18 Underrated Performances In Historical Movies

List Rules
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. 

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • Munich is Steven Spielberg's look at the aftermath of the 1972 incident in which Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympic athletes. Eric Bana plays Avner, a former bodyguard who is asked by the Prime Minister to lead a top secret team on a mission to get revenge upon those who planned the massacre. He is so filled with fury over the tragedy that he agrees to take on the task, despite it meaning months away from his home and family. 

    Tension in the film builds from watching how the team works to find the culprits and put their plan of vengeance in place. But it also has a moral center focused around Avner's gradual realization that violence only begets violence. Bana expertly captures how that initial sense of anger comes to be muted by an understanding that there will certainly be repercussions for the things he and his cohorts do. The actor subtly, yet effectively, gets across the idea that Avner is constantly debating his own readiness to inflame an already tragic situation. He helps Munich achieve its complexity.

  • Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a Black cop who - with the help of a white colleague - infiltrates the Colorado branch of the KKK. His ruse even fools the racist organization's Grand Wizard, David Duke. John David Washington plays Stallworth and Adam Driver is his accomplice, Flip Zimmerman. Although it dramatizes a gripping event from the 1970s, Lee uses Stallworth's tale to draw parallels to the current rise of white nationalism. It's an angry film, and Spike Lee is never better than when he's angry.

    Taking on the role of Duke is Topher Grace. On the surface, the That ‘70s Show star seems an unlikely choice. He’s mostly known for light comedy, so portraying a figure as odious as Duke was certainly a stretch. And yet, it totally works because Grace captures what is perhaps the most notable personality trait of the man he's playing - an outward affability that conceals an inner hatred. His performance as the proverbial “wolf in sheep's clothing” turns Duke into a villain we love seeing Stallworth make look like a buffoon. The role allows Grace to utilize his natural charm, while simultaneously turning it on its ear.

  • Martin Scorsese's Silence is a religious drama that follows two 17th-century Portuguese missionaries, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), as they journey to Japan in search of their missing mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). During their time there, the men also try to spread Catholicism to the people, an act not looked upon kindly by the ruling party. Despite an excellent cast and the beloved Raging Bull director behind the camera, Silence had trouble finding an audience when it was released in 2016.

    That's a shame because a lot of people missed Adam Driver's compelling performance. His character is absent from the film for a stretch, which may be why Garfield got the bulk of the attention. Nevertheless, the actor, who reportedly lost 50 pounds in order to appear emaciated onscreen, is magnetic. He captures Garupe's dedication to his faith and to his missionary ideals, as well as the horror the character feels at seeing how vehemently the religion is suppressed. Something about his persona makes Driver feel very modern. Regardless, he's able to convincingly and meaningfully come across like a man of God in a long-ago time period.