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Breaking Stereotypes: Top 12 Performances that Broke the Mold for Hollywood Stars

Updated on November 11, 2019
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 14 years.

According to the dictionary, the word stereotype could be simply defined as following the conventional norms that society depicted of life and the people that inhabited it. Sure, it's these labels that tended to pigeonhole people into a certain image that was hard to break away from; such as the role of the good girl or the bad boy.

The same can be said in Hollywood too. Once you've made it big as a certain type of character, audiences tended to avoid seeing their favorite leading man or lady as anything but. Look at Meg Ryan for instance. She made a name for herself in the 80s and 90s by portraying the good girl in romantic comedies. Audiences shunned the movies where she tried to play anything but that role. It took the collapse of her off-screen marriage and an affair with a costar to shed that image. Unfortunately, it was also at the cost of her career as well. Countless actors and actresses have attempted to take risks in choosing a role that would allow them to be seen as more than the sum of their moneymaking parts. Some have fared better than others in choosing those types of stereotype breaking roles. Others just simply make a conscious effort to not be typecast in the first place.

Here is a list of 12 performances done by different actors and actresses that allowed them to take a risk with varying results. Broken down into four separate categories involving villainous females and one actor's quest to break his Star Wars persona. Read on to see if your favorite movie is on the list.

Poisoned Ladies

  • Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)- Yes, Hayworth made a career out of playing femme fatales, but it was here in her the husband Orson Welles' movie that was able to play a little bit against type. She cut her signature red hair and dyed it blonde to play the seemingly innocent, but deadly wife of a disabled lawyer. She used and abused her way through men to get what she wanted. In the end, she was only meant to live and die by the way of a bullet. Best laid plans never seemed to go the way they were meant to.
  • Faye Dunaway in Network (1976)- Sure, Dunaway played strong and domineering women before and after this movie, but it was here that she played it the best. She played an executive looking to make a name for herself in television at the expense of everyone else. She played her character as ruthless, humorous and vulnerable in a way that made her almost human as she plotted her way into countless homes on television. This role was Dunaway's crowning glory and also her undoing in her future film work as she played similar roles ever since.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis in Mother's Boys (1994)- In this movie, Curtis played the sexy, but unstable woman who left her family and came back to find that they moved on without her. She was manipulative and unhinged as she grew increasingly desperate to win her family back. Sure, she only managed to commit attempted murder against one member of her family, but she was still unnerving all the same. Okay, the movie wasn't the greatest thriller out there, but it gave Curtis a chance to shed her heroine image even if it was only temporary.

The Lady From Shanghai Poster
The Lady From Shanghai Poster
Network Poster
Network Poster

Ford's Efforts to be More Than Han Solo

  • Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast (1986)- From that point in his career, Ford became known as the gruff and tough leading man who fought bad guys with the greatest of ease. He flexed in his acting muscles in the previous year's Witness with great success. It was safe to assume that he thought that playing Allie Fox would also help him to do so. In a way, it allowed him to play against type as the tough guy in pretty much the bulk of his movies. Fox was an inventor who decided to move his family to South America when he got tired of chasing the American dream and failing miserably at it. Though the course of the movie, his desire to succeed pushed him to the brink of madness that he never really recovered from. Ford allowed his character to be vulnerable, adventurous and downright unhinged when his plans seemed to work. He played him with the right amount of earnestness and tragedy that made him a bit of an anti-hero. The movie didn't play well with critics or audiences used to seeing him as Han Solo, but it's worth checking out just to see Ford break the action star mold he's been in for so long.
  • Harrison Ford in Presumed Innocent (1990)- Sure, Ford played the put upon man before (1988's Frantic) and since (1993's The Fugitive), but it was here that he demonstrated it the best. He was Rusty Sabich, a prosecutor put on trial for murdering his colleague and former lover. All the evidence seemed to be pointing his way, but was he truly the killer? He had motive because he was spurned and mistreated by his former mistress. Though the course of the film, audiences see the layers of the mystery being pealed back like an onion; until the devastation conclusion is revealed. The story wasn't a whodunit in any way, but it was a why it was done in the first place. The story was about a marriage pushed to the breaking point by one mistake and what it took to get back to its former glory. Sure, the ending was sad in one killer's efforts to get their point across but it was a point that many would never forget.
  • Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry (1991)- In the early 90s, Ford was still trying to take some risks in the roles he chose. With this drama, he started off as an arrogant and successful attorney named Henry Turner. He went through the motions in his life, marriage and career as he continued to make money while ignoring his loved ones as a result. Early in the story, he gets shot in a convenience store robbery gone wrong. As a result, he loses his memory and has to learn how to be a functioning human being again. Through the course of the movie, he realized that success didn't matter, but his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter were more important than a career that didn't fit him anymore. The movie had the right amount of humor, seriousness and substance, which was carried by Ford's sympathetic performance as a man trying to figure it out. Many can relate, which is a shame why this movie didn't fare as well as it should have. Watch it on cable one day and see why it's worth the risk.

The Mosquito Coast Poster
The Mosquito Coast Poster
Presumed Innocent Poster
Presumed Innocent Poster

Breaking Leading Man Mold

  • Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City (1981)- As Lancaster entered the 1980s, his career was reaching it's twilight years. He was an older actor from the glory days of the studio system of old Hollywood. Luckily, he had a few tricks up his sleeve with this film. He wasn't necessarily Director Louis Malle's first choice to play Lou, an aging gentleman who longed to be the gangster he made himself out to be. In the end, Lancaster was the right choice to bring the role to life because he broke through his past leading man persona and gave it an abject vulnerability and maturity that wasn't there until that movie. He played Lou with the right amount of naivete and wisdom to realize the difference between reality and fantasy. The movie was about striving to find a common ground between the life you wanted and the life you were meant to have. It was heartbreaking and sweet at the same time when Lancaster's Lou comes to that realization when his dream girl turned out to be just that. It was a shame that Lancaster didn't get an Oscar for his performance, but it's still memorable all the same.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop (1990)- Okay, Schwarzenegger's performance as a gruff cop wasn't that much of a departure from his usual tough guy roles. What made it such a departure was one of his early scenes being an undercover kindergarten teacher when he first went into the classroom full of rowdy kids. His reaction was downright priceless as he literally seemed to get unhinged as he realized that he wasn't prepared for this at all. As the movie progressed, he softened to the prospect of being around the kids and it made him a better people for it. For that factor alone, it was quite worth it seeing the Terminator melt down in front of a bunch of little kids.
  • Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands (1993)- When it comes to roles, Hopkins will forever be known as Hannibal Lecter. It's the one he won his Oscar for with his short, but memorable portrayal in The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins seemed to better excel at playing the anti-hero or the downright evil, but it was as C.S. Lewis that he was able to take a risk by playing a romantic lead in a way. Shadowlands was a true story about Lewis' relationship with a fellow writer (Debra Winger) and how it changed his life forever. Before her presence, he was a confirmed bachelor who lived a solitary life. Once she arrived, he literally felt his once structured life being blown apart by this strong woman who gave him the capacity to love, even it was only meant to be temporary in the long run. Director Richard Attenborough chose wisely when he picked Hopkins to play Lewis. It's just a shame that Hopkins doesn't get a chance to do more than play the villain, even though he does it so believably well.

Atlantic City Poster
Atlantic City Poster
Kindergarten Cop Poster
Kindergarten Cop Poster

Playing Against Type

  • Richard Gere in Internal Affairs (1990)- In this film, Gere's portrayal of a charming but dangerously corrupt cop made it worth viewing as he had a battle of wits with an Internal Affairs agent (Andy Garcia) who was eager to bring him down. As the movie went on, Gere slowly dropped the veil on Dennis Peck's violent tendencies and desire to come out on top. This led to the explosive climax between Garcia and Gere that would leave only one of them standing.
  • Willem Dafoe in White Sands (1992)- In this relatively lightweight noir thriller, Dafoe played a sheriff named Ray Dolezal who stumbled on a big government case by chance. He found a dead body in the desert and assumed the victim's identity to get to the bottom of things. What he didn't anticipate was that he would be lucky to solve this case and stay alive in the process. Sure, the movie didn't offer anything new in the way of storytelling and predicting who would make it out alive and who would get was coming to them. It was just interesting to see Dafoe shy away from his usually unnerving performances as a villain or a man becoming more and more unhinged as the story went on. With this movie, he played the straight man in a room full of colorful characters. It was a refreshing change of pace. He should do it more often.
  • Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama (2001)- When it comes to roles, Brosnan was best known for portraying James Bond. Like the other actors before and after him, Brosnan was typecast as playing a charming Englishman who could flash a grin and make ladies melt. In this 2001 flick, he played Andy Osnard, a British spy with a ruthless streak a mile wide. Osnard was sent to Panama as punishment for a past indiscretion. While, there, he blackmailed a local tailor (Geoffrey Rush) in Panama to give him government secrets he could have access to. Osnard carefully inserted himself into the tailor's life as he tried to flirt with his unaware wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). Osnard was so desperate for intel that he didn't realize that the tailor was feeding him nothing but fiction. Brosnan made Osnard the right balance between villain and anti-hero that audiences almost feel sorry for him when his supposed hard work goes up in smoke by the time the end credits rolled.

Internal Affairs Poster
Internal Affairs Poster
White Sands Poster
White Sands Poster
The Tailor of Panama Poster
The Tailor of Panama Poster

In the end, some actors and actresses are just meant to play a certain role in romantic comedies or action films. It's not a crime to find your niche in Hollywood and just stay in that lane. Some performers are meant to win Oscars, while others are meant to win at the box office. Taking a professional risk simply meant that a celebrity was willing to do more than coast on their good looks and charm. Look how it turned out for Matthew McConaughey. He tried to hone his craft and won an Oscar for his efforts. It's not impossible, but with the right amount of planning and working a different type of professional success could be within reach for almost any celebrity looking for longevity.


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