Watch Strays, Vin Diesel’s 1997 triple debut as an actor, writer, and director, and you’ll think, ‘Hey, that guy really has something.’ Today, like many other big names, Diesel’s raw talent is often obscured behind billion-dollar budgets and formulaic, crowd-pleasing scripts, so it’s especially interesting to dig into the DVD vault and see him, you know, acting. In fact, many of your favorite stars gave outstanding performances in small, forgotten, or underseen films when they were young, and those movies are well worth revisiting if only to serve as a reminder that beyond Perez Hilton, box-office reports, and Access Hollywood updates, most big stars really are — or were — actors first.
Will Smith, Six Degrees of Separation
This highly literate play-turned-movie stars Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland as rich New Yorkers who are conned into letting a gay, black street kid (Smith) stay in their home after he pretends to be their son’s friend, dazzles them with charm, and claims he’s the son of Sidney Poitier. This was a daring choice for Smith, and he holds his own with the veteran stars, switching from prep school diction to street jive effortlessly as the situation warrants. With this performance, miles away from his Fresh Prince persona, he was on his way.
Leonardo DiCaprio, This Boy’s Life
The 18-year-old DiCaprio goes toe-to-toe with a raging Robert De Niro in his first starring role… and wins! A gripping true story about the mental and physical abuse young Tobias Wolff suffers at the hands of his crazed stepfather in a backwater town in Washington state, the movie takes young Leo through an incredible range of emotions. Great stuff. Note that DiCaprio’s Oscar-nominated performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape also came out in 1993, a year that would be hard for the newly minted star to top.
Tom Cruise, Taps
Here’s the earliest manifestation of Tom Cruise’s manic energy, channeled in this case to great effect. Shot when he was 19, the film follows a gung-ho gang of military school cadets who decide to wheel out the artillery and defend their school from invading condo developers. Though Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton are the stars, Cruise’s mental collapse is what you remember. His red-faced outbursts steal the show. Risky Business was just around the corner.
Mel Gibson, Gallipoli
An almost unbearably depressing examination of the pointlessness of war, this military drama follows a group of Australian soldiers sent to invade the Turkish coast in World War I. It’s a suicide mission, and they are destined to be cannon fodder. The camera absolutely loves the 25-year-old Gibson, and he makes the most of his co-starring role as a sprinter who is dispatched as a battlefield messenger. The final scenes of this movie are unforgettably tragic.
Reese Witherspoon, The Man in the Moon
At age 14, Witherspoon, in her first role, plays the younger of two sisters on a Louisiana farm, both of whom develop a crush on the cute 17-year-old boy next door. It’s a slow-paced, meditative exercise, and she’s great at depicting the jealously and inner turmoil she feels as she struggles with the fact that, as Britney Spears once sang, ‘I’m not a girl… not yet a woman.’ Tragedy ensues, but when Sam Waterston is your dad, you can rest assured that everything will work out.
Jake Gyllenhaal, October Sky
Based on a true story, this not-quite-but-almost kids’ movie tells the tale of a bunch of country teens who, inspired by Sputnik and America’s nascent space program, set out to build and launch their own rocket. Eighteen-year-old Gyllenhaal is the wide-eyed optimistic leader of the group, and his enthusiasm is infectious. A really winning performance that came right before Donnie Darko and, less notably, Bubble Boy.
Samuel L. Jackson, Jungle Fever
Jackson had long been a regular in Spike Lee’s films but was mostly relegated to small parts in the comic choruses that populate Lee’s urban neighborhoods. But in Jungle Fever he burns up the screen as Gator Purify, the scarily crack-addicted brother of leading man Wesley Snipes, a low-life so desperate that in one searing scene he robs his own elderly parents to get drug money. This was the performance that began Act II of Jackson’s professional life. True stardom followed.
Matt Damon, Courage Under Fire
Thinking back on this movie you may remember the gaunt and shell-shocked soldier who had trouble telling military investigator Denzel Washington what happened on the Iraqi battlefield. What you may not have noticed was that the soldier is Matt Damon, who famously lost 40 pounds and endangered his health to play the role. He’s almost unrecognizable in his chilling scenes.
Ben Affleck, Going All the Way
Damon’s best bud Affleck had his own small success in this period piece about two Korean War vets who return to their hometown and reconsider their lives. Affleck plays a big-man-on-campus quarterback type who tries to help his insecure and introverted buddy (Jeremy Davies) be more of a man. Displaying more raw screen charisma here than he has in subsequent films (in which he often looks a bit wooden), Affleck is a pleasure to watch.
Ashley Judd, Ruby in Paradise
Seeking a new life far from the poverty and abuse she’s suffered in the Tennessee hills, 20-year-old Ruby makes her way to Panama City Beach, Florida, finds a few friends, gets a job, meets a nice guy, and writes in her diary. That’s about it, and it’s fantastic. In her first major role, Judd absolutely grabs you with her eyes, and even with only minimal dialogue to work with, she draws you into her little world and holds your attention effortlessly as she watches the sun set behind the boardwalk. Director Victor Nunez works a little miracle with this one.
Keanu Reeves, River’s Edge
In Reeves’s first big role, he plays one of a group of stoner teens who agree not to tell anyone when a girl in their gang is killed by her boyfriend. While the film may be better remembered for the absolutely insane performance of the crazy Crispin Glover, Reeves is always there brooding right beside him, and it’s one of the rare times when his perpetually stunned look and mumbling delivery serves him well as he wrestles with his underdeveloped conscience.