The envelope please: some underrated film actors and actresses

Last time, I shared some of my favorite underappreciated singers.

So, this week, it seemed only fair to spotlight some of my favorite underrated film actors and actresses.

I welcome your nominees — have at it in the Comment section below — but here are a few I think deserve more respect for their screen work and what they’ve given film fans everywhere.

This week, I’ll start with three guys, then feature three women and end with a longtime family favorite.

Three actors
Let’s start with two veteran actors whose movie contributions tended to be diminished by the public’s memories of their lighter-weight television shows.

• First, Fred MacMurray, in my view the second-best “movie cad” of all time.

Unfortunately, Fred’s claim to film fame — his run of roles where he’d deviously take the low road — was largely undone by his sitcom role in the popular TV series “My Three Sons” and by the likes of such Walt Disney comedies as “The Shaggy Dog,” “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “Son  of Flubber.”

Nevertheless, MacMurray shone in three classic films, including Billy Wilder’s exquisite film noir  “Double Indemnity,” where he had a lot more than selling insurance policies on his mind.

That memorably amoral character was followed by his despicably passive/aggressive role in “The Caine Mutiny” and his turn as the conniving womanizer “Mr. Sheldrake” in another Billy Wilder classic, “The Apartment.”

(Oh, by the way, the biggest movie cad of all time has to be Montgomery Clift (spoiler alert) in the classic Olivia de Havilland film “The Heiress.”)

Walter Brennan, the only actor to win three Oscars for best supporting actor. Here’s one tribute to his diverse roles, and a sample of his role in “To Have and Have Not.”  He also managed a Top Five spoken-word hit in 1962, “Old Rivers.” But he, too, was done in by his “Grandpa Amos” image on TV’s “The Real McCoys.”

• Then there’s Jack Warden, a journeyman actor who’s appeared in everything from the classic “12 Angry Men” as an impatient juror to his role as Paul Newman’s lawyer sidekick in “The Verdict” to his role as family friend Saul in the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy “While You Were Sleeping” (more on that film later!).

He also played his fair share of wide-ranging newspaper roles — most notably as an editor in the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate classic “All the President’s Men” and as the exasperated boss of newspaper reporter Kermit the Frog and photographer Fozzie Bear in “The Great Muppet Caper.”

And maybe my favorite Warden role: playing good guy/bad guy twins in a “guilty pleasure” movie, Robert Zemekis’ tacky and tasteless “Used Cars.” That’s the film with the classic car scene that ends with the unforgettable line “Fifty bucks never killed anybody.”

Three actresses
Rosalind Russell, a long-undervalued actress who played in everything from “His Girl Friday,” a “re-gendered” version of “The Front Page” screwball newspaper comedy, to Mama Rose in the movie version of the Broadway/Stephen Sondheim musical “Gypsy.”

But her greatest triumph, in my view, was her show-stealing role as the spinster schoolteacher in the movie version of William Inge’s “Picnic.” She upstages stars William Holden and Kim Novak in the simply superb — and heartbreaking — “Marry Me, Howard” scene.

• Then there’s Melinda Dillon, best known as the understanding, peace-making mom who never got a hot meal in the seasonal classic “A Christmas Story.”

Dillon, who played the role of “Honey” in the original Broadway cast of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1962, also appeared in a stunning supporting role in another journalism movie, “Absence of Malice,” as a friend whose life is turned upside down while trying to help Paul Newman save his reputation.

 She also starred as the panicked mom trying to save her son in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

• And how about Jane Fonda, too long typecast in “Barbarella” sex kitten roles? While her social activism and busy life overshadowed some of her film work, she took home two Oscars for best actress (“Coming Home” in 1979) and “Klute” in 1972). And she was nominated again in 1978 for “Julia,” my choice for her best screen role for her portrayal of playwright Lillian Hellman. The opening scene nicely sets up this beautiful movie with a wonderful cast.

A family favorite
• Who doesn’t like Bill Pullman? No one in the Effenberger household.

Whether he was playing “the stupidest person on the face of the Earth” (“Ruthless People”), the U.S. president (“Independence Day”) or a scorned husband (“Malice”), we loved all his roles.  

But it’s clear he was meant to play romantic comedies, no matter whether the romantic lead or the second fiddle — and (spoiler alert) no matter whether he loses the girl (“Sleepless in Seattle”) or gets the girl (“Spaceballs”).

I particularly like his role in “While You Were Sleeping,” which features his great riff on the amorous intentions of “leaning” (the exchange starts here at about the two-minute mark).  

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Tim Walker on 08/06/2010 - 09:35 am.

    Margaret Dumont, playing straightwoman to all the hijinks and frankly, insults, hurled her way by the Marx Brothers.

  2. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 08/06/2010 - 09:55 am.

    Bill Pullman is also in Zero Effect, which is a GREAT film. 60% quirky drama, 40% quirky comedy.

  3. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 08/06/2010 - 12:00 pm.

    Surprised, but not disappointed, to see Jane Fonda on your list. Who can forget her pre-Barbarella role as Cat Ballou in the movie of the same name; a movie which also featured Lee Marvin (in two roles), Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, Dwayne Hickman, and a drunken horse. Thoroughly entertaining!

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 08/06/2010 - 12:33 pm.

    Great topic, Don, and a challenge — because it seems that you’re going for performers who are basically of star rank, yet underappreciated. It seems like you’re not talking about the kind of supporting performers who had long and prolific careers in the golden era of Hollywood studios, the people who appeared in several movies a year and dozens in their career, often playing the same kind of role.

    I’m thinking of people like Eugene Pallette, Edward Everett Horton, William Demarest, Eve Arden.

    But to answer your original question, let me throw out Barbara Stanwyck. She was a major star for a long time, of course, but I don’t think she gets the respect of her contemporaries like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn.

    But can you think of another actress who was as sinister as she was in Double Indemnity and as delightful as she was in Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve?

  5. Submitted by Gin Kujawa on 08/06/2010 - 01:37 pm.

    My favorite underrated actress was Maria Ouspenskaya who was in the old werewolf movies with Lon Chaney, Jr. She gave me the chills when I was a kid. She also appeared in the Tarzan movie “Tarzan and the Amazon.”

  6. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/06/2010 - 03:44 pm.

    My fav underated actor? Victor McLagen, although he did win the Best Actor for the early John Ford pic, “The Informer.”

    Actress? I’ll go with the late, great Teresa Wright, absolutely great in “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Mrs. Miniver.”

  7. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/06/2010 - 03:46 pm.

    For Gin:

    Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers at night….


    Hey, don’t forget Dwight Frye, crazed henchman in both Frankenstein AND Dracul Universal originals.

  8. Submitted by William Souder on 08/06/2010 - 04:05 pm.

    Here’s an underrated actor nominee…less for his total body of work than for a single unforgettable performance: Ronald Reagan as the tipsy country-club lush Alec in 1939’s “Dark Victory.” This is a film with star power galore…Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart…but it’s Reagan who steals every scene he’s in.

  9. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/06/2010 - 04:16 pm.

    Reagan was also great in the 1942 film “King’s Row.”

  10. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 08/06/2010 - 07:42 pm.

    Gosh, Don. This is quite a challenge. I have to be careful in my selection … but here it goes.

    1 – Broderick Crawford … he could do serious drama, comedy, and everything else in between.
    2 – Ralph Meeker … so much versatility and presence, and fun to watch!
    3 – Robert Ryan … always serious and with a lot of undercurrent. Very dependable.

    1 – Thelma Ritter … Don, how could you forget Thelma? The best wisecracker who also shows a lot of world-weariness.
    2 – Anne Baxter … she could be tender, she could be tough and feisty, she could be mean and calculating.
    3 – Lee Remick … prodigious talent that was never adequately rewarded.

    Sorry, I cannot judge any of the current crop of performers. I have not seen enough of their work.

  11. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/06/2010 - 08:41 pm.

    RE: Fred MacMurray: there’s also a classic from 1940 with Barbara Stanwyck called “Remember the Night” that many claim rivals “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

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