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Oscars: The Best Underrated Performances By The 2014 Supporting Actor & Actress Nominees

by Oliver Lyttelton
January 29, 2014 2:03 PM
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Sally Hawkins - "An Education" (2009) and "Never Let Me Go" (2010)
Nearly five years on, the Academy finally corrected one of their most egregious errors in the last few years by giving Sally Hawkins her first nomination, for "Blue Jasmine," after she missed out for Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" back in 2009 (she's one of only a handful of actresses to win a Golden Globe without being nominated for an Oscar). But the Leigh film would be rather an obvious pick here, especially for an actress who's pretty much fantastic in everything she does. So instead, we've gone for a pair of, essentially, cameos in two British films that prove that, even when she has only a few minutes of screen time, Hawkins can make an indelible impression. She only turns up in "An Education" in the closing minutes of Lone Scherfig's film, as the heretofore-unrevealed wife of Peter Sarsgaard's character, and her quiet fury at Carey Mulligan's Jenny induces more coming-of-age in the character than in the rest of the movie put together. She's a little more present in Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," in which she plays the conscience-stricken teacher who tells young Kathy, Tommy and Ruth that they're clones designed for the sole purpose of organ donation. It's a rare early glimpse of the outside world in a film that's mostly contained and chilly, and though she has only a handful of scenes, Hawkins' performance resonates through the rest of the movie.

Jennifer Lawrence - "X-Men First Class" (2011)
It's a measure of the extraordinary talents of Jennifer Lawrence that, at the age of 23, even aside from the three movies that she's been Oscar-nominated for, even aside from "The Hunger Games" series, and even aside from "The Burning Plain" (about which we wrote in a similar feature last year), there's still a number of roles that were contenders here. She's very strong in the otherwise dodgy horror film "The House At The End Of The Street," and shines with thankless characters in Jodie Foster's "The Beaver" and Drake Doremus' "Like Crazy." But it's actually her non-Katniss foray into blockbuster fare that we wanted to focus on here. "X-Men First Class" is by no way shape or means a good movie (except perhaps in comparison to some of the other latter-day X-movies), but it is held up by the performances of its leads, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender (albeit hampered by a wonky accent) and Nicholas Hoult all doing strong work. But Lawrence might be the best of the three. Despite being hampered for much of the film by a heavy prosthetic make-up job, Lawrence does more to build a fully-dimensional character here than Rebecca Romijn did in three previous movies as the older version of the character: her Raven/Mystique is a sweet, lost kid with a sexuality that's about ready to explode, and a darkness inside her that Fassbender's Magneto gradually starts to exploit. For all its flaws, Lawrence brings a humanity to the movie that's rare for the genre, and while sequel "X-Men: Days Of Future Past" looks like a hot mess, we'll be checking it out just to see her reprise this role.

Julia Roberts - "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997)
Given that romantic comedy was her bread-and-butter for so many years, it's not entirely surprising that it was only with inspirational biopic "Erin Brockovich" that Julia Roberts won an Oscar (though she was nominated for "Steel Magnolias" and "Pretty Woman") -- romantic comedy hasn't been an Academy favorite since "Annie Hall." But it also means that some of the actress's best, most effortless work has gone unrecognized, not least "My Best Friend's Wedding," which even above "Pretty Woman," might be her finest achievement in the genre. Coming off a run of flops, this returned Roberts to her comfort zone -- except, that in some ways, it didn't. Sure, Roberts is charming and displays impeccable comic timing (Lucille Ball is namechecked at one point, and it's not an unfair comparison), but her character, Julianne, is a darker sort. Sure, she's trying to win over the man of her dreams, but she's doing it through manipulation, and by attempting to wreck another relationship. It's a delicate balancing act to pull off, but Roberts walks that tightrope like she's been doing it forever -- you're a little appalled by Julianne's behavior, but she's so likable and charismatic that you're sort of rooting for her nevertheless. Sadly, the romantic comedy has become so bowdlerized as a genre that she's rarely had a part of this quality in subsequent ventures, but it's a deceptively brilliant performance nevertheless.

June Squibb - "Getting On" (2013)
Even among the first-time actors in the supporting category, June Squibb is something of an outlier: she was a successful stage actress, without every appearing on screen, for thirty years. Even when she finally made her movie debut, aged 61 (as the assistant/nanny of the title character in Woody Allen's 1990 film "Alice"), it was in a small role, and while she's racked up impressive credits -- "The Age Of Innocence," "Scent Of A Woman," "In & Out," "Far From Heaven" -- they were pretty much day-player parts, with only a handful of lines, and not much chance to make an impression. Even in her earlier film with Alexander Payne, "About Schmidt," she's only in the movie for a few minutes before she pops her clogs. TV parts have been more substantial though (she played Larry David's real mother in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), and there look to be more of those to come post-"Nebraska" as she'll play Lena Dunham's grandmother in an upcoming episode of "Girls." But the one we cherish (and, we'd argue, a performance better than the one she's Oscar-nominated for) is the one in the second episode of underwatched HBO nursing comedy "Getting On." It's in the same kind of vein as the "Nebraska" turn, in that she's a filter-free elderly person, but even more so: her character, Varla, a particularly difficult head-injury patient, is racist, homophobic, insists on smoking in the hospital, and makes passes at male patients before hissing "fuck you!" at them when they fail to respond. It's a gloriously funny and vanity-free performance (throwing up on herself like she's in "The Exorcist"), and awards worthy in and of itself.

Lupita Nyong'o & Barkhad Abdi - "12 Years A Slave" & "Captain Phillips" (2013)
Though their performances are wildly different, Lupita Nyong'o and Barkhad Abdi have one thing in common: their nominated turns, in "12 Years A Slave" and "Captain Phillips," are their first-ever pieces of screen acting. Nyong'o is a Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised Yale grad, who'll next be seen in Liam Neeson actioner "Non-Stop," while the Somalian-born, Minneapolis-based Abdi had been working as a chaffeur until he landed the role in Paul Greengrass' film. As such, they're not terribly good fit for this particular feature. But it's always worth shining a light on their current performances, given that Nyong'o is a wrenching force of nature as despairing slave Patsey, while Abdi is by turns terrifying and empathetic as the young leader of the pirates who take the Maersk Alabama. Regardless of whether they win on Oscar night, they'll hopefully have many more performances to come.

Check back next week for the underrated performances of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees, and let us know your thoughts on these choices below.

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  • Jacob Fox | March 2, 2014 10:16 AMReply

    Surely Hawkins' best underrated performance is in Vera Drake, in which she gives the second best performance (after Imelda Staunton obviously) in a film full of great performances. Considering the film was firmly on the awards radar, I was really surprised Hawkins was ignored everywhere, especially since her less-impressive co-stars Heather Craney and Ruth Sheen were nominated by BAFTA and the London Film Critics Circle respectively. I was so happy when she began to get buzz for Happy-Go-Lucky, because I'd been waiting for it for four years!

  • JK1193 | February 7, 2014 4:52 PMReply

    Absolutely loved Jared in Panic Room. Alexander as well, I know it has a lot of hate from people, but I loved his performance as Hephaistion. Lawrence also rocked as Mystique, and looks like she will deliver a very strong follow-up performance in Days of Future Past.

  • Grecia | February 4, 2014 7:06 PMReply

    que tiene que ver la banda 30 seconds to mars? se supone que lo estan calificando como actor, no tiene sentido!!! Jared Leto es excelente y uno de los pocos actores camaleonicos que quedan

  • ben | January 31, 2014 12:22 PMReply

    Good write up but you are way off with Bradley Cooper. I would have to put his amazing performance from "Wet Hot American Summer" in that spot. That scene with him and Michael Ian Black in the thats great acting!

  • Guest | January 31, 2014 11:43 AMReply

    "focusing on terrible emo band 30 Seconds To Mars"

    What a condescending and ignorant comment. The band isn't "emo", at all.

  • anon | February 3, 2014 8:08 AM

    You read my mind. They didn't have to bash the band to talk about his career.
    They we're pretty spot on about his acting though.
    I for one liked his 'American Psycho' smugness, which they failed to mention.

  • Val | January 31, 2014 10:20 PM

    Exactly. They are neither emo nor terrible.

  • Markunator | January 30, 2014 9:55 AMReply

    Actually, "X-Men: First Class" IS a good movie.

  • Notorious REG | January 31, 2014 4:26 PM

    Agreed! I was actually going to make the exact same comment!

  • DArtagnan | January 30, 2014 3:43 PM

    Agreed. It's the best X-Men movie after X2 and also one of the best superhero movies ever. In my opinion, it's better than the whole Marvel Universe series.

  • Glass | January 30, 2014 3:45 AMReply

    I wish it were more widely known how much of a sociopathic piece of shit Jared Leto is, but I still love him in Panic Room.

  • Joshua Polanski | February 1, 2014 8:56 PM

    Yes, I find Jared Leto exceptionally creepy. He seems very keen to perceive himself much more highly than the next man. But it is beyond a "sense of entitlement", I too think there may be a more serious mental health issue at play. I'm not sure whether it is a Messiah complex or sociopathic but it's something...

  • Joshua Polanski | February 1, 2014 6:29 PM

    Yes, I find Jared Leto exceptionally creepy. He seems very keen to perceive himself much more highly than the next man. But it is beyond a "sense of entitlement", I too think there may be a more serious mental health issue at play. I'm not sure whether it is a Messiah complex or sociopathic but it's something...

  • RP | January 30, 2014 6:35 AM

    He's a terrible human being, no doubt.

  • J | January 29, 2014 10:08 PMReply

    Jennifer Lawrence in 'Poker House' people how could you write about X-Men over that incredible first time film performance?

  • A. | February 7, 2014 10:09 AM

    Jennifer Lawrence did a terrific job in X-Men...finally, the character of Mystique had some interestng layers to her!. I agree regarding Poker House (and the Burning Plain for that matter...two exceptional early performances) that so early on Lawrence proved what an exceptional actress she is.

  • Dian66 | February 3, 2014 2:07 AM

    I totally agree, Poker House is one of those performances that stick to your mind and lets you know how really has acting chops.

    Young Jennifer L. though still a child took on this dark strong part and made it hers.

    X-Men First class has been criticize and her performance and she's been compare to RR and I just shake my head because even I'm a fan of the comics KNOW Jennifer's part presents a younger Mystique version, someone that would grow to the character and physic that we saw on the X-men movies.

  • Rebecca | January 29, 2014 6:12 PMReply

    I like Jennifer Lawrence, but I did not like her in X-Men. Maybe it was the way the character was written, but it was horrible.

  • caro | February 11, 2014 4:41 PM


  • Jessica | January 29, 2014 5:57 PMReply

    While I agree about Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding, I feel like her work in Confessions Of a Dangerous Mind is always so overlooked. It's such a great performance that it leaves you wanting to see and learn more about her character and wishing she was in the film more. She had great acting chemistry with Sam Rockwell too. I'd like to see her take on sexier roles, I thought she nailed the modern day mata hari role in that one.

  • Luis | January 29, 2014 3:12 PMReply

    Dude, X-Men First Class is actually a very good movie. Nice story, smart approach, etc.

  • Devin | January 29, 2014 2:35 PMReply

    I love Leto and The Thin Red Line, but he's in the movie for about three minutes and says two words. How is this a "strong" turn?

  • Val | January 31, 2014 10:19 PM

    Exactly. From what I remember, he didn't have a line. Maybe one word.

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