Oscars: The Best Underrated Performances By The 2014 Acting Noms

With the Oscar nominations out, and the SAGs and Golden Globes a few weeks in the past, we're entering something of a quiet phase in awards season, with the Academy not even due to begin voting for a few weeks yet. So it seems like a good time to look back.

The acting nominees are a diverse bunch this year, ranging from first-time actors to people who've been nominated many, many times. But in few cases did their awards-nominated performance prove to be the first time that they turned heads. So, as we creep towards the Oscar ceremony (a little more than a month to go, kids), we wanted to pick out some of the turns that, while they went unrewarded at the time, help pave the way to the Dolby Theater for all these actors. This week, we're taking a look at the Supporting categories, next week we'll examine Best Actor and Actress.

"Kitchen Confidential"
"Kitchen Confidential"

Bradley Cooper - "Kitchen Confidential" (2005)
It took Bradley Cooper a little time to break away, in the public perception, from the smarmy persona from which he became known in "Wedding Crashers," and then brought to a bigger audience with "The Hangover" -- the winning texture of last year's "Silver Linings Playbook," or the wired character turn of his nominated performance in "American Hustle" this time around, both showed new sides to his talent. But not entirely new, as anyone who saw the very short-lived 2005 Fox series "Kitchen Confidential" knows. A (very) loose adaptation of Anthony Bourdain's seminal culinary memoirs, from "Sex & The City" creator Darren Star, it saw Cooper, soon after leaving "Alias," play the Bourdain surrogate Jack, a chef with a bad-boy reputation now recovering from addiction, who's given the opportunity to run a top-flight restaurant. The show itself (which also starred Frank Langella, John Francis Daley, Nicholas Brendon, Jaime King and John Cho) is decent, and could have grown into something more confident, though it's pretty uneven in the thirteen episodes that aired, caught between the bawdiness of its source material and the demands of a network TV sitcom. But Cooper's very strong in the lead role, displaying comic chops, legitimate charm, and even some real pain that he'd undoubtedly have made more of if it was a cable show (as you suspect everyone involved, including the audience, seem to wish it was). The series was cancelled after only four episodes, but you can't imagine that Cooper, a two-time Oscar nominee less than ten years on, has many regrets...

The Devil's Whore

Michael Fassbender - "The Devil's Whore" (2008)
The Irish-German star's first nomination has been a while coming -- many thought he was robbed of a nod two years ago for "Shame," and he's been acting for over a decade. Indeed, there's so much unsung Fassbender out there that we recently ran a piece on five of his lesser-known early features. As such, we thought we'd shy away from the likes of "Hunger" and "Fish Tank," which you've hopefully heard more than enough about, and focus on a small-screen role that came along just before he started to really make his name. The four-part English Civil War miniseries "The Devil's Whore" (known, disappointingly, as "The Devil's Mistress" in the U.S), from "Our Friends In The North" writer Peter Flannery, tells the story of the conflict through the eyes of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe, played by Andrea Riseborough, who heads up a superb cast that also includes Dominic West, John Simm and Peter Capaldi. Fassbender doesn't have the showiest of the roles -- he plays Thomas Rainsborough, an MP and senior figure among the Levellers, who romances Riseborough's character before being killed by West's Oliver Cromwell -- but he's attention-grabbing in the role, with a dashing charm and malevolent glint that's reminiscent of Errol Flynn. With "Hunger" and "Inglourious Basterds" following on the year later, Fassbender would start edging towards being the household name he deserved to be.


Jonah Hill - "Cyrus" (2010)
Given that he built his career on dick jokes, there'll always be some who are pissy that Jonah Hill has not one, but two Oscar nominations. But that overlooks not just how good his work is in the films that won him nods, "Moneyball" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street," but also the one that paved the way towards them, Jay and Mark Duplass' woefully undervalued 2010 film "Cyrus." Hill plays the title character, the aspring-musician son of Marisa Tomei's Molly, who doesn't take kindly to her new relationship with John C. Reilly's John, the first time he's had to see his mother with another man. It's got the kind of high-concept premise of the sort of movie that Hill had been making before, but for all the comic highs, the performers, not least Hill, are committed to finding the underlying truth of the idea. Cyrus is a little weird -- antisocial, uncomfortably close to his mom, with a offbeat, discombobulating rhythm -- but Hill can capture both the darkness and the empathy of the character, letting you see why he is the way he is, and even feel for him a little. In fact, the movie's conclusion probably remains the most heartbreaking and powerful piece of acting of Hill's career. The film was too minor-key to get much awards attention, but a nomination pre-"Moneyball" wouldn't have been undeserved at all.

Panic Room

Jared Leto - "Panic Room" (2002)
Perhaps because he's been less than prolific of late, focusing on terrible emo band 30 Seconds To Mars rather than acting (he's only made five films in the last decade, most of which were barely seen), it's easy to underrate Jared Leto as an actor. But from his breakthrough as Jordan Catalano in "My So-Called Life" to Andrew Niccol's "Lord Of War" by way of "Prefontaine" and "Fight Club," Leto has consistently impressed on screen. We could have picked a number of his performances here, but if we assume that his very strong turn in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" and hugely powerful work in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream" are among his better known turns, we wanted to shine a light on a performance that's easy to overlook -- as Junior, one of the trio of burglars in David Fincher's "Panic Room." The entitled, douchey, cornrowed grandson of the former owner of the house that Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart have just moved into, Leto manages to do give a lot of texture to a character who could have just been an out-and-out villain. In particular, he's great at something that a lot of actors shy away from: playing weakness, not being afraid to make Junior the wanna-be-alpha omega among the trio of housebreakers. When he exits the movie halfway through, the thriller never quite feels the same.