The Most Underrated Jessica Walter Movie Ever

For the amount of memorable TV performances she gave us throughout her nearly 60-year career, Jessica Walter will forever be remembered as a legend of the small screen. But what Arrested Development and Archer fans might not know is that Walter was also an established and prolific film actress. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was one of Hollywood's big up-and-comers, with roles in multiple major studio films, ranging from neo-noirs like Lilith to all-lady ensemble dramas like The Group to star-studded sports blockbusters like Grand Prix.

Even though she eventually made the decision to focus on the TV industry, Walter continued to make significant appearances in indie movies into the 1990s and 2000s, often as a veteran figure lording over younger ensembles. Most notably, she played an overly "politically correct" college president, a precursor to characters like Community's Dean Pelton and South Park's PC Principal, in the extremely 1990s comedy PCU, and the high-strung rich widow courted by protagonist Vivian (Natasha Lyonne)'s father in Tamara Jenkins' underground classic Slums of Beverly Hills.

There is one Jessica Walter movie role, however, that towers above the rest. And it's one that should get much more attention than it does, not just in the context of her career, but in any conversations about all-time best thriller movies and performances. Meet the Walter character without whom Fatal Attraction's Alex Forrest might never have existed: Play Misty for Me's Evelyn Draper.

Play Misty for Me showed that Jessica Walter could be just as scary as she was funny

Long before Clint Eastwood established himself as America's premier meat-and-potatoes auteur, he cut his filmmaking teeth in a genre you might not expect. His 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, was a lurid stalker thriller, with shades of outright Psycho-esque horror. 16 years before Fatal Attraction, it told the story of Dave Garver (Eastwood), a radio disc jockey who had his life upended by a particularly devoted fan. And at the center of the movie was Jessica Walter's unhinged, yet incredibly compelling performance.

A very early example of Hollywood's obsession with the "psycho bitch" trope (via Slate), Play Misty for Me could well have aged poorly given the sheer cruelty and mental disarray Evelyn displays over the course of it. But what's fantastic about the movie is that Walter never plays her as a monster. Though the script is heavily slanted towards Dave's point of view, Walter's performance remains subtle and grounded, making sure we always understand Evelyn and even empathize with what she's feeling, regardless of how despicable her actions become. And somehow this makes her scarier: Instead of an unrealistic bogeywoman, the movie forces you to see Evelyn as a real, living, breathing woman pushed to a breaking point.

It was Walter's first real chance to shine on the big screen, and she won raves upon raves for her troubles. Two legendary film critics went nuts for her: Andrew Sarris called her "nothing short of magnificent," while Roger Ebert described her performance as "something like flypaper; the more you struggle against her personality, the more tightly you're held." She even earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama Actress — and if you think it's funny nowadays to think about Jessica Walter competing in a "Drama" category, you better watch Play Misty for Me and see for yourself what she was capable of.