Great actors need great roles: they are the stuff from which icons are forged.
Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview. James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Cinema is full of stars who have come to embody their best characters in the popular imagination.
But what about all the stellar performances that manage to fall through the cracks?
This piece is about those roles that, for one reason or another, failed to get the recognition they deserved.
Often, it’s a case of the work simply being overshadowed by some other, showier part in a more popular project – Samuel L Jackson’s nuanced turn in Hard Eight, for instance, was never likely to usurp his famous Pulp Fiction persona.
From Matt Damon to Robin Williams, here are 17 top actors who’ve delivered brilliant work that more people need to see…
Michael Caine in Youth
Much of Caine’s later career has seen the Get Carter actor play it fairly safe – after all, this is a man who claimed to have mentally retired after 1983’s Educating Rita. But his starring role in Paolo Sorrentino’s funny, endlessly surprising Youth, playing an elderly music composer, is up there with his very best work.
Matt Damon – Stillwater
Damon has always chosen his projects deftly, increasingly balancing strong leading roles (The Bourne Identity; The Martian) with strong supporting turns (True Grit; Oppenheimer). But the 2021 drama Stillwater saw Damon try something entirely new, immersing himself completely in the character of an Oklahoma roughneck out of his element in urban France. It’s a shame few saw it: Damon was transformed.
Harrison Ford – The Age of Adaline
Late-era Harrison Ford has always been a mixed bag to say the least; it’s been a long time since the days of taut thrillers like The Fugitive and Witness. Now, 2015’s The Age of Adaline may not be a great film, but it does feature what might be Ford’s best performance in the last couple of decades: playing the former lover of the supernaturally ageless Adaline (Blake Lively).
Walton Goggins – The Hateful Eight
Over the past 20 years, The Shield star Walton Goggins has quietly been one of the best and most versatile actors on TV – a bona fide great of the medium. On the big screen, however, he’s never quite popped in the same way. Even his most recognisable cinematic role, as one of the biggest parts of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, failed to really bring him recognition, with Goggins being overshadowed by better-known co-stars such as Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell. Make no mistake, though, Goggins pitches his performance as sheriff-in-waiting Chris Mannix perfectly – in many ways he is the film’s unheralded standout.
Elliot Gould – California Split
Gould’s work with Robert Altman in the neo-noir The Long Goodbye stands among his best and most recognised screen roles. But it was in this far lesser-seen Altman project that Gould produced his finest performance, as the captivating and shambolic gambler Charlie Waters.
Tom Hanks – The Ladykillers
The Coen brothers’ Ealing Comedy remake is notorious within their filmography – a clear low point in an almost blemish-free oeuvre. But what gets lost in the stigma is just how great Hanks is, playing against type as a chuckling, dandyish villain.
Samuel L Jackson – Sydney/Hard Eight
Across the 150-odd projects he’s appeared in, Jackson has naturally had some gems that have flown under the radar. A particular injustice was his role in Hard Eight, the debut feature of There Will Be Blood’s Paul Thomas Anderson. As the nefarious Jimmy, Jackson turned in a performance of considerable restraint, while losing none of his trademark charisma.
Lisa Kudrow – Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
All six mainstays on Friends spent years living in the shadow of the Central Perk cafe, such was the magnitude of the 1990s sitcom’s success. There’s a strong argument that Kudrow has enjoyed the richest career outside of Friends, with projects such as The Comeback proving she was more than just Phoebe Buffet. However, when it comes to underrated, she has few more overlooked parts than the wry, inventive Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, in which she and Mira Sorvino play co-dependent misfits confronting their wasted time. It’s a cult classic for a reason – but it merits a bigger cult.
Elisabeth Moss – Queen of Earth
In Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss made her name as a world-class actor, with depth, nuance, and more gears than a Robot Wars competitor. She’s been terrific in a plethora of subsequent projects, including The Handmaid’s Tale and the oddly titled Her Smell, but her most unsung triumph may be the 2015 character study Queen of Earth. It’s a taut, tense, low-budget work, with Moss playing a woman leaping off the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Eddie Murphy – Bowfinger
Former SNL star Murphy has a glut of famous roles, from early hits such as Beverley Hills Cop and 48 Hrs to later family fare such as Shrek. His part opposite Steve Martin in the 1999 comedy Bowfinger is comparatively obscure – but it definitely shouldn’t be. In it, he plays Kit Ramsey, a paranoid, egotistical movie star who stars in a low-budget sci-fi film without his knowledge.
Al Pacino – Scarecrow
The 1973 road movie Scarecrow never enjoyed the success of some of its New Hollywood contemporaries (Easy Rider; Five Easy Pieces), but this cult film featured brilliant early turns from Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. The latter is particularly compelling, playing a naif who meets the brutality of the modern world.
Adam Sandler – The Meyerowitz Stories
Adam Sandler is a terrific dramatic actor. This statement is true, and the evidence people cite to support it usually consists of two films: the offbeat 2001 romance Punch-Drunk Love, and the propulsive 2020 drama Uncut Gems. Just three years before Uncut Gems, however, Sandler had quietly pulled his career from a real slump, with a role in Noah Baumbach’s ensemble drama The Meyerowitz Stories. Playing a decent man living in the shadow of his artist father (Dustin Hoffman) and successful brother (Ben Stiller), Sandler manages to bring complexity and vulnerability to one of the film’s less showy roles.
Andy Serkis – Andor
Thanks to his CGI-grafted roles in Lord of the Rings (as Gollum) and Planet of the Apes (as Ceasar), Serkis is perhaps often thought of as simply some kind of expressive mannequin, upon which motion-capture orbs can be globbed. But he’s got some serious live-action chops too, never more on show than during his multi-episode arc in the Star Wars series Andor. Sadly, the show – the high point of Disney’s take on the franchise – failed to find a mass audience, and Serkis’s performance, as stolid prison leader Kino Loy, wasn’t daubed with the attention it deserved.
Meryl Streep – The Simpsons
Sure, she may have 21 Oscar nominations to her name, but is there any greater honour than appearing on The Simpsons? Back when the animation was capable of coaxing great performances from high-calibre actors (Dustin Hoffman, Danny DeVito, Glenn Close, to name but three), Streep appeared on the series as a romantic interest of young hellion Bart. It’s a remarkable turn from the thesp – funny, and credibly childlike – and endures as a strange curio amid a career furnished with more prestigious roles.
Vince Vaughn – Brawl in Cell Block 99
Some people may baulk if you were to include Vince Vaughn on a list of great actors. But those people would have clearly never seen Brawl in Cell Block 99. The film is a grimy, horrifically violent, and sometimes very witty prison thriller, which sees the Dodgeball star beef up and shave his head to play a reformed convict forced against his will to sin again. The sheer face-shredding intensity of Cell Block 99 means this film will only ever be for genre purists, but Vaughn is fantastic nonetheless.
Robin Williams – World’s Greatest Dad
It’s probably no wonder that World’s Greatest Dad wasn’t a big mainstream hit: this Bobcat Goldthwait-directed comedy sees Williams play a father whose teenage son dies in a misjudged act of autoerotic asphyxiation, and procedes to find fame by forging his late child’s writing. But the film is remarkable, and Williams turns in a performance of great dramatic aplomb. He bares all (quite literally).
Forest Whitaker – The Shield
Despite winning an Oscar for playing dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker has often done his very best work away from the spotlight, in indie films such as Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. But nothing can top Whitaker’s quirky, corruscating one-season turn as Internal Affairs detective Jon Kavanagh in FX’s police drama The Shield. Whitaker’s spiral into obsession and his escalating feud with Michael Chiklis’s sewer-dirty cop Vic Mackey make for sensational viewing; that he was never so much as nominated for an Emmy is a travesty.