Life has its share of sure things. Death, taxes — you know the drill. Up until a few years ago, the Chicago Cubs went more than 100 years without a World Series title. But few things in this world are as reliable as Academy Awards voters getting it wrong. Every year, stories announcing Oscar nominees are accompanied by opinion pieces complaining about who got snubbed, followed roughly a month later by rants over upsets at the actual ceremony.
With the 91st Oscars rapidly approaching on Sunday, February 24, now is a fine time to look back at several performances that were nominated and astoundingly denied the little naked golden man by the ever-surprisingly out-of-touch Oscar voters.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Tommy Lee Jones is a tremendous actor and The Fugitive is a highly entertaining film, but how he edged out Fiennes for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar still perplexes a quarter-century later. Failing to recognize Fiennes’ chilling portrayal of a monstrous Nazi officer in Schindler’s List, which deservedly took home the Best Picture prize, illustrates, among other follies, a pattern of Oscar voters rewarding veteran actors for lesser performances.
That was far from the only mistake voters made in this category. They completely ignored Sean Penn’s utterly transformative turn as a sleazy defense lawyer in Carlito’s Way, as well as Val Kilmer, who did his career-best work as Doc Holliday in Tombstone (a performance that launched a thousand memes). While neither actor was nominated that year, Penn got his revenge years later, taking home trophies for Mystic River in 2003 and Milk in 2008.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
While Denzel Washington took home his second Oscar for going against type as a really bad cop in Training Day, the Best Actor award actually should have gone to the previous year’s winner, Russell Crowe, for A Beautiful Mind. That film stole the Best Picture Oscar from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, but Crowe’s performance as a real-life schizophrenic genius is one for the ages.
Voters also completely ignored one of Gene Hackman’s best performances that year. Hackman already had two Oscars on his mantel when he made The Royal Tenenbaums, but that doesn’t explain why Academy voters whiffed so badly, not even granting him a nomination. The nomination Hackman should have snagged that year went to Penn instead for his less-than-stellar work as a developmentally disabled man in the deservedly forgotten I Am Sam.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Given the Academy’s historical reluctance to honor comedic performances, the fact that Kahn was even nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her send-up of a Marlene Dietrich-inspired saloon singer in Mel Brooks’ side-splitting Western spoof could be deemed a victory in and of itself. But that ignores the sheer brilliance of Kahn’s interpretation of Brooks’ inspired lunacy.
From her show-stopping rendition of the double entendre-filled “I’m Tired” to her inability to pronounce the “R” sound (It’s twue! It’s twue!), Kahn steals every moment she’s on screen. Ingrid Bergman ended up winning her third Oscar for a pedestrian performance in Murder on the Orient Express that didn’t even merit a nomination, making this one of the Academy’s more grievous oversights.
The Godfather (1972)
This one is a comedy of errors. First off, Pacino was nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite having the lion’s share of the screen time in Coppola’s mobster classic. Ironically, the Best Actor Oscar would go to co-star Marlon Brando, who appeared on screen for less than a third of the movie. Pacino went up against two more of his co-stars, James Caan and Robert Duvall. All were relative newcomers, but the Oscar went to Joel Grey for Cabaret. Should Pacino have edged out Brando for Best Actor? Absolutely. While Brando had the flashier role, Pacino brilliantly depicts the transformation of Michael Corleone from war hero to criminal kingpin.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Two years later, the Academy honored sentimental favorite Art Carney for the long-since-forgotten Harry and Tonto, ignoring not just Pacino in The Godfather Part II — perhaps the greatest sequel of all time — but also Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Dustin Hoffman in Lenny. Pacino should have won Best Actor for both Godfather films.
Speaking of Pacino, Oscar voters arguably made up for past sins against the actor by rewarding him with a Best Actor Oscar for chewing scenery and shouting a lot as a blind retired Army officer in Scent of a Woman. While Denzel Washington’s performance in the title role in Malcolm X was also worthy, this one should have gone to Eastwood, who did take home his first of two directing trophies for helming this revisionist Western.
True to the many cowboy characters he played in his career, Eastwood’s William Munny utters few words. But the actor expresses volumes with his lined face and stoic demeanor as the onetime indiscriminate killer who’s pulled back into the outlaw life by the need to care for his motherless children.
Full disclosure: I love me some Alan Arkin. I am currently enjoying his hilarious deadpanning on Netflix’s The Kominsky Method, with Michael Douglas. But there’s simply no way he should have beaten out Murphy for Best Supporting Actor in 2006. Murphy was the frontrunner for this award thanks to his electric (and tragic) performance as a heroin-addicted, James Brown-like singer. Murphy has long been famous for incorporating his musical talents into his stand-up, and he takes it to another level here, while also showcasing some unexpectedly raw dramatic chops.
There’s long been talk that Murphy’s follow-up, the abysmal Norbit, which was released during awards season, cost him the Oscar. If it’s true that some Academy voters penalized Murphy for making a terrible film, they should have their voting rights stripped.
Boogie Nights (1997)
This is a tough one. Like Murphy in Dreamgirls, fellow funnyman Robin Williams gave one helluva dramatic turn in Good Will Hunting, landing him his one and only Oscar. While the late Williams certainly earned his Best Supporting Actor win, Reynolds, who died last year, gave the better performance. Reynolds reportedly wasn’t a fan of his own performance or Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing style, but he was never better than in this film about the porn industry in the 1970s and ’80s.
During that actual time period, Reynolds coasted on his considerable charm in a lot of bad but successful (and not-so-successful) comedy and action films ( the Cannonball Run movies, Paternity, Stick), but despite the animosity between them, Anderson was able to tap into a side of the actor no one else seemed to know was there. As the almost fatherly porn producer Jack Horner, Reynolds made this flesh peddler a flesh-and-blood human being.
Like Murphy, Stallone seemed destined to get his due as an actor late in his career for playing former boxer Rocky Balboa for the seventh time. In previous films, Rocky went from being the lovable, pudgy, and punch-drunk underdog to the ridiculously muscular and successful heavyweight champion.
Creed revisits the character in his twilight years, after he’s lost everybody he loves and has finally been beaten down by the punches life has thrown at him. Stallone takes the character from that low point to a place where he learns to live again by training the illegitimate son of his greatest foe (and friend), Apollo Creed. It’s pretty fancy footwork from an actor who has taken a lot of jabs from critics over the decades. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar ended up going to Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies. As they say in the fight game: “He was robbed!”
The Lion in Winter (1968)
All that brings us to Oscar’s biggest bridesmaid, an actor who was nominated eight times and never won. Film geeks might ask, “How did he not win for Lawrence of Arabia?” That’s easy, he was up against an equally classic performance by Gregory Peck, who made noble lawyer and father Atticus Finch one of cinema’s most beloved characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.
One could argue that O’Toole should have won for playing King Henry II in 1964’s Becket, when he faced off against co-star and friend Richard Burton (himself a seven-time nominee with no wins). But Rex Harrison deservedly took home the trophy for his career-defining turn as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, a role that landed him a Tony Award on Broadway.
So, which performance should O’Toole have won for? His second go-round as Henry II in The Lion in Winter. Cliff Robertson took home the Best Actor Oscar for playing a mentally disabled man in Charly (Oscar voters do love to honor actors playing the afflicted), but that film has long since slipped into obscurity, while The Lion in Winter stands as a master class in acting. O’Toole’s co-star, Katherine Hepburn, took home the Best Actress Oscar for playing Eleanor of Aquitaine.
One final Oscar crime: The Lion in Winter was also robbed of a Best Picture win by the so-so film adaptation of the musical Oliver!
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