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Fame where fame is due

Six terrific actresses we love to watch — and want on the A-list

What's the magic dust that separates the true A-listers from a sea of hard-working Hollywood actresses doomed to indie gigs, best-friend roles and the occasional TV spot?

Sheesh, don't ask me.

The best I can figure out is that fame truly deserves its reputation for being fickle. Because when I consider my favorite actresses — talented young women I'd like to see lighting up the big screen — the average movie-goer is more likely to recognize their faces than their names.

Not that I don't love Angelina Jolie or Cameron Diaz, but for every $5 million salary they rake in (and I'm lowballing there), I could probably hire several of my beloved B-listers and have enough left over to pay the cinematographer.

True, some cult faves make the jump to mainstream stardom (we're thinking of you, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson) while others navigate the fine line between art and, say, “Wedding Crashers” (that means you, Rachel McAdams).

But for every deserving woman who gets her huge break, I can think of a half-dozen more who ought to be a household name. So many, in fact, that I can't even begin to list them all here. (Apologies in advance to Kerry Washington, Jena Malone, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Bergl and many, many others.)

I've settled on six underappreciated women who are simply irresistible on-screen. As you consider them, remember what Gabrielle Union, one of the six, told Kirsten Dunst in “Bring It On.”

"We've had the best squad around for years but no one's been able to see what we can do," she said. "Oh, but you better believe all that's going to change this year."

Right on. May all these ladies find great scripts and even better directors.

And if you're wondering about all the guys who find themselves in the same boat, we'll be honoring them next month.

Julie Delpy Perhaps you weren't sure who she was, but chances are you remember the first moment you saw Julie Delpy on screen.  Maybe it was in “Killing Zoe,” when she played an art student daylighting as a bank teller moonlighting as a prostitute. Maybe it was in “Before Sunrise,” when she played the cool French chick of our Europass dreams.

This week, Delpy gets to break Bill Murray's heart in Jim Jarmusch's “Broken Flowers.” It's her sexy mix of casual approachability, slight disshevelment and, yes, Gallic attitude that makes her so compelling. She's lived among Americans long enough to know that a Frenchwoman who exudes a certain warmth, rather than the coolness we expect, will win a lot of hearts. Even if she's playing a character as screwed up as her recurring role as Nicole on “ER.”

Her roles are compelling because she brings so much texture to them.  She might have been damaged goods in “Zoe,” but it wasn't a big stretch to understand why Eric Stoltz was sweet on her. He calls her a whore, she smacks him, he gets a crush — typical romance, no? And even if “Sunrise” was an exercise in post-adolescent wish fulfillment, Delpy brought enough wistfulness to Celine that we all felt a bit crushed when she and Hawke's Jesse parted ways. (Doubly so when they met again a decade later in “Before Sunset.”)

True, Delpy has to answer for a clunker like “But I'm a Cheerleader,” but she can always point to her stunning turn in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" series. Such is the life of a supporting actress: Sometimes you're Oscar fodder, and sometimes the work just plain sucks.

But when Delpy speaks perfect colloquial English with her slightly-perfumed accent, and flashes her winsome smile, you remain glued to the screen.

Thora BirchCo-star Mena Suvari got to turn on the bad-girl charm in “American Beauty,” but we all rooted for Thora Birch's delicate, confused Jane. She was the underdog, and we loved her for it.

Birch perfectly captured the overblown frustrations of suburban adolescence. In her own quiet way, she showed just how much more seductive she could be than Suvari's blowsy, obvious Angela.

Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch in United Artists' Ghost World - 2001 United Artists

What was a bit eerie about “Beauty” was that so many of us had seen Thora not that long before as Harrison Ford's young daughter in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Many viewers were probably thankful they didn't make the connection, given her tender (but barely-legal) topless scene.  Jack Ryan would never let his daughter do such a thing.

Other fans have been entranced by her portrayal of gawky Enid in “Ghost World.”  Just as Suvari outfoxed Birch in “Beauty” (but ultimately lost), Scarlett Johansson's Rebecca was positioned to make Enid into a plain duckling, if not an ugly one.

Maybe it's Birch's choosing plain-girl roles that makes her so appealing, because they allow her beauty to radiate from the screen in a quiet, devastating way.  Her emotions are so clearly written on her perfect, rounded face that you have no option but to empathize. Christina Ricci used to have a similar effect before her characters became too callous (and she grew unsettlingly thin).

Birch has been working steadily since she was a child, and since she's still just 23, we figure there's plenty of time for her to find her groove.  But it's rare to find someone on screen so delicate and yet so tough.  Johansson has transitioned gracefully to full-fledged stardom, and perhaps Birch only needs a “Lost in Translation” moment to do the same.  We'd certainly like to see it happen.

Gabrielle Union
Call it the “She's All That” effect. A major pitfall for a beautiful young actress? To tumble into the sizable pool of background talent in Hollywood's seemingly endless run of assembly-line teen comedies.

It's doubly true if you're African-American; there's steady (but limited) teen-comedy work for outspoken sidekicks who can be relied on to add color to the otherwise lily-white, generic upper-middle-class worlds that producers devise.

Gabrielle Union as Alice Kramden in Paramount Pictures' The Honeymooners - 2005 Paramount Pictures

I adore Gabrielle Union not only because she mixes attitude with a lot of class, but also because she has taken the teen-comedy curse and turned it on its head. “10 Things I Hate About You” didn't quite escape the genre, but it effectively carried Shakespeare into the schoolyard.

And of course there's “Bring It On,” the “Citizen Kane” of cheerleader movies. Not only couldn't you take your eyes off Union as her Isis stormed and danced across the screen, you felt a certain glee when she put Kirsten Dunst in her perky, blonde place. Isis ran the superior team, and Union made damn sure we knew it.

True, she has to account for "Bad Boys II," but rather than fall prey to the wiles of the urban-comedy genre, Union found roles in smart films like “The Brothers” and “Deliver Us From Eva.” As blunt, castigating Eva, she provided depth to what could have been a one-note role.

Even in her TV turns on “Saved by the Bell” and “Friends,” Gabrielle has shown that she's wise to Hollywood's silly views about race — and she can effortlessly jump between the mainstream roles and what we'll call “genre” roles. Why?  Probably because she's just that talented: a physical actor who moves gracefully while working with a palpable emotional depth. And, frankly, she's pretty hot. (As she's married to ex-NFL running back Chris Howard, I'd like to point out I mean that respectfully.)

In short, Union's just plain fun to watch on screen. I'm not going chime in with yet another Halle Berry comparison, but I'm confident Union can maintain her mix of roles and firmly take grasp of the A-list reins. Meantime, she's got a big cheering section.

Sarah PolleySarah Polley keeps messing with my head. 

Maybe it's those delicate facial features; she always looks vaguely in need of rescue ... and then, when you're at the point that you want to reach through the screen to help her, she knocks you over with an emotional roundhouse — a quick retort, even a glance, that lets you know she's just fine on her own, thanks very much.

Sarah Polley in Universal's Dawn of the Dead - 2004 Universal

The 26-year-old Polley's been acting long enough (her first film role was in 1988's “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”) that her vulnerable/tough mix hits where it hurts. She is eerily effective in telegraphing what's going on inside her characters without saying a word. Especially in her work with director Atom Egoyan, like “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” she has perfected the ability to portray wounded girls who understand how to make a screwed-up world work for them.

That also sums up her role as Ronna in Doug Liman's frenetic “Go”: a supermarket cashier desperate to make her rent who's not above a drug deal or two along the way — and smart enough not to get caught, even if she gets knocked into in a ditch along the way.

In fact, Polley's got the tough thing down so well, the only thing I might like to see is a chance for her to smile every now and then. She sort of got there in “Guinevere,” but only amid a lot of heartache.

The upside of Polley having this much talent is that I'm not nearly as worried about her career trajectory as I am about someone like Reese Witherspoon or Polley's “Go” co-star Katie Holmes. (OK, bad example.)

Even if she doesn't quite reach a fever pitch of celebrity, I'm pretty sure she's still got Meryl Streep-level potential. But I'd certainly be glad to see her as a household name — even if she prefers sticking with characters who make me cringe in sympathy.

Anna PaquinEveryone thought they knew Anna Paquin when, at age 12, she won a 1994 Oscar as Holly Hunter's young daughter in “The Piano.”

Ah, but they grow up so quickly, no? As world-weary street kid Donna in 1998's grim "Hurlyburly," she pulled no punches.  I knew she had escaped the usual child-star trajectory when she matter-of-factly asked one character, “Do you want to ---- me or anything before I go to sleep?” More upbeat, though equally world-wise, was her turn as Polexia in 2000's “Almost Famous,” when she proposed to her fellow Band-Aids that they "deflower" their 15-year-old travelling companion.

Anna Paquin in Touchstone's 25th Hour - 2002 Touchstone

Paquin's roles make her look a bit dangerous, and perhaps a little crazy. This is true even when she's firmly taking a mainstream turn. (As Rogue in “X-Men,” she could literally suck the life out of those she loved.)

Perhaps that's why she shines in ensemble casts, if not — not yet, that is — as a leading lady. After watching Anna as flirtatious Mary in Spike Lee's "25th Hour," tempting her teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), you can't envision her in something as obvious as “Charlie's Angels.”

But bad girls are always more interesting — and Paquin has that mischevious Catholic-school girl mix of innocence and corruption that makes you feel somewhat naughty even if you're just watching her sit in class. She also has the emotional chops to back it up; even when she's acting slightly slutty, you figure she must have her reasons.

While lame bad-girl roles come by the bucketful (“Poison Ivy,” anyone?), good ones are rare.  Anna has dug up some gems, and I suspect she'll find plenty more.  Here's hoping she encounters the perfect one, and scores all the fame she's due.  Because being good is just no fun.

Zoe SaldanaHollywood being Hollywood, you knew that by the end of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow would sail away while Orlando Bloom hooked up with Keira Knightley's Elizabeth.  But for just a moment, didn't you want to see him pair up with Zoe Saldana's Anamaria? She was, after all, the one pirate who could tell Cap'n Jack where to stick his mainsail.

That seems to be a theme for Saldana. She's who I really want to watch, even if someone else gets the guy, or gets the ship, or gets to be Britney Spears. (A job's a job, but "Crossroads"? We haven't forgiven you either, Taryn Manning.)

Milo Ventimiglia and Zoe Saldana in Green Diamond's Dirty Deeds - 2005 Green Diamond

Zoe's got time to figure out which path through Hollywood she wants to take.  She's already playing with big boys (doesn't much bigger than Steven Spielberg, who must have liked her enough to put her in “The Terminal”) and she's proven that she can play girly roles and tomboy roles and everything in between. She can even survive a dud like “Guess Who” without her feet turning to lead.

Now needs to come the part where she wins a breakout role, something that makes her a compulsory add on the late-night TV circuit and an endless source of romantic speculation. She's already got several new projects in the works, and I promise, I'll be watching.

Just one thing: Don't make me sit through another Ashton Kutcher movie.

Ever.

MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné still has a framed "Killing Zoe" poster on his wall at home.