigarettes (1999, Risa Bramon Garcia)
In this New Year’s Eve-based movie featuring a motley assortment of recognizable names and faces, it would be very easy to go unnoticed. But Martha Plimpton is enchanting, and going unnoticed just isn’t an option for her.
Playing a recently dumped woman throwing a party she’s deathly afraid no one will attend, Plimpton is characteristically touching, endearing, at times manic, and always hysterical.
An acclaimed stage, film, and television veteran for most of her life, she is an actor that never disappoints. For the sake of those who don’t get to the theatre very often, the hope that she someday is given the film role of a lifetime.
12. Jared Harris in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996, Mary Harron)
While many would argue against the mention and inclusion of Mary Harron’s film on this list, please remember that the list is dealing with movies that aren’t considered great. Though there’s a lot to like about this movie, it is somewhat flawed, with the most flawless part being Jared Harris’s addled turn as one of New York’s strangest dudes, the titular Andy Warhol.
Playing a real-life figure in a film often entails nothing but mimicry from lesser performers, but because Harris is a world-class actor, he buttresses his non-showy performance with a gliding ease and laconic demeanor that makes the great artist seem like an actual human being. The result is a mannered and dignified portrayal that couldn’t have been easy to create.
11. John Hurt in Scandal (1989, Michael Caton-Jones)
He is one of the only film actors who possesses a gravelly voice that still sounds upper crust. While the 1989 movie that surrounds his performance rather dully sorts out the details of the 1963 Profumo Scandal, Hurt abducts every scene he appears in, with a perfect blend of smugness and charm.
Playing a man of influence who procures young lady company for corrupt politicians in swinging London, Hurt creates that gentleman rarely met in real life: an arrogant, well-read, sophisticated dandy who is also quite generous and fatherly when the situation calls for it. It’s a stand-out, three-dimensional performance in an otherwise sometimes tiresome film.
10. Jeffrey Jones in Howard The Duck (1986, Willard Huyck)
Yes, there is very little to like in the infamous 1986 schlockfest that has morphed into the most universally despised film of its decade. But when making a legitimate studio film, no matter how wretched it is, the movies still requires competent actors to bring the script to life. In this movie, an exceptionally talented actor proves himself to also be a very game professional.
Jeffrey Jones embodies the role of the Dark Lord Of The Universe both in and out of make-up, and the last half of the movie is only worth checking out because of his presence. How he comes out of this fiasco looking good, especially when he’s under heavy, monstrous prosthetics much of the time, shows just how underrated a performer he is.
9. Austin Pendleton in 2 Days In the Valley (1996, John Herzfeld)
In 1996, flashy TV ads assured moviegoers that if they liked Pulp Fiction, they were going to LOVE this movie. Whatever else the ads promised and didn’t follow through on, one thing is certain: the folks behind this mediocrity clearly watched Quentin Tarantino’s film multiple times.
But however wrongheaded and flat their attempt at 90s Outsider Awesomeness was, no viewer can deny the weirdness or power of one early scene of the film, in which Austin Pendleton shows what it means to be a physical actor. Logging about 3 minutes of total screen time, Pendleton’s lanky, middle-aged physique jerks and wrenches while his face maintains the most obnoxious grin ever captured on film.
All of this is happening as he unintentionally gives poor Paul Mazursky even more reasons to off himself. The most obscure mention on this list is also a scene that deserves to be watched any moment of any day, because it truly proves that there are no small roles.