A while ago, I took a side road for a moment to pay tribute to five underrated performances:
Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill
Carey Mulligan in Bleak House
Anna Faris in Just Friends
Madame Konstantin in Notorious
Delores Gray in It’s Always Fair Weather
You can check that out at https://film-prof.com/?s=supporting
And now for five more…
Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960).
How could that be underrated, you say? He became famous forever for that performance. Norman Bates in now an indelible film character for all time. We’ll always associate him with that role.
And that’s exactly why he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Perkins had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Friendly Persuasion four years earlier, but lost to Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life. Perkins came in second for the 1961 Bambi Award for Best Actor-International for his work in Psycho, but that was all there was in terms of formal recognition.
Clearly the film’s subject matter and directorial brilliance have overshadowed Perkins’ work here. Next time you see the film, pay more attention to Perkins. His every movement is driven by a strong grasp of character. He was doing what Seymour Philip Hoffman did so well later, in making us see the humanity of a person who can do terrible things.
Hitchcock has been rightly praised for moving our connection with the central character by killing off the main character and shifting our attention and even our affections to someone else who will carry the film to its end. Take a second look at that pivotal scene (the sandwich eating scene in the hotel) where we begin to shift our concerns from Marion (Janet Leigh) to Norman. It’s a director’s triumph, to be sure. But it depends on an unerring performance to pull it off. Hitchcock had one here with Perkins’ work. It is a legendary performance. And it deserves more respect.
Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951)
Another Hitchcock masterpiece that wouldn’t be what it is without an uncomfortable, brilliant performance at its center. 1951 was a banner year in American film, with indelible performances—especially by the men. Think of it: Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Bogey (Oscar winner) in The African Queen, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. What an embarrassment of riches! Yet Walker’s work stands proudly in that group.
Like Perkins’ work in Psycho, Walker is way ahead of his time with this character of Bruno Antony. The so-called lead in the film was the bigger star: Farley Granger. He gives a standard, nondescript, yeoman’s performance. Walker blows him and co-star Ruth Roman out of the water. He’s funny, dark, creepy, frightening, and broken all at the same time. You can’t take your eyes off of him, even when you wish you could.
When you see the film again, sit back and see how incredible modern the film feels. (https://film-prof.com/category/film-reviews/older-films/) It looks and feels like a fresh period piece, not an old movie. It’s one of Hitch’s greats, and has been woefully under-appreciated for years. The DGA was smart enough to nominate Hitchcock, but the Academy wasn’t paying attention.
Hitch’s not winning an Oscar is an Academy embarrassment. Watching Walker’s performance is a sadness, as he died the same year the film was made. What great work we missed. At least we have this one. Take another look, and be amazed at what a sensitive, brave and fresh performance he gave.
Kristen Wiig in Knocked Up (2007)
I’ve already written a serious piece about abortion and film (https://film-prof.com/2011/09/04/abortion-and-the-film-image/) that analyzed parts of this film. Now I stop to applaud Kristen Wiig in somewhere between a supporting role and a cameo.
Full disclosure: Wiig is one of our local talents (Rochester, NY), and like Taye Diggs, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, we are happy to call this actress one of our own. For now, I call attention to the one scene where Alison (Katherine Heigl) is told/not told to lose some weight for the TV cameras. Wiig plays a higher-up to Alison at E! Television, and helps make the scene the funniest thing in a crude but funny film. She is obviously completely jealous of Alison’s looks and this new opportunity to step in front of the camera, but can’t show it. She also can’t come right out and say that Alison needs to lose weight, as that just can’t be said out loud in that business environment. It can be implied, however, and it is—hysterically.
Watch Wiig and nothing else in the scene. Using the rule of “Who else could do this?” I can’t think of anyone else that could play the scene this way, with so much going on at the same time. It’s a solid acting performance with just a hint of sketch comedy, a combination that few others could manage as well. Take any respected dramatic actress and ask them to do this. They probably couldn’t, at least not this well. Wiig is a special talent that often doesn’t get used correctly. This part, this scene—a perfect showcase for a unique set of comic gifts.
Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944)
Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actress for Barbara Stanwyck. Criminally, perhaps the best performance in the film was ignored—Edward G. Robinson’s.
Robinson’s Barton Keyes holds this film together and is the moral center of the film, enabling the two leads (Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray) to bring the noir to this classic film noir. He’s real, painfully trusting, smart and funny—his “little man” references are perhaps the most relatable lines in the film. Without this lovely and modulated performance, this film might have gone too dark, as many of Wilder’s films threaten to do.
“Supporting” is the best word for Robinson’s work here, because he not only supported the two leads, he supported the entire atmosphere of the film. His performance prevented Wilder’s deep cynicism from pulling the film down into a totally depressing experience, and singlehandedly balanced the darkness and pessimism of the two leads’ actions with the only performance in the film that smacks of real life and fresh air. Robinson was a legend, but he was also a superior actor.
J.K. Simmons in Spider-Man (2002)
I know. Like my last of five from the last article, I’m presenting a nearly forgotten performance here at the end. Simmons is one of the busiest actors in the land, bouncing from films (Juno) to TV (“The Closer” and “Growing Up Fisher”) to commercials (Farmers Insurance). He’s a familiar face and seems a known quantity.
Again, though, try and substitute Simmons with another actor as the loud-mouthed editor J. Jonah Jameson, the one who can’t stand Spider-Man. Of course several others could have done a good job, but look what intensity, intelligence and humor he brings to a literal comic-book character. Film pulls toward the realistic, and characters as larger-than-life as Jameson can be hard to play well. Yet Simmons brings the right note of believability and exaggeration. His character is ridiculous yet relatable. He threatens to bust out of the world of the film, yet never does, even while he adds sounds and colors that bring energy and laughs to a film that could go too serious.
For contrast, take a look at his work in Juno. He’s understated, real and funny. His character is as far from Jameson as could be, yet he nails the character and helps ground the film with his paternal concern and strength.
Someday, Simmons will receive the recognition he deserves. But for now, his busy work schedule will have to suffice as it continues to attest to his talent and popularity.
I’m with you entirely on point number five. In addition to the parts listed, he also played an over the top character only heard, yet felt in Portal 2.