The trouble with awards season, especially when it comes to actors who often attract nominations, is that there's a risk that it delegitimizes their work if it doesn't get recognized. If Meryl Streep, say, has countless nominations, than there could be a temptation to think of her performances in less awards-friendly fare as "lesser" work, whereas in fact, the opposite can be true—even in films that are of otherwise questionable quality, the actors can still give remarkable performances.
That's something that we're always conscious of here. And having picked out some underrated and overlooked performances by this year's Oscar-nominated supporting actors and actresses last week, we now turn our eye to the leading categories—ten performers who are all justifiably nominated for great work this year, but who have equally notable turns tucked away in the quieter corners of their resume. Take a look at our picks below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
Christian Bale - "Harsh Times" (2005)
Still only just forty, Christian Bale has had a fascinating career spanning over 25 years that's seen him go from child star to teen musical actor to romantic lead to Bateman to Batman to blockbuster lead to gaunt indie star to the looser, funnier performer that's emerged in David O. Russell's films. But one of his most impressive, and little-seen turns, comes in a film that combines at least a few of the above in "Harsh Times," the 2005 directorial debut of "Training Day" writer David Ayer. In his first-post "Batman Begins" role, Bale plays Jim, a former Ranger with a hair-trigger temper and a fondness for the darker things in life, who spends a few days with his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) back in L.A., only for the pair to get into all kinds of trouble. It's a fairly unapologetic, more tattoo-heavy tribute to "Mean Streets," with Bale essentially as the Johnny Boy surrogate, and it has most of the flaws of Ayer's other work—some unconvincing badass dialogue, contrived plotting, an uneasy balance between gritty reality and movie bullshit. But it's pretty engaging throughout, and mostly because of Bale's performance: in a turn not quite like anything he's done before or since, he's a self-destructive tornado, the friend that everyone has who's consistently making your life worse, but you love anyway. And Bale, of course, nails the charisma, the monstrous aspects of Jim, and the sad, traumatized ex-soldier underneath. It's far from one of his best movies, but Bale is enormously magnetic throughout.
Bruce Dern - "Black Sunday" (1977)
Given that he's some way from his '70s heyday and not much of a household name among the general public, you could probably argue that many of the performances that made Bruce Dern's name—"Silent Running," "The Driver," "The King Of Marvin Gardens," and even his previous nomination for Hal Ashby's "Coming Home"—could be deemed as underrated these days. But we'll take any chance we can get to shine a light on John Frankenheimer's terrific thriller "Black Sunday," and given that it features one of Dern's best performances, it felt like the perfect choice here. Based on a novel by "Silence Of The Lambs" author Thomas Harris that follows a Palestinian-backed plot to detonate the Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl, it takes a somewhat silly premise and treats it deadly seriously, with a clever and unique structure that spends as much time with Black September operative Marthe Keller and Dern's traumatized Vietnam vet pilot working with her, as it does with the nominal heroes, Mossad agent Robert Shaw and the FBI's Fritz Weaver. The result is a film that really digs into the motivations of the villains, and in particular, it's Dern that gets a chance to shine, with an atypically accurate portrayal of mental illness for the genre. His Michael Lander is a man broken by his time in Vietcong activity and by being abandoned by both his family and his country, and though he's a maniac, he's one that you feel for more than little. It's by some distance the best performance in the movie, and one that sits alongside the very best of his work.
Leonardo DiCaprio - "Revolutionary Road" (2008)
As far as deeply subversive casting choices go, the idea of reteaming the stars for the biggest cinematic romance of modern times for an adaptation of one of American literature's most bruising and painful tales of marriage has to be right up there. Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road" isn't an unqualified success—it's a little too theatrical and distanced in a lot of ways. But a few years on, there's a lot to recommend it, not least the performances. In fact, looking back, it's curious that Leonardo DiCaprio was so overlooked at awards time, as the film clearly sees him doing some of his best work ever. DiCaprio is Frank Wheeler, the perfect-on-the-surface suburban father married to Kate Winslet's April, a sort of Don Draper without the charm or self-confidence, an ambitious, frustrated, semi-feckless embodiment of the American dream. It's an incredibly smart use of DiCaprio, both for the pain brought by his pre-existing screen history with Winslet, and for its use of some of his less-tapped resources, a capacity for portraying weakness and superficiality that's glossed over in something like, say, "Blood Diamond" (but which Martin Scorsese makes full use of in "The Wolf Of Wall Street"). By the devastating conclusion, it's almost impossible to think of anyone else in the role, and we can't think of many higher compliments.
Chiwetel Ejiofor - "Kinky Boots" (2005)
For at least a decade, we've considered Chiwetel Ejiofor about the most exciting actor out there, and so as such, we'd consider almost everything he's done up to this point underrated. From his star-making turn as the quietly heroic immigrant doctor in "Dirty Pretty Things," to South African activist roles in "Red Dust" and "Endgame," to his pretentious musician in Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda," to low-key but magnetic supporting turns in things like "Inside Man" and "Talk To Me," to the smart, sinister villain in "Serenity," to terrific ass-kicking lead in David Mamet's "Redbelt," he's one of those actors who knocks it out of the park every time. But the one we'd like to highlight here is the one that's perhaps the part that's furthest from his Oscar-nominated role in "12 Years A Slave," in the mostly unseen British comedy "Kinky Boots" (which has recently got a new lease of life, after being adapted into a hit Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein and Cindy Lauper). The film itself—which sees Joel Edgerton try to turn around his struggling shoe business by teaming with Ejiofor's drag queen to make the very specific footwear of the title—is very formulaic, and is somewhat problematic in the way that it makes Ejiofor's character so asexual. But the performer is a goddamn force of nature as Simon/Lola, taking a character who so easily be could be a collection of cliches and finding the real person underneath. The gift he shows for comedy (and for music!) here is one that needs to be tapped more, particularly after the heavier work in 'Slave,' keeping Lola light on her feet without abandoning the pathos, and he finds a way to make it theatrical without breaking the reality of the film. It's a truly wonderful performance that elevates the movie around it, and though he got a Golden Globe nomination for the film, the turn deserves a lot more attention than it's had before now.
Matthew McConaughey - "Frailty" (2001)
The narrative has it that, after a promising start to his career with "Dazed & Confused," "Lone Star," "A Time To Kill" et al., Matthew McConaughey squandered his promise on a series of dreadful rom-coms before waking up for his recent career renaissance a few years back. It's neat, but it does overlook a few more interesting parts in that darker decade or so of his career—the guilt-stricken lawyer in 'Thirteen Conversations About One Thing," the ridiculously enjoyable Colonel Kurtz-esque dragon-slayer in "Reign Of Fire" and the desperate agent in "Tropic Thunder." And best of all, there's "Frailty," a pulpy but very well done directorial debut from Bill Paxton. A performance that, more than any, prefigures the kind of work he's been doing more recently (in fact, it's eerily reminiscent of "True Detective" in some ways). It sees McConaughey as Fenton Meiks, a Texan man who walks into the office of an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) and confesses that his father and brother were serial killers who believed that they were killing demons in the name of God. It's a difficult role—he's mostly there as a narrator until the closing stages, and an unreliable one at that—but McConaughey takes to it with aplomb, subduing both his Southern charm and the character's true nature, before being truly chilling when he finally plays his hand. At the time, it felt like an unusual reminder of the promise he once held, now, it seems more like a glimpse of the better things that were to come.