17 surprisingly great performances from critically maligned actors
Acting may seem like the most glamorous job on the planet – provided you’re good at it, that is.
Actors like Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio have become synonymous with talent and charisma. But names like Adam Sandler or Hayden Christensen have something of a different connotation.
However, filmmaking is a collaborative process, and a dodgy performance is seldom the responsibility of just one person.
That’s why, every so often, a much-maligned actor will suddenly pop up to deliver a performance of real heft and accomplishment.
Sometimes, this finally gives the actor their due, and they are lavished with awards and industry praise.
Other times, people don’t even bat an eyelid – but the work speaks for itself.
From Arnold Schwarzenegger to Vince Vaughn, here are 17 brilliant performances by critically maligned actors, selected by The Independent…
Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems (2020)
For years, Adam Sandler has been renowned for the lowest of lowbrow comedies – works of broad schlock like Big Daddy and The Ridiculous 6. But every so often, Sandler shows his true potential, in films like Punch Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories or, best of all, the Safdie brothers’ breakneck character study Uncut Gems. As the chaotic gambling addict Howard Ratner, Sandler is absolutely electric.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator (1984)
Phenomenal acting or phenomenal casting? I don’t know. But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in The Terminator – and its more crowd-pleasing sequel T2 – is an astounding piece of work whichever way you slice it. It’s hard to imagine anyone else capable of concocting the weird robotic terror that Arnie manages to. It was, frankly, the role he was born for.
Chris Pratt – Moneyball (2011)
After finding fame as one of the funniest, most likable presences on Parks and Recreation, Chris Pratt has found himself unable to translate that charm to the big screen. For whatever reason, his acting has become vocally disliked – and sometimes mercilessly ridiculed – on social media. But in 2011’s propulsive baseball drama Moneyball, he’s a different creature entirely: restrained; convincing; sympathetic. Bring back that Pratt.
Daniel Radcliffe – Swiss Army Man (2016)
For a while, it seemed like Daniel Radcliffe would become one of the multitude of child stars who fails to cut it as an adult performer. The shadow of Harry Potter simply loomed too large – his turns in films like Woman in Black, Kill Your Darlings and Horns failed to curry him any favour. And yet, his increasingly weird project choices have subverted everyone’s expectations. His bizarre-o performance in Swiss Army Man – as a flatulent cadaver that Paul Dano finds on a desert island – is a masterpiece of abstract physical comedy.
Emma Watson – The Bling Ring (2013)
Another Potter star who’s drawn some flack for her post-Hogwarts performances, Watson gave fans a glimpse of what she’s capable of in Sofia Coppola’s compelling crime caper The Bling Ring. Playing a venal American burglar-of-the-famous, Watson is almost unrecognisable from her prim Hermione days.
Harry Styles – Dunkirk (2017)
His acting career may still be in its infancy, but One Direction star Harry Styles has already earned a reputation as a bit of an iffy screen presence, thanks mostly to his critically lambasted turns in the scandal-hit Don’t Worry Darling and forthcoming release My Policeman. Look back at his role in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, however, and you’ll find he’s a perfectly compelling presence on screen, playing a frighteningly young soldier on the beaches of France.
Hayden Christensen – Shattered Glass (2003)
Few actors have ever experienced the critical bludgeoning that Hayden Christensen faced after his performances as Anakin in the second and third Star Wars prequels. He’s never been able to get back on track since – but the promise he showed in his youth, as unscrupulous journalist Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass, remains undeniable.
Jennifer Lopez – Hustlers (2019)
For much of her career, Jennifer Lopez was haunted by the spectre of duds like Gigli and Jersey Girl. But she’s always been a performer with a whole lot in her back pocket. This was brought out for the 2019 Scorsese-lite crime drama Hustlers, in which Lopez gave a coruscating performance as the pole dancer-turned-thief Ramona Vega. The real robbery, of course, is that Lopez didn’t even get an Oscar nomination for it.
Justin Timberlake – Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Justin Timberlake may be a good singer, but he is, all too often, a truly atrocious actor. In films such as In Time, or Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, Timberlake is almost so bad he’s unwatchable. In Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2013 folk musical Inside Llewyn Davis, he is great. Playing the dim but inoffensive Jim – part of a folk duo with Carey Mulligan’s Jean – he makes a brilliant unwitting foil for Oscar Isaac’s talented curmudgeon.
Lindsay Lohan – Mean Girls (2004)
Partly due to the tabloid media’s obsession with her private life, Lindsay Lohan has struggled to be taken seriously as an actor. She’s already more than proved her talent, however, as the lead in Tina Fey’s whip-smart comedy Mean Girls. As highschooler Cady Heron, Lohan gives a pretty flawless performance, dexterously balancing the film’s irreverent comic tone with moments of occasional pathos.
Madonna – A League of Their Own (1992)
You never quite know what you’re going to get with Madonna. The “Holiday” hitmaker holds the records for the most ever Razzie wins, thanks to torrid performances in films such as Shanghai Surprise and Die Another Day. But she’s also proved herself quite wonderful in films such as Desperately Seeking Susan, and the baseball period piece A League of Their Own, in which she plays the tough-as-nails Mae Mordabito.
Nicolas Cage – Raising Arizona (1987)
He may have won an Oscar, but Nicolas Cage is often cited as the textbook example of an actor who doesn’t know how to dial it back. Loud, preposterous roles in films like The Wicker Man and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin left him as something of a laughing stock (until he began leaning into the joke in recent years). But he’s plenty of fine work to his name, including in the Coen brother’s madcap baby-kidnap caper Raising Arizona. Ignore the haters: this was Cage’s funniest role.
Ryan Reynolds – Adventureland (2008)
Admittedly, there must plenty of people out there who don’t find Ryan Reynolds irritating; there’s no other explanation for his string of box office hits. But for many critics, Reynolds – and his smug, quippy screen persona – epitomises the worst excesses of the modern Hollywood leading man. Look back at his supporting turn in 2008’s Adventureland, however, and you’ll get a glimpse of what Reynolds could look like on screen: flawed, subtly (but deliberately) unlikeable, with a genuine edge. He’s good at it.
Shelley Duvall – 3 Women (1977)
Shelley Duvall has always been unfairly tarred for her performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It was a role that required excess and stylisation, and she brought both in spades. But even if you agree with critics of her Shining scream-a-thon, you’d be wrong to overlook the polish of her stellar early work – particularly in a series of collaborations with director Robert Altman. The meatiest of these came in the psychodrama 3 Women, in which Duvall played a woman in a fraught friendship with another woman.
Sylvester Stallone – Rocky (1976)
I’m not quite sure if Stallone qualifies as a critically maligned actor. He’s pretty much an icon of action cinema, an actor of considerable acclaim. But almost all of that acclaim stems from one performance: as the downtrodden boxer “Rocky” Balboa. The bulk of his later filmography has been characterised by such low-diction mediocrity that his brilliant, revelatory performance in the Oscar-winning Rocky seems less probable by the year.
Vanessa Hudgens – Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021)
Like many child actors, Hudgens spent years struggling for legitimacy, having found fame on the popular – but critically disdained – High School Musical franchise (as well as the wretched live-action Thunderbirds adaptation). In recent years, however, she’s started to shrug off some of the stigma, with her role in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 musical Tick, Tick… Boom! showcasing both her musical and dramatic talents.
Vince Vaughn – Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Despite the early promise of Swingers, Vince Vaughn spent much of his career bouncing between forgettable comedies, often playing bland everymen. So fans were rightly taken aback when it was announced that he was starring in a brutal prison drama directed by gore-loving Bone Tomahawk filmmaker S Craig Zahler. As it turned out, Vaughn was terrific, playing a man trying to suppress his own terrifyingly violent instincts. He uses the menace of his 6ft 5” frame to great effect, but proves equally as adroit delivering Zahler’s slick, blackly comic dialogue.