Top 5 underrated actresses


This list is in response to my brother’s Top 5 underrated actors he posted last week. Again, our definition isn’t limited to actresses and actors who aren’t famous. I’m putting the spotlight on five women who are often overlooked in the conversation of who the best actresses working today are.

5. Catherine Keener has been very good in a ton of supporting roles and a handful of leading roles. She was nominated for best supporting Oscars for Being John Malkovich and Capote. Her career didn’t quite take off until the late 90s, but since then she’s had a string of good movies such as Your Friends & Neighbors, Death to Smoochy, The Interpreter, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Friends with Money, Into the Wild, Where the Wild Things Are, The Soloist, An American Crime and Cyrus. Most of these movies are very good, but even when they’re not, like The Soloist, her performances are very strong. I could see her winning an Oscar while she’s in her prime.

Keener in An American Crime, where she plays a deranged woman who tortures a young girl. This is a disturbing scene:

4. Juliette Lewis is a bad ass. On top of always being great in movies — she was nominated for an Oscar for Cape Fear — she also fronts the rock band Juliette and The Licks.  I always find her enjoyable to watch, even though she can be very intense. Again, Lewis is usually in supporting roles in films like Whip It, Natural Born Killers, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, From Dusk Til Dawn, or The Basketball Diaries. But she is also excellent when she takes on a leading role in a film such as My Louisiana Sky. She a triple threat in comedy, drama and music. She’s got loads of talent and she’s not afraid to take chances. She’s my kind of gal.

Lewis from a scene from her Academy Award-nominated role in Cape Fear

3. Sigourney Weaver has been nominated for three Oscars, two Emmys, and six Golden Globes. She won Golden Globes for best supporting actress in Working Girl and best actress for Gorillas in the Myst in the same year. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar for the iconic sci-fi film Aliens, which is saying a lot because the Academy rarely nominates anything that has to do with science-fiction. If they do, it’s usually for special effects and not acting. She’s chosen a huge swath of characters to play, from an autistic woman in Snow Cake, a cellist possessed by a demon in Ghostbusters or an activist scientist in the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar. There are few actresses willing to take the chances Weaver has, and her career has shined because of it.

Weaver in a scene from Snow Cake where she plays an autistic woman

2. Catherine O’Hara is always good, even if it’s a bad movie. She’s hilarious but has proven she can take on dramatic roles in films like A Mighty Wind (she performed on the Oscar nominated song from the movie) and The Life Before This. She’s been in a ton of hilarious roles in films like Beetle Juice, Heartburn, Best in Show (for which she won an American Comedy Award), Dick Tracy, Home Alone and Waiting for Guffman. She’s also done some great television, such as HBO’s Six Feet under and won an Emmy for SCTV. Comedic actors don’t get enough love, and they should. It’s hard to be funny and O’Hara is one of the funniest actresses who gives consistently good performances and always makes me laugh.

O’Hara in Best in Show

1. Ellen Burstyn is my number one. I know it may seem silly to have her as the most underrated actress when she’s been nominated six times for an Oscar and won once for Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But Burstyn’s brilliant performance in Requiem for a Dream lost to Julia Roberts, who was the darling pick for Erin Brockovich. That is the definition of underrated. When was the last time you heard someone mention her among the best actresses? Or who was the last person you heard say, “Ellen Burstyn is my favorite actress.” She’s been in more than 125 roles as an actress, including classics like The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, The People Vs. Jean Harris, Requiem for a Dream, and has had a fantastic recurring role on the HBO series Big Love. Aside from Requiem for a Dream and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, she was also nominated for best actress in Resurrection, Same Time, Next Year, The Exorcist, and for best supporting actress in The Last Picture Show and won an Emmy for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” for a guest role. Burstyn has a natural strength about her with a genuine vulnerability and has a fantastic delivery of any part she plays. She never mails in a role.

Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

I couldn’t embed this video, but click on the link and watch this scene from Requiem for a Dream. Hard to believe she lost to Julia Roberts


11 responses to “Top 5 underrated actresses

  1. In total agreement wit #1 and #2. I’ve been on O’Hara fan since SCTV (grew up near Canada). And I think it’s true that Ellen Burstyn in that she’s not seeking “celebrity” so you always forget how awesome she is until you see her again.

    • I grew up near Canada, too, and went to college in Buffalo.

      O’Hara is just always good, even if it’s a crap movie. Comedic actors get stuck in bad movies from time to time, but even then, she’s excellent. She’s really great at her craft.

      I read a story yesterday in NY Times Magazine with Bill Murray talking about how it’s harder to make people laugh than cry.

      NYM: You’ve been taking more serious roles than comedic roles in the past decade. Does it give you more satisfaction to do movies that make people think versus movies that make people laugh?
      BM: No, I think maybe the opposite. I think it’s much harder to make people laugh. If you can make people laugh, that’s really special. There are a lot of people that can make you cry, I don’t think that’s such a big deal. I’ve just done the films that I liked, I didn’t have any plan, but I did end up having a run of them that are all kind of on the serious side. Some of them are downright sad, and I gotta get out of that. Because it kinda, I don’t know, just thinking about being sad and acting sad all that time kinda makes you feel sad. I don’t wanna feel — you know, it kind of makes you feel sad. And if your life is in any way hard or sad at all, then it really gets hard. Then you get a little moody. So I’ve sort of decided that I want to start making funny movies again.

      The link:

      • Thanks for the link — I’m always collecting humor theory material. A ridiculous hobby I admit, but what can you do? And yes, craft is so important in comedy, but the end result is to make it look so easy people think it really is easy…

  2. Fantastic list!! I would have added Tilda Swinton as well but I like all of your picks!

  3. So glad to see Burstyn at number 1. Her loss to Roberts is one of the all time Academy errors.

  4. This is a really good list, but Keener is the one who doesn’t get much of a mention, cause in reality she basically does play the same character in every movie.

  5. I disagree on Keener. Look at her filmography. She has all sorts of varied parts.

  6. I love indie movies from the 90’s that have either Katherine Keener or Illeana Douglas in them. I wish they had gotten some mainstream attention juuuust a little bit earlier, as they are now most likely past there prime.
    Ellen Burstyn is in a lot of good films.

  7. Pingback: Darren Aronofsky rumored as director of next Superman « The Movie Brothers

  8. I am so glad this internet thing works and your article really helped me. Might take you up on that home advice you gave. Perhaps a guest appearance would be good.

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