In the mid-1960s, a bold, young New York actor began working with a student filmmaker named Brian De Palma on a number of innovative, in-your-face political satires (The Wedding Party , Greetings, Hi, Mom! ) that thumbed their nose at the Hollywood and American establishment. Influenced by the irreverent cinema of the French New Wave, the films offered the up-and-coming performer juicy spontaneous moments in which to swagger and soak up the screen. By 1972, another student writer-director, Martin Scorsese, snapped up the actor for his breakthrough film Mean Streets. That same year, Hollywood came calling: Robert De Niro's career was officially born.
Where would America's dream factory be without alternative, independent and iconoclastic films to foster its talents? For almost every A-list star -- Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson and Brad Pitt, to name just a few -- there were a couple low-budget or B-movie flicks -- Mystic Pizza, The Little Shop of Horrors, Johnny Suede – that helped kick-start their careers. Because Hollywood always needs a fresh face, little indie movies have become the primo spot for finding new talent.
But look at the performances and you'll see why these actors aren't just practicing for the big leagues; they're playing an entirely different and more daring game. In her breakthrough film 2002's Secretary , for example, Maggie Gyllenhaal bared body and soul as an ugly ducking assistant who finds her inner swan through a relationship with her sadistic boss (James Spader). First glimpsed crawling across an office floor, handcuffed and carrying a letter in her mouth, the apple-cheeked darling conveys not simple subservience, but a far more complex state of bound bliss.
And what would Paul Giamatti's career be without the independent films brave enough to cast the balding 36-year-old bit-player – long associated with a character named "Pig Vomit" in Howard Sterns' Private Parts – as a leading man? With the hit alternative movies American Splendor and Sideways, a schlumpy middle-aged downbeat fellow became the anti-hero of the moment, and throngs of people began shunning Merlot in favor of Pinot Noir. Now, we can enjoy Giamatti in a host of higher-profile roles, from Cinderella Man to The Illusionist . Thanks, Indiewood.
The list, of course, goes on. From Vera Farmiga's achingly stunning depiction of a drug-addled single mom in Down to the Bone to Terrence Howard's Capra-esque portrayal of a pimp who just wants to be a hip-hop star in Hustle & Flow to Catalina Sandino Moreno's memorable turn as a steely and scared Columbian drug mule in Maria Full of Grace, these recent talents stunned audiences with refreshing, bold and astoundingly real portraits that no Hollywood star could achieve. Stars rarely play drug addicts and pimps, for one thing. And indie films, focusing on character arcs and emotional beats rather than three-act structures and tidy resolutions, allow for a more full-bodied interpretation of the human condition. These are fictional stories imbued with gritty, real-life authenticity, allowing actors the time and space to dig deep into their characters and bring out a palpitating lump of living, breathing humanity onscreen.
Not only do independent films launch the careers of unknown talents, but also they offer seasoned veterans the chance to take risks, up-end expectations and change the direction of their careers. Case in point: Charlize Theron's ferocious, nearly unrecognizable performance as lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. It's become nearly a cliché at this point: Beautiful actress goes indie, turns ugly and wins Oscar, from Halle Berry in Monster's Ball all the way back to one-time glamour girl turned bloated beast Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (granted, a Warner Bros. studio release at the time, but undoubtedly, indie in scope and spirit). This year's prize could go to Angelina Jolie; though she's still attractive, with slightly darker skin and a French accent, as Daniel Pearl widow Marianne Pearl in Michael Winterbottom's tense political thriller A Mighty Heart, she delivers a sturdy, anguished performance that culminates with a volcanic eruption of grief that's anything but pretty.
On the male side, consider Kevin Bacon's psychologically rattling turn as a pedophile in The Woodsman, or Bill Murray perfecting his late-career laconic act in any number of offbeat films (Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, Rushmore) or the recent resurrection of Pierce Brosnan, formerly of James Bond fame. Replaced as 007 by the younger, meatier Daniel Craig, Brosnan quickly bounced back from would-be retirement with a pair of memorable performances in two sly indie dramedies, as a weathered hit man past his prime in The Matador and as a rakish charmer in the upcoming Married Life. In both roles, Brosnan boldly subverts his own type, taking the suave U.K. gentlemen from his early years in TV's "Remington Steele" and turning it on its head.
Then there are simply the terrific actors who populate indie films again and again, the it-girls and it-boys of the non-Hollywood scene who have found in niche films a more challenging and satisfying place to push the limits of their craft. Sure, they'll occasionally go slumming in Hollywood for a fat paycheck, but more often, they prefer the shoestring budgets, long hours and emotionally satisfying conditions of the intimate passion project.
As the ultimate outsider and oddball, Steve Buscemi has done it all, but his debut performance as a man dying of AIDS in 1986's Parting Glances is one of the true heartbreakers of American cinema. Indie queen Parker Posey is a walking masterpiece of comic genius, from her early Hal Hartley collaboration Flirt (1993) to her more recent outing with the iconoclastic director Fay Grim 13 years later.
Arguably the top actors of their generation, Peter Sarsgaard and Philip Seymour Hoffman are never less than astounding in role after complex role in low-budget dramas, whether as multi-layered monsters (Sarsgaard's John Lotter in Boys Don't Cry; Hoffman's Capote and the current Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) or aggrieved victims (Sarsgaard in The Dying Gaul or Hoffman in Love Liza ).
Whether Frances McDormand, as pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo, or Patricia Clarkson, as a lonely grieving artist in The Station Agent, or Catherine Keener, as mischievous Maxine in Being John Malkovich, these are actors who continue to give their best to films made outside of the mainstream—and, of course, the converse is also true. It is these alternative films that allow them and push them to create some of our most assured and beloved performances.