8. Ernie Hudson in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992, Curtis Hanson)
It’s one of those suburban nightmare scenarios that never play out this cinematically in real life. Essentially a Hard ‘R’ Movie Of The Week, featuring flawed setups, terrible logic, cheap jump scares, and some really perverted nudity, the movie still possesses the always undervalued Ernie Hudson.
Playing a mentally disabled man named Solomon who does odd maintenance jobs for the wealthy family being ripped apart by an evil Nanny, Hudson creates an innocence and charm by underplaying the role, making Solomon a normal person who happens to be disabled. It’s an exceptional effort that deserved much better than the movie it was in.
7. Harold Perrineau in Romeo + Juliet (1996, Baz Luhrmann)
To reiterate once more: the movies mentioned on this list are non-great movies. (Enjoyable movies simply enjoyed by wide audiences still fit that designation.) As two decades have passed since the release of Baz Luhrmann’s messy, kaleidoscopic MTV Shakespeare Spectacular, Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio stands out more and more.
In a movie that goes out of its way to be dazzling visually, often overwhelming the viewer with technique and costuming, Perrineau is the actor whose performance overcomes the bombastic direction. He is always interesting, and always completely believable as the only man that can mix among both rival families.
Here’s something difficult for an actor to do convincingly in a death scene: dramatically scream his last words. And yet Perrineau manages to bring new life to one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines in a way that has become definitive for many.
6. Jada Pinkett-Smith in Tales From The Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995, Ernest Dickerson)
An unwieldy title, a puppet that likes violence and puns, an annoyingly self-aware plot, and a shambling wreck of a movie. Lost in the maelstrom of ludicrous films like this one are performances that actually ring true, and for Demon Knight, that’s Jada Pinkett-Smith.
Playing Jeryline, an ex-con turned literal soldier of Christ who at the end of the film becomes immortal and is tasked with keeping the world safe from Satan’s Earth surrogates, (this movie is ambitious if nothing else), Pinkett-Smith brings reality and true appeal to a role that would be as forgettable and ridiculous as that of her co-stars were it not for her energy.
She knows how stupid this movie is, and yet she attacks the role with the same effort she brought to better films both before and after. There is only one reason to sit through this one: to follow the character who should have had her own franchise.
5. Gary Cole in The Brady Bunch Movie (1995, Betty Thomas)
It takes a messed-up yet genius comedic mind to even think to develop a Robert Reed impersonation. And while not strictly aping the exact mannerisms or voice of Mike Brady, Gary Cole still fully embodies the spirit of a character most of the world is completely familiar with.
There are moments in this movie when Cole, in his perm and tight slacks, is side-splitting while doing nothing more than replacing a bookmark or having a one-sided phone conversation.
Though his cast mates, (particularly Shelley Long), have their moments in the movie, its Cole that walks away with every scene he’s in, turning an otherwise rote misfit comedy into one that welcomes multiple viewings.
4. Holt McCallany in Creepshow 2 (1987, Michael Gornick)
The movie, like its predecessor, tells multiple tales using the old EC/DC Comics framing device between interludes. But unlike its superior antecedent, viewers can skip two of the stories altogether and pretend that Creepshow 2 is a short film starring the great George Kennedy, the great Dorothy Lamour, and the estimable Holt McCallany.
Playing a Native American teenager who favors robbing general stores, ordering his hapless friends around, and most of all admiring his classically chiseled, legitimately Adonis-like image in any surface that registers a reflection, McCallany brings more energy and magnetism to a role in a cheap horror movie than almost anyone in film history not named Bruce Campbell. (Or Jada Pinkett-Smith).
Making us smile wider with every passing second while overdosing on himself in every scene, when the villainous McCallany finally does get his, a viewer is more than a little disappointed that they don’t get to spend any more time with him.
3. Giancarlo Giannini in Hannibal (2001, Ridley Scott)
It can be argued that this movie is unfairly maligned. It is stylishly shot, fairly well-written, and is never boring. But because it’s the sequel to a legitimately great movie, and also re-casted its protagonist, achieving the same status as its predecessor was going to be difficult. But for all the movie’s flaws, the middle 45 minutes is almost a different movie entirely, and is as compelling as anything Ridley Scott has ever made.
This sequence also features a truly great actor and the film’s most interesting character. Giancarlo Giannini, the grizzled leading man known to world audiences for his work in the 1970s with Lina Wertmuller, plays the Inspector who has located and is now chasing the title character through Florence.
The Inspector’s situation is dire not only because he is chasing one of the world’s most dangerous men, but because he needs the reward money to give his much younger wife the life he thinks she is after. Giannini is fascinating in the role, and had the rest of the movie lived up to both this character’s story and Giannini’s performance, it could have been noted as one of the great sequels in film history.
2. Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981, Frank Perry)
This movie is long, unpleasant, and…fun. Achieving cult status, modern-times camp value, and the esteem of John Waters, it is based on the autobiography of Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, which depicts Ms. Crawford as a tireless worker completely dedicated to her craft, her fans, and her mystique.
The leading lady is also painted as an abusive, raging whackadoo whose motherly instincts include wire hanger beatings, forcing her children to eat food left out all night, and drunkenly replacing them in soap opera roles. (That part definitely happened). Playing Joan is Faye Dunaway, who in the ensuing years has completely disinherited both the film and her own performance in it, going so far as to call out the director in her own autobiography for not reining her in.
Whatever she thinks of herself in this role, multiple viewings of the movie show an actor truly going for it in every scene, and while there are admittedly some groan-inducing moments, not even Dunaway herself can deny how uncannily she captures the Grand Dame. It’s a high wire act with only a few near-falls.
1. Harry Lennix in Titus (1999 dir Julie Taymor)
Out of all of the films mentioned on this list, this is one of the most critically admired. It’s a slick, polished movie, and the director clearly had a distinctive vision and knew what she wanted. But what keeps it from being mentioned as one of the great movies of its time, (in the end, too much style, and an unnecessarily long run time), has nothing to do with the acting, particularly from Harry Lennix.
Playing Aaron the Moor, a really frightening man, and one of the truly underrated great roles in Shakespeare’s canon, Lennix commands the screen with intensity, sexuality, and an obvious adoration for the source material.
Lennix is so dominant in this role that he manages to upstage two Oscar winners, (Jessica Lange and Anthony Hopkins), while at the same time making the story that is technically about the two leads all about himself. When Lennix is not on the screen, the viewer waits with unbearable anticipation for his return.
While many scholars consider Titus Andronicus to be lesser Shakespeare, no one can deny that Aaron is a fascinating character, and that Lennix was born to play the role. This actor is a talent that cannot be denied, and for movie fans, the great hope is that he someday finds a part as good as this in at least one more film that reaches a larger audience.
Author Bio: David Lynn Miller works as an Internal Auditor and podcaster. While he lives mainly for movies, he also enjoys literature, sports, NES, and good food. Check out his podcast at http://www.dudesonmovies.com/, or look for it on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.