How do you describe a thankless role? Movies are filled with actors who do great work in B-projects, or who are unfairly blamed for a film’s larger failings. Sometimes, a film is superb, but it’s dismissed because its genre isn’t taken seriously.
Last year, one actor considered was Megan Fox for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The movie itself was terrible. Fox herself wasn’t even great in it, but that’s not always what we ask from leading actors in action films. She held together what was otherwise un-watchable. Like appreciating the ringleader of an out-of-control circus staking down the tents as the performers themselves lurch into the audience, she alone helped the film avoid complete disaster.
Yet, she was still targeted as the reason the film didn’t work. It wasn’t the ripoff of a plot, or the shoddy CG, or the nonsensical attempts at humor. Those were all excused. Even Will Arnett was given a pass for a far worse performance. Fox was held uniquely accountable when, in fact, she was dragging the rest of the film along by her teeth. That’s what a thankless role is.
(Last year’s award went to Perdita Weeks for “As Above, So Below,” but Megan Fox is a more well-known example of what we’re talking about.)
So who inhabited those thankless roles last year? Our seven voting writers decided these five actors did the most work for the least thanks in 2015. Then we chose a winner.
Reg E. Cathey, “Fantastic Four”
Contrary to the critical pile-on, “Fantastic Four” wasn’t a terrible film, let alone the worst of the year or decade. It was merely bad. Its young, unproven cast failed to lend the film any gravitas. No, the only one who felt he actually lived in and cared about the world of the film was Reg E. Cathey, doling out moral lessons, character background, and expository dialogue in equal measure as team mentor Dr. Franklin Storm. His is the definition of a brilliant performance in a lackluster film.
Keira Knightley, “Everest”
Being the emotional heart of a film when you’re literally phoning your role in is a lot to ask. Yet as the pregnant wife left home while her husband and business partner encounter disaster on Mt. Everest, Knightley held a film together via a series of heart-wrenching, one-woman scenes. In a film that boasts some intense storm scenes, capable procedural storytelling, and way too many questionable accents, Knightley is the one who lends the film its emotional relevance. It’s rare that a film’s heart exists in a series of on-the-phone scenes, but that’s what Knightley brings to the table.
Mila Kunis, “Jupiter Ascending”
Kunis is criticized in “Jupiter Ascending” for not delivering any character arc as Jupiter. Essentially, after witnessing intergalactic thunder palaces and Soylent Fountains of Youth and corporate space vampires, Jupiter remains pretty much herself. This is not the kind of thing we expect from science-fiction, the critics roared. No, and that’s the point. After the temptation of love and riches and vast empires at her bidding, Jupiter chooses to remain herself. She’d sooner give up her family and her life than betray what she knows is right. We almost never see a film where a leading woman is already who she needs to be, and it’s the universe around her that’s criticized.
Julianne Nicholson, “Black Mass”
There’s a scene in “Black Mass” where Julianne Nicholson’s Marianne begs out of dinner by pretending to be sick. Her husband, corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, has lost face. Gangster Whitey Bulger goes up to check on her. Connolly has no power to stop him, and we’re given to understand Bulger could do anything he pleases and suffer no repercussions. He talks to Marianne about taking care of herself, her duties to John, and then puts a hand to her neck and face. Anything could happen, and Bulger communicates this to her without ever needing to say it. She has no power, and her realization in this moment is terrifying. It’s a shame her role in the film wasn’t larger than her handful of scenes. In what is there, she may give the finest performance in a film full of them.
Angela Winkler, “Clouds of Sils Maria”
Although only appearing in a few brief scenes, Winkler communicates two entire lives to the audience: her own and that of her late husband. It’s the type of role that goes by unnoticed, but actors in these more limited parts often need to be the best in your cast at communicating complex characters quickly. Not everyone can communicate loss and the quiet struggle for acceptance inside a few minutes of screen time. It’s a different kind of thankless role, but one that struck us as worthy of mention.
THE MOST THANKLESS ROLE OF 2015:
Mila Kunis, “Jupiter Ascending”
Screw character arc, Jupiter’s already who she wants to be. She just hasn’t been challenged to know it until, you know, she goes through some space dinosaur fights. When men say screw the world and refuse to change and embrace their violence by becoming Batman, or John McClane, we celebrate that violence. When women embrace the world and refuse to change and reject violence, we criticize their failure to embrace the violence men demand of their heroes.
Yes, it’s worthwhile and necessary for women to be able to embrace that violence and kick ass in our screen mythologies, a la “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Yet if the violence itself is patriarchal by nature, it’s also necessary to have representations – for women and men – of what rejecting that violence looks like. Jupiter is a hero to us for remaining exactly who she is even as her entire perception of the universe around her changes. She may need help at points saving her own life, but she saves Earth all on her own, before the hero even gets there.
Kunis isn’t the best actor on this list by a long shot, though she has a good sense for reacting to dialogue and generating comedic timing. However, she is the one whose role is the most important to take out of the theater with ourselves. The commentaries “Jupiter Ascending” makes – on feminism, on capitalism, on gender fluidity – all are deeply valuable. The movie has some issues, but Kunis’s role of Jupiter is one of the most important, one of the most discussion-worthy, and one of the most overlooked characters of the year.
Those voting are: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.
Where did we get our awesome images? Reg E. Cathey is from If You Want the Gravy, Keira Knightley is from The Sun, Mila Kunis is from Starlog, and Julianne Nicholson is from Coming Soon.