10 Great Actors Who Did Trashy Well

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Tomorrow, Lee Daniels’ Precious follow-up The Paperboy hits theaters; it’s a film that’s received a lot of attention since its Cannes premiere last May, not all of it positive. And make no mistake, the movie is a mess, but Kidman goes all out in her portrayal of a bleach-blonde sexpot who gets hot and bothered for dangerous men. In honor of Kidman’s risky performance, we took a look back at some of our favorite instances of terrific actors indulging their trashy side on film. Our top ten are after the jump.

Robert Duvall, The Gingerbread Man

This 1998 film is mostly unloved by fans of both Robert Altman (who directed it) and John Grisham (who wrote the original story it was based on). But it’s a moody, atmospheric, and entertaining picture with a breezy leading turn by Kenneth Branagh, a chewy supporting role for Robert Downey Jr., and — best of all — Robert Duvall in full-on, crazy old coot mode. As Dixon Doss, the nutcase father of Branagh’s lover, Duvall sports a long beard, a wild accent, and a thoroughly unhinged disposition; the character almost seems like an evil twin to his Boo Radley, and Duvall is clearly having a ball playing it.

Terrence Howard, Hustle and Flow

Howard netted an Oscar nomination for his nuanced and beautifully modulated performance as DJay, a Memphis hustler whose seductive country drawl, usually called upon for his work as a drug dealer and pimp, translates to records quite nicely. Howard reportedly turned down the role initially (he’d already played plenty of hustlers), but was drawn to the character’s complexity and soul, most memorably expressed in the film’s unforgettable church scene (above).

Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone

Ryan played clean-cut, industrious Baltimore Port Authority cop Beadie Russell on The Wire, and was so convincing in the role that some moviegoers didn’t even recognize her in Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (who also — circle of life! — wrote for The Wire), Gone featured Ryan as Helene McCready, mother of the kidnapped child at the story’s center. Helene’s thick Beantown accent and thrown-together demeanor couldn’t be further from Beadie, or much of anything she’s done since; the role got her a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Four years later, ace character actress Leo (more circles — she appeared on both David Simon’s pre-Wire series Homicide, and his post-Wire show Treme) picked up the Best Supporting prize for her turn as another less-than-perfect mother in another Massachusetts-set drama. Playing well over her age with lotsa makeup and a heavily teased bleach-blond ‘do, Leo cuts quite a memorable figure in the film, talking tough and ruling over her large family with an iron fist and a fair dose of Irish-Catholic guilt.

Thomas Haden Church, Killer Joe

Few actors play dumb as well as Thomas Haden Church — and we’re not just talking the pretty-boy dumb of Sideways, but the dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks dumb of his “Lowell” on TV’s Wings. So it was a blast, after his ill-conceived casting as a supervillain in Spider-Man 3, to see Church get back to his doofy roots in William Friedkin’s electrifying film adaption of Tracy Letts’s play Killer Joe. Playing trailer-park patriarch Ansel Smith with a mess of bad facial hair and a perpetual look of bewilderment, Church turns the slack-jawed yokel into a figure of both comic relief and uncomfortable tragedy.

Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball

Berry was mostly known for her sleek turns in the likes of X-Men and Swordfish when she caught critics, moviegoers, and Academy viewers by surprise with her utterly convincing performance as rough-edged, desperate Leticia Musgrove in Marc Forster’s wrenching 2001 drama Monster’s Ball. But it wasn’t just that she de-glammed, or dropped the “g”s from the ends of her words; her work here taps into a sadness and stillness unseen in her previous work.

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Tomei was the surprise winner of the 1992 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her gum-chewing, auto-trivia-spouting Jersey girl in My Cousin Vinny, but she got her third nomination for going even trashier: as jaded, pierced topless dancer Cassidy. Sure, the “hooker with a heart of gold” thing has been done to death, but Tomei plays the role with depth and sensitivity; the character may be a cliché, but Cassidy doesn’t know that, and Tomei invests it with a knowing humanity and a genuine soul.

Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan

Addams Family star Ricci had her own go at playing (very) against type in director Craig Brewster’s 2007 Hustle and Flow follow-up Black Snake Moan. Ricci plays Rae, a young Mississippi woman prone to bouts of a nymphomaniac “fever”; Samuel L. Jackson plays the blues man who tries to cure her of her wicked ways. Ricci went bleach-blonde (with dark roots showing, of course) and bare-midriff — and often more — for the role, which transcends its exploitation-movie premise and gives her the opportunity to do her most impressive acting to date.

Brad Pitt, Kalifornia

Pitt was still on his way up when he took on the terrifying role of killer hillbilly Early Grayce in this 1993 cult film, opposite David Duchovny and then-girlfriend Juliette Lewis. Scruffed up and scary, with a Southern drawl, a Dixie flag hat, and a chipped tooth (which Pitt reportedly had professionally done by a dentist for the role), the post-Thelma and Louise Pitt was already eager to prove he was more than just a pretty face. Mission accomplished.

Nicolas Cage, Raising Arizona

Much of Mr. Cage’s recent filmography has been, erm, questionable, but in his ’80s-to-mid-’90s heyday, few actors could deliver like this one. And his considerable sins in this years since have one go-to forgiveness point: H.I. McDunnough. Cage has arguably never been better than he was as the dim-witted hero of the Coen brothers’ sophomore effort, embodying the soul of stick-up artist, kidnapper, and would-be family man “Hi” with grace and charm.

Those are some of our favorite trashy turns — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!