By John H. Foote
Since the first year nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, there have always been great performances left out of the final five. Always. In fact, if the truth were to be told some of the greatest film performances were ignored for an Oscar, the Academy settling on five other actors, often in a whirlwind of controversy.
I have gone back to 1990 and found twenty-five performances that truly deserved to be nominated for Best Actor, up to and now including James Franco and Christian Bale this year, the results are shocking. In some cases the artist should not have just been nominated, they deserved to win Best Actor. Those are marked with an asterisk.
It astonished me that in some years there were multiple actors deserving of a nomination that did not come, no less than four in 1999! How is it the actors’ branch, remember actors nominate actors, can actually miss these great performances and nominate lesser work in their place? It boggles the mind.
Here are the twenty-five Greatest Performances by a leading actor, since 1990, snubbed by the Academy. Actresses come next as part two, then more actors and actresses between 1980-1989. Stay tuned.
They are in chronological order.
*Robin Williams in Awakenings (1990)
As the gentle doctor dealing with vegetative patients he awakens them in the summer of 1969, many of them, having been in that state for more than forty years. Unbearably shy, he slowly comes out of his shell, finds friends among them, and love with a kind nurse. The finest work of an extraordinary career from a truly gifted actor. How does his co-star get nominated and Williams, the heart and soul of the film, gets left out?
Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King (1991)
Portraying a Howard Stern-like shock jock in New York City, Bridges is remarkable. Arrogant, hung up on his own celebrity his career veers off the rails when callous remarks set off a madman who guns down diners in a restaurant. Retreating to booze, he befriends a man who lost his wife in the shooting and in caring for him, finds his own redemption. Again, co-star nominated, he is ignored.
Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The Last truly great performance for the two time Oscar winner is here as Shelly, the desperate, overwhelmed real estate man who cannot catch a break and if he cannot meet a quota will be out of work. Pushing sixty, out of work in sales is not where you want to be at that point in life. Lemmon is terrific in a great ensemble of actors in a powerful film based on the play by David Mamet. The old lions last great roar.
Jeff Bridges in Fearless (1993)
A haunting film anchored by the superb performance of the great Bridges, cast here as a plane crash survivor, who now believes he is indestructible. People who survived the crash feel safe around him, they claim he saved them. Only at the end of the film do we see his actions, filled with courage, love, and humanity. Superbly understated, the raw power of the work sneaks up on you.
Denzel Washington in Philadelphia (1993)
Washington is quietly brilliant as the homophobic lawyer hired to defend gay, AIDS-afflicted lawyer, Andrew, portrayed by Tom Hanks in an Oscar world winning performance. Watch the film and imagine it without the force of Washington’s sublime performance, evolving, learning to accept, finding tolerance, loving his client as a dear friend. No way Hanks wins without this performance besides him, and he knew it.
Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible (1996)
Arguably the greatest actor of modern cinema in one of the greatest roles of the 20th century, John Proctor, in Arthur Miller’s superb play. As the man who knows why the children are accusing people of being witches in 1692, his concern is for his wife and sons and what his guilt in a religious crime will do to them. His howl “because it is my name” is a primal howl from the soul. Astonishing.
Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)
Before you laugh and declare me mad, let me remind all of you that Murphy won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor! Beyond his performance as the overweight doctor and the slick Buddy Love, watch the scenes around the dinner table where Murphy portrays a multitude of characters, dazzling the audience with his gifts. He was simply breathtaking in this remake of the Jerry Lewis classic, reminding audiences of his awe-inspiring talent.
Warren Beatty in Bulworth (1998)
Beatty gives a very funny, deeply moving and powerful performance as a US Senator who discovers his inner African American. Rapping his speeches, dressing in ghetto gear, Beatty is a comedic delight in the film, like Chaplin getting his dramatic message in through the comedy. That he directed and co-wrote the film is simply a greater testament to the wonderful performance, but the chances he took in looking ridiculous, and never doing so, amply announce his greatness.
Terence Stamp in The Limey (1999)
Beaten by a gang, tossed into the street like garbage, he stands, uncoiling like a snake, pulls a gun from his waistband and stalks back in, killing them all. As a recently released British convict, he comes to America to find out why his daughter is dead. With an alarming intensity, Stamp stalks the film like a dangerous panther, devastated to discover the role, however, he played in her death. Wildly entertaining, criminally underappreciated.
Edward Norton in Fight Club (1999)
Portraying a corporate drone, his apartment properly beige, decorated and furnished by IKEA, he is quietly dying. A chance meeting with a man opens up an entirely new world to him, one of anarchy and ultimate freedoms with a terrible price. Portraying a corporate drone who finds his inner warrior through Fight Club, through a mysterious anarchist closer to him than he realizes, the actor is as always, extraordinary.
Brad Pitt in Fight Club (1999)
Meet the inner warrior of Edward Norton in Fight Club (1999). Tyler Durden is everything Norton is not, a huge clue to a jaw-dropping plot development that some saw coming, others did not. Pitt is pure testosterone and sexual swagger, an outlaw, an anarchist in an orderly world he believes needs a shakeup and provides just that. Brilliantly black and funny.
Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon (1999)
Carrey does not so much portray the late comic Andy Kaufman’s as he channels his spirit through his body, giving an astonishing performance in which he becomes the comic. Beyond the wide eyes and childlike innocence, he captures an intensely creative mind always pushing the envelope, always going for more, painfully aware his comedy is not always appreciated or understood. Criminally ignored.
*Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
In the greatest performance of his impressive career, Hackman is the rascally matriarch of a brood of overachievers who seemed to have burned out, their lives impacted by his careless, often criminal ways. Yet he wants their love and will go to great lengths to have it. Hackman is superb in the film and should have won Best Actor instead of being a terrible snub.
Jack Nicholson in The Pledge (2001)
In one of his most challenging performances, Nicholson is a retired cop obsessed with finding the killer of a little girl, haunted by the promise he made to her mother. Very slowly he unravels over the course of the narrative until he is a burned-out drunk who has lost his mind. A tough, uncompromising film and performance directed by Sean Penn, one of Nicholson’s very best, but Most Underseen.
Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition (2002)
Cast against type as a valued hit man for the Irish mob in the Al Capone years, Hanks displays remarkable range bringing a chilly sense of awareness to the role. Ever watchful, always alert, always ready to kill but only when ordered to do so, or when his life is on the line, the actor is perfection in the film. When his family is massacred, he and his oldest son hit the road to find out why, and who was responsible. What he discovers shakes him to his core, but does not stop him from doing what he knows he must do.
Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
Carrey is utterly remarkable here opposite Kate Winslet as a pair of troubled lovers who undergo a radical treatment to erase the other from their minds. Trouble is, for good or bad, he does not want to forget one moment with her because he was never more alive than with her. We had not ever seen Carrey like this, a stunning, real performance that deserved recognition. How does she get nominated and he does not?
Paul Giamatti in Sideways (2004)
Listen to Myles describe the Pinot grape, which becomes pink noir and you are listening to a man describe himself without really knowing it. Giamatti is truly breathtaking as Myles, a failed writer, school teacher, wine genius who takes his best friend for one last blow out through wine country before his friend marries. While there he re-encounters Maya, his true soulmate, but complications ensue. Remarkably written the entire cast was nominated except Giamatti, the heart of the film.
Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman (2004)
I understand why the Academy ignored the performance, Bacon portrays a recently released pedophile struggling with his urges, but just two years later they nominated a similar performance! Bacon was brilliant in the film, closed in, ashamed, horrified at himself and his urges to the point of self-hatred. Given a second chance at life through the love of a woman who sees more than the criminal, he moves toward salvation, if that is possible. Tough, uncompromising, masterful.
Bruno Ganz in Downfall (2004)
With his haunting portrayal of a defeated Adolf Hitler, spending his last days underground in the infamous bunker, Ganz is astonishing. Quite frankly he does the impossible and brings a level of humanity to an inhuman monster. Old, visibly feeble and shaking, there are flashes of the enraged Hitler, but for the most part, he is beaten and knows it. It is simply an extraordinary performance that deserved to be among the nominees.
Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild (2007)
Watch his eyes, the way tears fill them when he sees a herd of caribou on the run when he sees the utter beauty of nature, the same beauty, and wonder Jack London wrote about. Based on a true story, Hirsch is Chris, who upon graduation burns his ID, donates his college fund to Oxfam, torches his car, and disappears, heading to live off the land in Alaska, hoping to find himself. Though he walks into the wild, he does not walk out, undone by his own arrogance. A superb, pure performance directed by Sean Penn in a film of devastating power.
*Viggo Mortenson in The Road (2009)
A father and son on the road to Florida in the weeks after a post-apocalyptic event leads to a haunting, heartbreaking story in which Mortenson delivers his finest screen performance. Living only for his son, haunted by memories of life before, Mortenson is brilliant, always moving forward but fearful the past will pull him back. Cannibals roam the roads, all life is dying, yet a few survive. Mortenson is astounding. The actor should have won the Oscar.
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips (2013)
Towards the end of the film, Hanks as Phillips has a breakdown in front of the medical staff that alone was deserving of a nomination. Terrified, fighting shock, stunned he is even alive he stammers to speak, weeps uncontrollably, shakes, the man has been emotionally torn apart. Hanks was astonishing as Phillips, captain of a freighter ship taken hostage by Somalian pirates, tortured, terrorized, facing death at every moment. His finest work post-2000, and most deserving of a nomination.
Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Comedic performances are so rarely honored or appreciated, but Fiennes deserved to be for his lovely work as the fussy manager of the one-time great hotel. Accused of a murder by the police, he runs away from the questioning, literally, and sets about trying to find out the identity of the fiend who would dare kill one of his friends. A completely unexpected performance from a gifted, superb actor on whose shoulders rests the film.
Christian Bale in Hostiles (2017)
As a soldier in the late 1880’s when the American West was being settled, Blocker is a soldier who is haunted by what he has done and seen in battle fighting the Native Americans. Ordered to escort a dying Chief and his family to his homeland to die, he rails against the assignment but takes it. He and the Chief initially hate one another, but when attacked by murdering Natives who do not see colour, they forge first a bond, then a powerful friendship, finally a respect. Bale is outstanding, quiet, stoic, fearless, heroic, yet longing for a quieter life, longing for peace.
*James Franco in The Disaster Artist (2017)
An uncanny inhabiting of a character that richly deserved recognition, hell give the man an Oscar for capturing the very essence of Tommy Wiseau. The acclaimed (?) Actor-Director-Writer-Producer of The Room (2002), Tommy Wiseau, like Ed Wood, has become infamous for his ambition and no talent at all. Franco brings that to the film, creating a mostly sweet, wildly wealthy, mysterious man who wanted to make a film, so he did. Funny, moving, often very sad, the actor nails it in every way.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.