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There’s such a fixation by Hollywood on the stars. Not that it’s really a bad thing, because we all know the inherent power of the almighty dollar and the stars are the ones bringing patrons through the turnstiles again and again. But often these star shadows cover up some fine performances from lesser known actresses, most of whom are never really given credit by the mainstream cinema public for their roles. Then there are others who appear out of nowhere to surprise everyone with a fine performance, often leading to bigger and better roles in the future and a little more of the spotlight.

These are Hollywood’s “Not-So-Leading-Ladies”, just as deserving of praise as the next multi-million dollar personality. They’re the ones you stick around for the credits for just to find out their names. They’re the ones who’ll most likely be pretty cheap on the Hollywood Stock Exchange but hopefully earn you some serious (fake) cash in the long run. You may well have missed some or all of these fine performances during your trips to the cinema and video stores, but hopefully this will give you a bit of a guide so you can look out for these actresses and see just what you’re missing.

Competition for this top ten list was pretty hot, such is the quality of supporting and leading roles going around in the movies right now. But these are the cream of the crop, with something about each of the performances that makes them really stand out. And let’s hope there’s plenty more where these came from in the future so it’s not just the A-list stars that carry the can for Hollywood.

10) Kate AtkinsonThe Hard Word
So none of you have heard of this girl, right? Thought so. While she’s totally out of left field and basically sneaks in to the list ahead of almost a dozen other worthy actresses there was still something about Kate’s brief but amusing turn in the Australian flick, The Hard Word, that made her stand out. I’ve included her in protest at her all-too-brief role in the film, though Australian viewers can still catch her in the local television series Seachange when the first couple of seasons are run again on the box. Better still, go grab The Hard Word on DVD.

9) Brittany Murphy – Clueless
While this little pocket rocket has moved on to bigger and better things and is perilously close to becoming a cemented Hollywood starlet, Brittany Murphy’s shy new girl role in the surprise 1995 hit Clueless raised more than a few eyebrows. I had little Brittany earmarked as a future star as soon as this film was released, and it seems my suspicions have been well and truly vindicated by Murphy’s rise into stardom, culminating in a rather different appearance in the solid Eminem flick 8 Mile. But let’s not forget where she started, cause this one’s still worth a look.

Glenne Headly & Emily Hamilton
8) Glenne Headly – 2 Days In The Valley
This film is most notable for Charlize Theron’s sexy screen debut alongside serial sexpot James Spader but Glenne Headly’s sympathetic performance as a dedicated but abused housemaid is top notch. A relative unknown but with a swag of low to medium budget films under her belt, Headly catches the eye with a perfectly vulnerable character, making her favourable situation at the end of the film all the more satisfying.

7) Dominique Swain – Lolita
An obvious choice here as Swain burst onto the scene in the controversial remake to Kubrick’s classic. While the film may not have been to everyone’s taste the second time around there was no doubt that Swain showed a maturity far beyond her years as the sexed-up Lolita. Her career hasn’t really taken off as some predicted back when the film was released but her role in Lolita alone is more than enough to make the list.  

6) Emily Watson – Red Dragon
Another actress largely unknown by the masses until 2002’s Red Dragon where she played blind woman Reba McLane. Utterly convincing both with her disability as well as her emotional impact, Watson was duly recognised for such a commanding effort that took everyone by surprise when the focus was on Norton, Hopkins and Fiennes. She's also red-hot in the surprise romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler. Quoted as saying “I’m a funny looking bugger”, judging by her turn in Red Dragon she’s a talented bugger too.

5) Emily Hamilton –He Died With A Felafel In His Hand</a>
The second Emily to make the list is a bit of an obscure choice but her second feature film role was quite intriguing. It’s not a flashy performance but there’s something about her turn as British traveler Sam that really hits the spot. Basically the straight girl in amongst a bunch of oddball males, Sam eventually hits some strange times herself and Hamilton manages them with aplomb. She’s now back doing TV in Britain but I for one wouldn’t be disappointed if she turned up in another feature film somewhere along the line.

Naomi Watts & Makenzie Vega
4) Naomi WattsMulholland Drive
While The Ring has established Naomi Watts as a definite Hollywood heavyweight, she was just an unknown Australian when the David Lynch directed bizarre-fest Mulholland Drive hit theatres. So good was Watts that she could sit back and choose the perfect role after only one breakthrough role. You’ll be mesmerised with her brilliant turn as Betty, with the audition scene so chillingly spot on you’ll see why Watts is sure to be a star for life, adding another Australian to the Hollywood elite.

3) Makenzie Vega – The Family Man
She’s not even old enough to see her own films but Makenzie Vega can steal every scene she’s in by being downright adorable. The look in her eyes and that oh-so-cute speech quirk in The Family Man is worth the price of a purchase alone, though the film is actually solid work as well. Basically the female version of cuteness-king Jonathan Lipnicki, Makenzie Vega is one of those kids that just seems to know the mood of the film and acts like a veteran trapped inside a little girl’s body. She also makes the plaster painting scene in Made an absolute gem, highlighting how good this youngster really is.

2) Rebecca PidgeonState and Main
Thank God for nepotism. David Mamet isn’t shy to cast his wife in all his films, even if there’s not really a role to suit (see Heist). But there was a perfect character for Rebecca Pidgeon to play in the underrated comedy State & Main, and boy does she shine. There’s nothing overstated or flashy about her performance, just some great poise and a mature delivery that gives her character an intriguing edge in every scene. Philip Seymour Hoffman works extremely well with Pidgeon throughout and helps her into the number two spot on the list.

1) Zooey DeschanelAlmost Famous
Eccentric name, eccentric character. This off-the-wall queen of quirk stumbled into the spotlight with her role as Anita Miller, brother of William in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. It’s hard to put my finger on just what is that made this (quite small) role stand out amongst a host of others, but credit must go to Deschanel for lighting up the film with her minimal screen time. She’s now got a decent bunch of films behind her, including the Jennifer Aniston flick The Good Girl, so let’s hope there’s something around the corner to help Deschanel really make her mark on Hollywood.

Zooey Deschanel & Rebecca Pidgeon

Honourable Mentions


Most of these actresses were either pipped by the above ten or haven’t quite turned in a truly memorable performance despite showing some definite acting potential. Some of this lot may well turn into out and out superstars, while others will undoubtedly fall by the wayside or merely never get a chance to truly shine. Still, every single one is worth looking out for.

Natasha Lyonne – Great early turn in Everyone Says I Love You, held up But I’m A Cheerleader and Freeway 2 and even American Pie saw her command some respect. Needs the right role to really stand out.

Ali Larter – The whipped cream bikini in Varsity Blueswas good (you better believe it) and Final Destination was an odd but successful choice of role. Just needs a more detailed character to prove her worth.

Samantha Morton – Her role in Minority Report was nothing short of sensational, if a little brief due to her being underwater for two thirds of the film. Definitely one to look out for in the future.

Mia Kirshner – Burst on to the scene in one of the few decent roles in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie then went from strength to strength with her commanding turn as a wicked teen in New Best Friend. Couple that with a brief but impressive appearance in acclaimed TV series 24 and it’s obvious cute little Mia is going to be around for a lot longer. Fingers crossed.

Anna Paquin – Made an impact like no other child actor in The Piano and has since been seen dotted around a few lackluster films as well as playing the wonderful Rogue in X-Men. She’ll be reprising her role in the sequel, hopefully with an inflated story for her character so that she can really show why that Oscar sits on the desk at home.

Anna Paquin & Amy Adams
Amy Adams – Has had a career like a yo-yo but certainly looks the goods if her role in the brilliant Catch Me If You Can is anything to go by. Started out well with a cute little turn in 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous but then turned to the abominable Psycho Beach Party (along with a host of other name actors) and the awful follow up to Cruel Intentions (though she was quite impressive even with the terrible script) to pay the bills. Thankfully someone realized she had skills, with that someone being none other than big Stevie Spielberg. Her small but memorable role in the story of Frank Abagnale Junior will hopefully turn some heads and keep the decent scripts rolling in.  

Amanda Detmer – Balanced out the grating Amanda Peet in 2001’s Saving Silverman (a.k.a Evil Woman) with a brilliant little role as an innocent girl who turns into a nun. The film was actually quite enjoyable, due largely in part to Detmer’s willingness to have a little fun with her character.

Thora Birch – Her American Beauty character got her noticed, but it was 2002’s Ghost World which really made her stand out. A brilliant film coupled with a great performance from the underrated Thora.

Alyson Hannigan – Needs something other than her hilarious Michelle in the American Pie films to really stand out, but the girl has definitely got a bright future ahead of her. No real performance standouts yet but we can feel one coming. Patience, my friends.

On The Way Up


This bunch definitely has some talent but have only just started out on their road to Hollywood stardom. With the spotlight on new faces brighter than ever before it won’t be long before some of these impressive actresses moves up in the movie world. One constant with basically all of this group is that none of them have really been given a role to show their worth, save for the exceptional Gyllenhaal who is already starting to show her immense talent. Script writers, this is your cue to get some decent material to each of them.

Maggie Gyllenhaal – Starring with her brother in cult DVD flick Donnie Darko it was obvious this girl’s destined for stardom, if she’s not there already. Solid work in Riding In Cars With Boys, the slightly odd Secretary and Oscar hopeful Adaptation have certainly put Maggie on the Hollywood map. She’s set to star with “Julias” Roberts and Stiles as well as Kirsten Dunst in 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile, so the word on the street about this girl is shaping up to be spot on. Her Donnie Darko performance reminds me closely of Deschanel’s turn in Almost Famous, just with a little less of the oddball appeal. Word is she might also garner an Oscar nod for her tough role in Secretary, the largely unseen film due to limited runs in the States.

Eliza Dushku & Maggie Gyllenhaal
Eliza Dushku – Will someone send this girl a script that doesn’t require her to wear a swimsuit, have an attitude or kiss girls (Ok, so maybe that last bit can stay in)? Eliza has shown she’s more than just a (very) pretty face with her role as Faith in the Buffy series but her film resume is far from impressive. Like Larter, Dushku’s appearance in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back was nothing more than a bit of fun, but hopefully she can land some more meaningful gigs this year. We hope.

Marisa Coughlan – Was overshadowed by the big name leads but her performance in Teaching Mrs Tingle was top notch despite the less than impressive story. She followed up with a small role in Gossip but has rarely been seen since. With a few smaller roles in late 2002 as well as a major part in the star-studded 2003 flick, I Love Your Work, hopefully we’ll be loving Marisa’s work for a long while yet.

Laura Harris – Largely unknown but many will recognize her face from teen slasher flick The Faculty, where she played the angelic Mary Beth. With basically nothing coming her way following what was a pretty impressive performance one could have been forgiven for thinking she’d given the game away. But with a pivotal role in the second series of 24 in the can Laura can expect at least a few more scripts to come her way.

Erinn Bartlett – Another one out of left field but Erinn does seem to have what it takes, if only because of her unbelievable smile and stunning good looks. The sole reason to watch 100 Women (a.k.a Girl Fever), she’s just begging for a decent role to come along.

Jena Malone – Like Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko didn’t do Jena’s career any harm at all. She’s been playing the confident girl-next-door role (read Life As A House) or a similar version for a little too long now so hopefully we’ll get to see a different side of this talented actress. A starring role alongside Mary-Louise Parker and (gulp) Macaulay Culkin in Saved (produced by REM’s Michael Stipe, incidentally) tends to suggest we might, for the time being at least.

Those that just need to be mentioned for no real reason:



Mary Louise Parker – Talented, underrated, incredibly cute.
Phoebe Cates - Fast Times At Ridgemont High and a bikini. Enough said.
Mira Sorvino – A much deserved Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite, not too much of substance since.
Nadia Dajani – Something about this small time actress (of TV’s Ned & Stacey fame) is interesting, but I’ve got no idea what. Sidewalks Of New York her only half-substantial role.  

And the ones I still don’t quite buy:



Rosario Dawson, Amanda Peet, Amy Smart, Taryn Manning, Busy Phillips, Scarlett Johansson

So there it is. Go out and look at the films and actresses in the top ten if you haven’t done so. If you have, go look at them again because they’re absolute gems, highlighting the fact that you don’t have to be on a million dollar payroll to stand out. I watch with a keen interest the careers of all of these actresses to see if they can truly follow up their form with a rise up the Hollywood ranks. Some just need to take the next step, some just need the right script while some need to get their foot in the door. Whatever their paths I’ll be waiting to see whether my predictions were at least close to spot on. Let’s hope so, for their sakes and mine.

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