The most underrated – and overrated – actors in Hollywood
The most piercing screams so far at Venice this year weren’t for Timothée Chalamet, Adam Driver or Cate Blanchett. They erupted when a stout 53-year-old man clambered out of his Lexus on Sunday evening, to be met by the sort of reaction he hasn’t provoked in at least 15 years.
Brendan Fraser is the comeback kid of the 2022 festival season, and his starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale – a plangent chamber piece about a 42-stone man at the end of his life – is making many of us here on the Lido realise how much we’ve missed Fraser since his late noughties fading from view, and therefore also how miserably undervalued he’s been by Hollywood since.
An actor’s standing in the industry can be out of synch with their ability – or lack of it – for all sorts of reasons. Their perceived commercial value matters, as does the ardour of their public following. Even early critical estimations of their talent that later prove inaccurate can be stubbornly hard to shift.
So in compiling this list of today’s most overrated and underrated actors, my colleagues and I have tried to honour that, and steer clear of purely personal likes and dislikes. We don’t think our overrateds aren’t awful – not all of them, anyway – nor our underrateds flawlessly great. But each name triggers a little twinge of injustice, which hopefully we’ve gone a little way to address.
Fraser’s performance in The Whale is so wonderful for two big reasons. First: bulky as those prosthetics may be, they’re not entirely transformative. The actor’s face – still familiar from the Mummy and George of the Jungle days, when it was almost comically handsome and matinee-idol pristine – is still cleanly recognisable. In other words, there’s visible much more to his character Charlie than his current predicament.
Second, the role is no self-abasing plea for sympathy, but an encapsulation of what made him so watchable in the first place, drawing on his considerable affability and comedic talents, as well as strapping physical presence. Acclaimed recent appearances in the Starz series Doom Patrol and Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move helped get the revival rolling, and he’s in the new Martin Scorsese film too, arriving early next year. After more than a decade in relative obscurity, due to a mix of personal and professional setbacks, so begins a very welcome third act. RC
By all rights, the 42-year-old Hunnam should be Britain’s Channing Tatum: he has the looks, the charm, the paradoxical rugged vulnerability, the unexpected and completely thrilling range. In Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, he was drily hilarious and tough as nails; in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a Saturday morning cartoon hero come to life. And for the unsung lead performance of the last ten years, look no further than his noble, haunted, shattering work in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. RC
Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice remains peerless, but her film work deserves more of a spotlight. Bafta-nominated in Wilde (1997) as Oscar’s pained wife, she had a tragic radiance as the Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte in Possession (2002). She’s icily brilliant as a walled-off research scientist in Contagion (2011), and when she’s taken out in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), it’s a gut-punch. Her recent role as a dying lymphoma patient in Saint Maud (2019) was a major, bitter showcase. TR
Bill Camp has one of those faces. You’ll have seen him somewhere as a grizzled cop (in Joker, say) or among Civil War gentry (in Lincoln or 12 Years a Slave). From such parts, he’s built up the supreme character actor resumé of the past decade. Watch him play a life-ruining night of poker in Molly’s Game (2017) and wince. He can convey a menacing authority or rumpled sadness in seconds, but the roles (see: Dark Waters) are expanding. An era of increased Camp is fast upon us. TR
Was there a surplus of spectacularly talented young British actresses when Powley arrived on the scene? Her fearless, transfixing breakthrough in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl should have put her on a Florence Pugh trajectory, but the fire never quite caught. TV proved more hospitable – she shone in The Morning Show and Informer, and was terrific in last month’s Everything I Know About Love. High time cinema caught up. RC
The commercial failure of the Star Wars spin-off film Solo was, entirely unfairly, held against the 32-year-old Ehrenreich: he’s barely worked in the four years since since, though a supporting role in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer should get things back on track. Funny and endlessly charming, he’s a delight as a guileless singing cowboy in the Coen brothers’ golden-age Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! – and in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, also set in vintage Los Angeles, a joyously old-school romantic lead. RC
A fashion model who made her film debut at 18 in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Goth initially seemed destined for decorative arthouse waif status. Instead, in the intervening nine years, she’s diligently built up a wide-ranging and ambitious body of work. She gave good ethereal damsel in the otherwise haphazard psychological horror A Cure For Wellness, but it was her performances in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria and Claire Denis’s High Life – and, more recently and groundedly, Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma – which proved she had the talent to back up her otherworldly presence. Her first outright lead role, in Ti West's riotous new slasher horror Pearl, brings the point home with axe-swinging force. RC
Mosaku is fresh to films, not a household name yet. But if one part is enough to have her topping casting lists, it’s her blazing turn as Rian, the South Sudanese immigrant confronting the spectres of the refugee experience in Remi Weeks’s His House (2020). Her relationship with Sope Dirisu’s Bol was bruisingly real; so was her terror at every apparition in their grubby council house. A well-deserved Bafta nod, and a shrewd showing as a women’s-rights activist in Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane, can only boost her standing. TR
The wrestler-to-actor pipeline is hardly infallible, but the 45-year-old Cena might just prove to be the best thing to have yet popped out of it. Cena’s flair for comedy was shown off in Trainwreck and Blockers, while his darkly satirical all-American antihero in The Suicide Squad (and its superb spin-off series Peacemaker) rang with a plaintive and disarming macho pathos. Glossy blockbuster heroism and villainy? No problem either: see Bumblebee and the last Fast & Furious. An electioneering thriller, The Independent, is imminent, and I can’t wait. RC
The puckish, versatile O’Brien has a wildly ardent fanbase, thanks to Teen Wolf and the Maze Runner trilogy. But it’s in films right now that he keeps getting better and better. No one could have shouldered the outdoorsy sci-fi romp Love and Monsters (a Covid casualty in 2020) with more rueful charm; he played a drug addict with scary verve in Flashback (also 2020); and he expertly nailed the smaller part of a weaselly Mafia pup in The Outfit (2022). He’d be great as a snooping private dick in some caustic neo-noir. TR
Poupaud has been acting since he was ten, and made a dazzling mark juggling three girls’ attentions in Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale (1996). He’s since worked with Xavier Dolan (Laurence Anyways), numerous times with François Ozon, and even the Wachowskis, as an excitable commentator in Speed Racer. So moving as a dying gay man in Ozon’s Time to Leave (2005), and then as a grown victim of Catholic Church sex abuse in By the Grace of God (2018), he’s pitch-perfect in just about everything. TR
You can hardly accuse the ever-busy Radcliffe of resting on his laurels since Harry Potter ended, but perhaps a few more breaks here and there wouldn’t have gone amiss. Child stardom stranded him: as an adult he’s neither a gifted character actor nor a credible leading man, and thus an awkward fit for every role in his pay grade. Whenever he shows up – a heinous-looking biopic of the American musical comedian "Weird Al" Yankovic is next – you can almost hear the cosmic echo of a producer muttering 18 months earlier: “Well, if we can’t get [x], there’s always Daniel Radcliffe”. RC
It’s not just the Bohemian Rhapsody Oscar, but boy oh boy, that one’s tough to justify – a performance that has to wait two hours before a single sequence comes along that doesn’t look weird or embarrassing. It’s thanks to that, too, that the Bond producers went Route One with their baddie casting on No Time to Die: never a great sign when a skin condition gets called in to enhance the puny menace otherwise being exuded. Let’s just say Malek has a long way to go till he’s Oscar-worthy. TR
He’ll thump me. How much credit we give Craig for reconnecting with Bond, quite movingly, in that last outing depends where we sit re: Skyfall and Spectre, where he just looked fed up of the whole business. Evidence of a sense of humour remains scant, even in Knives Out, a party-trick performance buoyed by a whirlwind script, missing inspiration from within. He’s always trying to prove he can cut loose, and did have some fun in Logan Lucky. Doubling down with a grim determination (in Munich, say) is his real forte. TR
As Spider-Man, Holland makes sense. As the hero of a Pixar film, ditto. But can this bushy-tailed young Brit be Gen Z’s leading sex symbol too? The studios seem to think so, but there’s one crucial hitch: the sex itself, or rather abject lack thereof. Holland is the tamest object of desire imaginable – chemically incapable of swashbuckling or brooding, as his work in Uncharted and Cherry attest. With Hollywood at its most cravenly prudish, his career is very right-place-right-time, but your heart bleeds for today’s under-titillated youth. RC
Here’s one of modern cinema’s biggest conundrums: is Jared Leto in on the joke? The fat suit and Joe Dolce accent in House of Gucci strongly suggested he was – then along came his four-year passion project Morbius, a mid-life crisis in comic-book-movie form. Denis Villeneuve found good use for Leto in Blade Runner 2049, but otherwise things have not been pretty since that 2014 Oscar win. Achievements include being the worst of at least eight screen Jokers, and somehow only being cast in six films in nine years. RC
“But Mad Men!” That ended seven years ago; now we’re annually told Moss needs an Oscar nomination. For something or other. It never stacks up. She was quite effective in The Invisible Man, but some of the more extreme leads she’s played – Her Smell, Shirley – have been sharply overpraised, essentially for leaning in on abrasive snarling, poison glares, and a wallowing pungency. Her derangement in that brief Us role gave it a good kick – proof that less Moss is generally more. TR
When it comes to twinkling and/or stoical decency, there’s no one finer. But the further Hanks strays from his strong suit, the more his limitations show. Take his Gringotts Goblin version of the conniving Colonel Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis: the performance was all rubber, no soul, and a great film’s only bum note. He’s often referred to as our James Stewart – but could he pull off Vertigo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as well as It’s a Wonderful Life? Yes, the man’s charm is unsurpassed. His versatility, though? Not so much. RC
Rylance is magic on stage, where he will always thrive best, from Jerusalem to Shakespeare and back. He’s starting to feel like a much less profound or generous performer in films, though – for all that his trophy haul for Bridge of Spies might suggest otherwise. Making a wily enigma of Rudolf Abel was a respectable choice, but the gallery of goofy eccentrics he’s played since have gotten obvious – some egregiously so (Don’t Look Up’s grim tech billionaire). Maybe playing Satan for Terrence Malick will wake him up. TR
Regal, statuesque, shiningly earnest, a stranger to human emotional nuance: on the Wonder Woman dream attribute checklist, Gadot ticks every box. Transplant those qualities to an Agatha Christie mystery, however – or, perish the thought, a viral celebrity karaoke video – and you’d have to say the appeal wanes somewhat. Even in Netflix’s action comedy Red Notice the Diana Prince star quality remained maddeningly elusive. Next up: Disney’s live-action Snow White (wicked queen, could work) and a Second World War period piece about the Polish resistance (yikes). RC
Well before Spacey was uncastable, he was already unbearable, thanks to a cleverer-than-thou acting style that had long hardened into shtick. For years after Seven and The Usual Suspects, he persisted in being the guy with all the answers; even in House of Cards, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum nailed the problem that “he’s miscast by being too well cast – there’s no tension in seeing a shark play a shark.” His peak? Not the smuggery of American Beauty, but LA Confidential’s seen-it-all Jack Vincennes. TR