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Mother Brain’s Top 10 Underrated Actresses Not Yet Covered
By Mother Brain
Earlier in the year, I discussed 10 underrated actors who I had not written an individual piece on yet. Yet, many have asked why I left out the actresses? Well, being that Mother’s Day is coming around the corner, I thought this was the right time to talk about those great actresses on the big and small screen. While some may be considered icons who have not seen a major hit in years, others have been forgotten or ignored by millennials. So now it’s time to take them back to school on actresses who defined class both on and off screen:
10) Glenn Close
The kids know her best today either as Nova Prime Irani Rael in Guardians of the Galaxy (or Patty Hewes on Damages). Yet, our parents in the 80s knew her best as the psycho one night stand of Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. Close’s career has been a wide range of extremes. In the beginning, she would play the squeaky clean love interest or highly educated female in movies like The Natural, The Big Chill, and Jagged Edge. Her role as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction not only made her a star but also a symbol of men’s fear. Some could go as far as her character being a metaphor of AIDS during this time. She took the part as seriously as studying women with mental illnesses and fought Paramount Pictures over the change in the ending from Alex committing suicide to Douglas’ wife shooting her dead. Over the next decade, Close would capitalize on her evil woman status in the live action 101 Dalmatians movies and Hamlet. But she also earned respect for playing strong women in authority roles like The Paper, Air Force One, and of course FX’s Damages. Yet, for all of her accomplishments, she never won an Oscar and that to me is a crime.
Trivia: Dubbed all of Andie MacDowell’s lines in Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan due to MacDowell’s thick southern accent.
9) Angela Bassett
To me, Angela Bassett is an iconic figure in African-American cinema. Just think of all the classic films she did: Boyz in the Hood, Malcolm X, Waiting To Exhale, What’s Love Got to Do with It, etc. She as embodied every iconic black female from Tina Turner to Rosa Parks to Betty Shabazz, to even First Lady Michelle Obama… on The Simpsons! Everything she does has truth and an emotional connection to the audience whether it’s the scenes of Tina Turner’s marital struggles in What’s Love Got to Do With It or her female bonding moments with the late Whitney Houston in Waiting to Exhale. I used to believe she could have made a great Storm in the X-Men movies instead of Halle Berry. At least now she’s turning heads as a voodoo priestess in the current season of American Horror Story.
Trivia: Was a huge fan of the Jackson 5 as a kid and wanted to marry one of the brothers. She later played Katherine Jackson in the Jacksons TV movie in 1992.
8) JoBeth Williams
The former soap actress became the sexy mom in films like American Dreamer, Dutch, and Poltergeist. The later would be the movie she’s most remembered by because rather than play a typical mom and housewife, she and her on-screen husband played by Craig T. Nelson come across as products of the hippie movement down to their pot smoking and free loving ways. Williams was able to tackle any genre and make a strong impression whether it was Dustin Hoffman’s rebound girlfriend in Kramer vs. Kramer, the bleeding liberal lawyer in Teachers, or the grief-stricken mom in the Adam television movie based on the disappearance of John Walsh’s son. As she grew older, Williams found herself playing less love interest parts and more feisty older women, most notably as Rita’s bitter mom on the second season of Dexter.
Trivia: Turned down the title role on the classic CBS series Murphy Brown which was written with her in mind.
7) Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Anybody who obsesses over Scarface knows her best as Tony Montana’s ill-fated sister whose death scene still gives me chills to this day. But I remember Mastrantonio for mostly playing strong women in movies prior to ever seeing Scarface as a kid. She had the Sigourney Weaver-esque part of an oil drilling scientist in James Cameron’s The Abyss which caused her to suffer a mental breakdown much like her co-star Ed Harris due to the physical underwater stuntwork. She held her own as a tough-as-nails Maid Marian in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the strong boating captain in The Perfect Storm. Surprisingly, I found her filmography to be quite short. This was due to her preference to take projects she connected with versus those with big paychecks. Most of her recent work has been on television and the theatre.
Trivia: Was neighbors with her Robin Hood co-star Alan Rickman when she was living in London during the 90s.
6) Jennifer Jason Leigh
From the time she caught Hollywood’s attention as the sexually promiscuous Stacy Hamilton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the career of Leigh in many ways shares similarities with her co-star Sean Penn. Rather than play traditional female roles in movies, Leigh has opted to play dark, troubled young women. In 1991‘s Rush, she played an undercover cop who gets too deep into the drug underworld and she terrified city yuppies as the psycho roommate of Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. She’s been infamous for passing on high profile roles in favor of prostitutes like the teen love interest of Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues and the sexually abused daughter of Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne. In spite of her bizarre choices, Leigh has earned a great deal of respect from critics and famous directors like Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and Ron Howard. Now here’s hoping for a huge comeback in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight later this year.
Trivia: Daughter of the late Vic Morrow who was infamously killed in a helicopter stunt gone wrong in the Twilight Zone Movie. Ironically enough, it’s director, John Landis, almost replaced Fast Times director Amy Heckerling before the accident.
5) Elisabeth Shue
I had the lovely privilege of encountering Ms. Shue in L.A.X. airport on the security check line just days before Hurricane Sandy. No conversation, but she looks as incredibly beautiful as she did 31 years ago when she played Ralph Macchio’s object of affection in The Karate Kid. Though she was often typecast in the girl next door types in the Back to the Future sequels, Cocktail, and Heart and Souls, Shue has proved she can carry a comedic picture on her own thanks to the success of 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting; however, it was her turn as an alcoholic prostitute opposite Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas that earned her an Oscar nomination and helped her earn credibility as an actress. Though she’s worked with greats like Woody Allen and Paul Verehoeven, she has taken big risks in recent years by playing an autistic woman in Molly and a mother with secrets in Amy & Isabelle. Audiences today know her as Julie Finlay on CSI.
Trivia: Was passed on the female lead in 1989’s Say Anything…
4) Bridget Fonda
Arguably one of the most in demand actresses of her day to eventually disappear from the limelight. Though her first on-screen role was a bit part in her father, Peter Fonda’s iconic hit Easy Rider, she didn’t hit big time until the early 90s with a string of hits: Godfather III, Doc Hollywood, Single White Female, and Singles. The latter two made her a symbol of the Generation X era in Hollywood. Those films as well as her turns in action movies (Point of No Return) and indie crime dramas (Jackie Brown, A Simple Plan) helped Fonda to escape the shadow of her famous family name. But after a string of flops and transitioning into motherhood, Fonda disappeared from show-business in 2002 and has rarely been seen in public since.
Trivia: Spouse of legendary composer, Danny Elfman.
3) Helen Slater
To be best known to every comic book geek as the original Supergirl, Slater’s participation in the DC Comics franchise has been as much of a double-edged sword as it was for Christopher Reeve. Though the film was a critical and commercial failure, fans praised Slater’s dedication to the role thanks to Reeve’s influence. Her post-Supergirl roles displayed her talents for drama and comedy. The cult classic The Legend of Billie Jean was her second signature role as a reluctant Texas outlaw who becomes a symbol of injustice after the destruction of her brother’s scooter. Her comedic turns in hits like Ruthless People and The Secret of My Success display her ability to do physical comedy and to hold her own against heavyweights like Bette Midler and Michael J. Fox. Most of her work after that went unnoticed. But she still remained connected to the DC Comics universe thanks to her voice as Talia al Guul in Batman: The Animated Series and playing Lara-El on Smallville.
Trivia: NOT related to Christian Slater despite playing siblings in The Legend of Billie Jean.
2) Rae Dawn Chong
The daughter of Tommy Chong had one of the most prolific careers of the 80s thanks to roles in some of the most iconic films of the time: Beat Street, Commando, and The Color Purple. Very difficult for me to say what makes her interesting to watch besides her beauty. Maybe it’s the way she holds her own against macho men on screen or the way she can play educated black women. This goes beyond her recent controversial statements about her Color Purple costar Oprah Winfrey. She’s a free spirit just like her dad and it shows in her work.
Trivia: Was the very person to discover Chris Pratt in Hawaii where he was working as a waiter.
1) Debra Winger
Unquestionably the most controversial underrated actress of everyone on this list. After a humble start in small roles for film and television, Winger earned accolades as John Travolta’s troubled spouse in 1980’s Urban Cowboy. This led to another two classics of the time: An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment. But for all her fame and success, Winger was never comfortable with her choices or her performances. She earned a reputation for being difficult, clashing with her costars, and prone to turning down a variety of hit films all through the mid 90s. Leaving the business for the long period she did was enough to make her miss it and return to the screen. Often times an actor accepts a role for a big paycheck and sleepwalks through the shoot. Regardless of her feeling for a project, Winger never phones in a performance. She finds ways to be real with a character and connects with the heartstrings of the audience. Perhaps she can be viewed as the great American actress that Hollywood got, but didn’t deserve.
Trivia: Played the voice of E.T.
Of course there are several other actresses I left off this list that I may receive emails about. Keep in mind that most of these actresses are the ones I grew up on and come to mind. Surely there are many from other decades who deserve the same recognition (i.e. Talia Shire, Maria Conchita Alonzo, Margaret Avery, Kathleen Quinlan, etc.) and I do intend to cover them individually in future Underrated Actors Specials. Please leave feedback!