18 Underrated Performances In Historical Movies

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Vote up the performances that deserve more love.

Historical movies offer viewers a chance to see important events and time periods come to life. With the right script and a strong vision from the director, these films provide insight into the things that have shaped our world. Of course, excellent performances are also a vital part of the equation. You need to have actors who can make the stories feel vivid and urgent. Over the decades, many a star has scored an Oscar for doing just that in a historical movie, whether based on a true story or just a solid piece of fiction.

For every case where that's happened, though, there's another where an actor gave an underrated performance. Sometimes it was because they had a supporting role, or one that wasn't as showy as a co-star's. Other times, the movies themselves didn't light up the box office to the degree that they deserved to. Whatever the case, the following actors all brought something incredibly special to the historical movies in which they appeared. Their efforts deserve to be discovered and appreciated. 


  • In JFK, Gary Oldman plays Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone gunman who killed President John F. Kennedy - except that director Oliver Stone's politically-charged 3-hour epic is all about how Oswald could not have acted alone. Kevin Costner stars as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who puts the pieces together and comes to the conclusion that JFK was fired upon by multiple individuals, as directed by leaders of the military-industrial complex. Oswald protests that he's their “patsy.”

    Oldman has a tough job here, and he pulls it off. Oswald has to come off as naïve enough to not realize what's being planned around him, yet also smart enough to be viable as a patsy. The actor keeps viewers on their toes, playing the real-life figure as a shady guy who has gotten in way over his head. Of course, Stone's assertion is that Oswald may have played a part, without being one of the major people responsible for the assassination. Oldman makes him cringey enough that he seems disreputable, while also generating a tiny bit of empathy for being framed for the crime of the century while the real culprits get away scot free. 

    10 votes
  • Hidden Figures tells the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three previously unsung African-American women who contributed significantly to America's first space missions. The movie looks at the discriminatory behaviors they faced from their white male counterparts, plus the specific work they did on, among other things, the Mercury capsule. Aside from being a box office hit, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

    Perhaps because she was more well-known as a musical performer than as an actress, Janelle Monáe didn't get quite the notice that her co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer did. She portrays Mary Jackson and is nothing short of a force of nature in the role. Monáe invests her character with equal parts sass and spunk, making Mary's refusal to back down in the face of unfair treatment feel suitably heroic. Beyond that, she earns laughs with her take-no-nonsense attitude. She's arguably the MVP of Hidden Figures

    20 votes
  • Released in 1983, The Right Stuff is director Philip Kaufman's adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book about the early days of America's space program. Specifically, it follows the Mercury astronauts. Ed Harris plays John Glenn and Scott Glenn is Alan Shepard. The story tracks their work at NASA to conquer space flight, but also looks at their personal lives and how they were impacted by the dedication needed on the job. Critics raved about the film, which went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards.

    Another important character in the story is Chuck Yeager, the first man to ever break the speed of sound. He's played by Sam Shepard in a performance that is central to getting across the many themes Kaufman explores. Yeager is a risk-taker, a dreamer, and a rebel, all rolled into one. The actor dives into the most critical element of the character, which is that despite his importance, he never got the chance to go into space. Slant critic Nick Schager put it best, writing that Shepard “reveal[s] the hidden undercurrents of regret, disappointment and insecurity that fueled Yeager’s — as well as many of the astronauts’ — devil-may-care antics.” Watching him work, you can feel all those things swirling together.

    18 votes
  • To a generation of ‘80s kids, William Daniels is most famous for providing the voice of K.I.T.T., the talking car on TV’s Knight Rider. (To their parents, he's Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere.) Daniels has a very long resume, though, and has worked across genres both on television and in film. One of his most appealing roles comes in the film 1776. Released in 1972, it's the big-screen adaptation of the popular Broadway musical. The actor plays John Adams in a story that details the fight for independence in America.

    Daniels not only gets to act in this picture, he also gets to sing. That's a portion of his talents many viewers have probably never seen. He's also very good in the non-musical scenes, giving Adams a drive to help establish the country in a way he feels will be beneficial for all. There's even a bit of a love angle, as 1776 features a number of sequences between Adams and his wife, who proves to be one of his biggest inspirations. If you only know William Daniels as a talking car, this historical musical will put him in a whole new light for you. 

    15 votes
  • In 1950's The Baron of Arizona, Vincent Price portrays James Addison Reavis, a real-life scam artist who forged land grants and other legal documents in an effort to take ownership of the entire territory of Arizona. The movie looks at what happens as this gutsy scheme goes through various ups and downs. Through it all, Reavis continually works to advance his goal, and the film's drama comes from watching what he does. 

    Price was a horror icon, thanks to classic fright flicks that include House of Wax, The Tingler, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Because of that, his non-horror work often tends to be overlooked. The Baron of Arizona definitely falls into that category. Here, Price relies on some of his trademark ability to play nefarious characters, yet puts a whole different spin on it. Reavis is ruthless and conniving, a guy trying to out-think everyone who could potentially stand in the way of him enriching himself. Anyone interested in seeing the legendary actor in a different light would be wise to check this movie out.

    6 votes
  • Set during the final days of the Civil War, Cold Mountain tells the story of Inman (Jude Law), a soldier trying to make his way back to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the woman he loves. He has to cross dangerous terrain to get there, and meets an assortment of interesting people along the way. One of them is a lonely war widow named Sara (Natalie Portman). While staying at her cabin, several Union soldiers show up seeking food. To compel her to give it to them, they take Sara's baby hostage, then one of them sexually assaults her.

    Portman only makes a brief appearance in Cold Mountain, yet she makes the most of her screen time. After Inman kills two of the intruders and scares off the third, Sara grabs her shotgun and shoots the guy as he's running away. During the course of that big scene, the actress first makes Sara's fear palpable for the audience. Then she releases the tension with a cheer-worthy act of retaliation. Portman comes into the movie, delivers a jolt of energy, and gracefully departs. 

    19 votes