The Worst Acting Snubs in Oscars History


Now that we’ve all had the chance to let last week’s Oscar nominations sink in, the general consensus of complaint (and that’s always what they boil down to) appears to have settled on the acting nominations — specifically, the rather shocking number of brilliant performances that were snubbed outright, against expectations. Tilda Swinton, for example, was presumed a shoo-in; same goes for Albert Brooks and, to a lesser degree, Charlize Theron and Kirsten Dunst. We won’t rehash everyone who got shafted; the point is, it happened, as it seems to every year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has a long and storied history of shutting out great performances; after the jump, we’ve assembled ten iconic acting turns that we were stunned to discover weren’t even nominated for the Oscar.

Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box (1929) OSCAR WINNER: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee OSCAR NOMINEES: Nancy Carroll, The Devil’s Holiday; Ruth Chatterton, Sarah and Son; Greta Garbo, Anna Christie and Romance; Norma Shearer, Their Own Desire; Gloria Swanson, The Trespasser

The Oscars have always been as much about politics as performance, and the great silent actress Louise “Lulu” Brooks couldn’t have ingratiated herself to the Hollywood Establishment when she left Paramount to travel to Europe and work for G.W. Pabst. But there’s no denying the power of their collaboration: Pandora’s Box is a haunting, thrilling, magnificent piece of work, and Brooks is tremendous in it. The performances that were nominated over hers in the third Academy Awards are mostly forgotten; her nuanced and naturalistic (not to mention achingly sexy) work is still beloved by film fans.

Charles Chaplin, City Lights (1932) OSCAR WINNER: Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul OSCAR NOMINEES: Adolphe Menjou, The Front Page; Jackie Cooper, Skippy; Richard Dix, Cimarron; Fredric March, The Royal Family of Broadway

Though one of the biggest (perhaps the biggest) movie stars of all time, the great Chaplin was only nominated for acting once — for his dual role in the 1940 satire of Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator. (He lost to Jimmy Stewart, who won for The Philadelphia Story). Chaplin won two special Academy Awards (one at the first Oscar ceremony, for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus,” and another in 1972, a lifetime achievement award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”), as well as an Oscar for Best Original Score (in 1972, when his Limelight finally opened in Los Angeles, 20 years after its original release). But as far as acting, Chaplin was the first and far from the last screen comic to suffer from the Academy’s long-standing prejudice against comedic work, which is presumed to be less difficult (and less honorable) than dramatic acting. It was as untrue then as it is now — particularly when it comes to Chaplin, who is both breathtakingly funny and utterly heartbreaking in his masterpiece City Lights.

Ingrid Bergman, Notorious (1946) OSCAR WINNER: Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own OSCAR NOMINEES: Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter; Jennifer Jones, Duel in the Sun; Rosalind Russell, Sister Kenny; Jane Wyman, The Yearling

Bergman certainly didn’t lack for Oscar recognition: she was nominated for Best Actress six times and won twice. But she was unjustly ignored for one of her most memorable performances, in Hitchcock’s classic Notorious. The reason for the snub may well have been her director: the snooty Academy saw Hitchcock as a mere crowd-pleasing genre technician, rather than a true artist. Thus, not only did Hitch never win Best Director, but some of the most iconic performances in his films (Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, James Stewart in Vertigo and Rear Window, Cary Grant in North by Northwest and Notorious) weren’t so much as nominated. In the case of Bergman, it’s a particularly egregious snub — her work as spy Alicia Huberman is a complex and tortured piece of work, torn from her soul in a manner that’s an unexpected shift from her usually elegant screen persona.

Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) OSCAR WINNER: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet OSCAR NOMINEES: Lew Ayres, Johnny Belinda; Montgomery Clift, The Search; Dan Dailey, When My Baby Smiles at Me; Clifton Webb, Sitting Pretty

Like Bergman, Bogie was acknowledged (a bit, at least) by the Oscars, with three nominations and one win (for The African Queen). But the lack of love for his grizzled, earthy, complex turn in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre is simply befuddling — particularly when the movie itself did so well, scoring a nomination for Best Picture and wins for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston). But Bogart was shut out entirely, indicating that perhaps the Academy wasn’t yet comfortable with a heroic leading man playing against type.

Richard Pryor, Lady Sings the Blues (1972) OSCAR WINNER: Joel Grey, Cabaret OSCAR NOMINEES: Eddie Albert, The Heartbreak Kid; James Caan, The Godfather; Robert Duvall, The Godfather; Al Pacino, The Godfather

Oscar just loves when a comic actor does a semi-serious bit of supporting work — ask George Burns, Dan Aykroyd, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, or Jonah Hill, all of whom were nominated for (or won) the Best Supporting Actor trophy. However, though leading lady Diana Ross nabbed a Best Actress nomination for her work in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Richard Pryor’s sometimes-funny, sometimes-tragic supporting turn as Piano Man was overlooked. Not that it was an easy year to get nominated, what with all those Godfather guys gunning for slots, but it’s a beautiful performance, and Pryor (though a frequent host) was never nominated for the Oscar — even though no less an authority than Pauline Kael thought he deserved a Best Actor nod for his 1979 performance film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.

Gene Hackman, The Conversation (1974) OSCAR WINNER: Art Carney, Harry and Tonto OSCAR NOMINEES: Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express; Dustin Hoffman, Lenny; Jack Nicholson, Chinatown; Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II

The Conversation, the quiet, European-style dramatic thriller that Francis Ford Coppola directed between the first two Godfather movies, managed to pull off the neat trick of getting nominated alongside Godfather II at that year’s Oscars. It was also up for Best Original Screenplay and Best Sound, but Gene Hackman was inexplicably ignored in the Best Actor category. Maybe it was seen as too soon for a repeat (he’d just won the award three years earlier, for The French Connection); maybe it was just a tough year, dominated by big, theatrical performances, the designated introvert slot taken by Pacino. But this is some of Hackman’s best work. He’s an actor for whom gregariousness seems second nature, but this is a tightly packed portrait of withdrawn, frightened stubbornness, resulting in one of his most intensely internalized performances. No one who’s seen his turn as Harry Caul is likely to forget it — except, apparently, Academy voters.

Isabella Rossellini, Blue Velvet OSCAR WINNER: Marliee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God OSCAR NOMINEES: Jane Fonda, The Morning After; Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart; Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married; Sigourney Weaver, Aliens

The Oscar folks clearly didn’t know what the hell to do about David Lynch’s dark masterwork; it netted exactly one nomination (for Best Director), and was shut out of Best Picture and all of the acting categories (hilariously, Dennis Hopper was nominated as Best Supporting Actor that year not for his terrifying turn as Frank Booth, but for his far more accessible work as “Shooter” in Hoosiers). But the snubbing of Isabella Rossellini is downright inexcusable; hers is a brave, fearless, astonishing performance, one that lingers far longer than most of those that were nominated.

Angela Bassett, Malcolm X (1992) OSCAR WINNER: Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny OSCAR NOMINEES: Joan Davis, Husbands and Wives; Joan Plowright, Enchanted April; Vanessa Redgrave, Howards End; Miranda Richardson, Damage

Yes, this was the year of Tomei’s controversial win, but you won’t find us criticizing that — as mentioned above, the Academy has a known and shameful prejudice against comedy, and Tomei’s is one of the few entirely comic performances to get its due. But surely somewhere among the Anglophilic nominees, they could have made room for Bassett’s quiet yet masterful work as Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X? Bassett — then best known for her small role in Boyz n the Hood and her appearances in John Sayles films — brings nuance and heart to a very tricky role, making Betty memorable and strong without pushing the role or being untrue to the life. The Academy wouldn’t be able to ignore her next biopic appearance; the following year, she was nominated for Best Actress for her powerhouse turn as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It.

Jack Lemmon, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) OSCAR WINNER: Gene Hackman, Unforgiven OSCAR NOMINEES: Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game; Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men; Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross; David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night

Lemmon was considered a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor for his heart-wrenching work in the all-star film adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross — it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time, a respected thesp doing an ensemble turn in an actor’s-actors movie, bringing the expected pathos but with a new edge (in this case, Mamet’s trademark gutter-poet dialogue). But when the nominations were announced, Lemmon was left out — and his co-star Al Pacino was in. Not to diminish Pacino’s performance in Glengarry (he’s electrifying), but he was also nominated for Best Actor that year (for Scent of a Woman, which he ultimately won), and the chances of a double-win were slim at best. Too bad; even a nomination would have been one last triumph for the great actor, who was never nominated after 1983, even though he did some of his best work in those final two decades of his life.

Denzel Washington, Philadelphia (1993) OSCAR WINNER: Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive OSCAR NOMINEES: Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Ralph Finnes, Schindler’s List; John Malkovich, In The Line of Fire; Pete Postlewaite, In The Name of the Father

Everyone remembers Tom Hanks’ Best Actor win in 1993 for Philadelphia — a well-deserved one, to be sure, but one that would have been impossible without the assistance of Denzel Washington, who didn’t even score a nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his work in the same film. This was often the case in the 1980s and 1990s, when the easiest way to score a trophy was to play a mentally or physically challenged character: though the strategy often worked, the secondary character who is actually changed by their interaction with the lead (Cruise in Rain Man, Robin Williams in Awakenings, Washington here) is ignored, because they’re in the less showy — though often more subtly difficult — role. Yes, Hanks is magnificent in the scene where he listens to (and acts out) the Maria Callas piece. But watch Washington in that scene. His acting is no less accomplished, as his homophobic lawyer finally sees the humanity of his client, transformed by the power of this private moment. That’s great acting, even if it wasn’t flashy enough to get Oscar’s attention.

Those are just a few of the great, yet ignored, performances that leapt out at us — what about you? Add your own in the comments.