By John H. Foote
As with the actresses, the actors suffer a similar fate, some of their greatest work snubbed for an Oscar. Perhaps it is more noticed with the Best Actor race because so often the Best Picture nominees yield so many Best Actor nominees.
This was a tough category because there simply so many great performances that have been snubbed through the years. In many cases they were discovered years later, a testament to fim being immortal. Work from Bogart, Hackman, Malcolm McDowell, Donald Sutherland, and Burce Dern has been Oscar worthy but they remained snubbed for so many performances! Imagine how an Oscar nomination or win would have helped further these actors on their path?
Here we go, and know I could have listed 30 or more.
15. JOHN TRAVOLTA IN GET SHORTY (1995) — With the words “Look at me” Chili Palmer owns whoever he is talking with, because he looks at them with such confidence and intimidation they cannot possibly NOT look at him. A mob enforcer who comes to Hollywood looking for a mark, he finds his true calling as a movie producer, making a movie about the very thing he is going through. How different is the movie business from the mob he asks himself and then dives in. The guys that come looking for him are not as congenial as Chili and mean business but they under estimate the enforcer who proves to be resourceful and every bit as willing to get violent as they do. It is one of the most confident performances I have ever experienced, Travolta threw every bit of his substantial gifts into the role, giving a dazzling, profoundly confident performance.
14. ANDY GRIFFITH IN A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) — Had Griffith received the attention he should have for his immensely enjoyable performance as a treacherous red neck, we might never had been blessed with Andy Taylor, Mayberry, Opie and the rest of the small town group of television Americana. Griffith felt that the dramatic work required to bring Lonesome Rhodes to life took too much out of him and he was not interested in intense film drama again. Too bad. Under the direction of the great Elia Kazan, Griffith was remarkable as a folk singer criminal who ends up a man of the people, famous on radio and televison with an eye on the White House. It is a big, blustery performance, often very funny, though his treachery is always there, underneath the surface, until a live microphone exposes him for the fraud he is. Kazan made every actor he ever work with better, none more so than Griffith. Watching the performance today, with Mayberry in mind, it is almost unbelievable to see him in such a role. Brilliant.
13. DONALD SUTHERLAND IN ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) — It seems inconceivable that an actor as great as Donald Sutherland has not ever been an Oscar nominee. He has certanly been worthy and never more so as the devastated, tragic father Calvin in this powerful film directed by Robert Redford. His son killed in a boating accident, the surviving boy has attempted suicide from the guilt he feels, and his wife cannot demonstrate any love for the surviving son. How can Calvin possibly heal? He wants to be there for his son, but also he does not wish to intrude, and he is fast falling out of love for his ice cold wife. Sutherland feels the performance so deeply, we ache for him to find peace. The breathtaking final scene with he and his son on the back porch is heartbreaking, yet cathartic. The only member of the cast not nominated, yet he is the soul of the film. Shameful.
12. JACK NICHOLSON IN THE SHINING (1980) — Walking a fine line, never going over-the-top, Nicholson gives a wildly perverse performance as Jack Torrance, a troubled writer who takes a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel high in the Colorado Mountains away from society for the winter. He takes the job so he can write, so he can reconnect with his wife and son, and fight his private war against the bottle. But the hotel is haunted by the many ghosts of its past, and they target Jack to do harm to his son who can hear and see the ghosts, as he is possessed of the shining. Watching Nicholson descend into madness was in 1980 thought to be funny but through the years people have figured out where Kubrick was going. How funny is it if you are on the other side of the door he is coming through, axe in hand, murder on the mind? You never merely watch a Kubrick film, you experience it, and in experiencing Nicholson as Jack, you realize he is truly terrifying, dangerous and murderous. One of the actors most revered performances, and he should have been in the mix for Best Actor.
11. ROBIN WILLIAMS IN AWAKENINGS (1990) — Based on a true story, I am not sure why the names were changed, but Robin Williams is portraying Dr. Oliver Saks, who for a time brought several patients out of a coma they had been in for years. Some had slipped into the coma in 1939 and came out in 1969 to an entire new world. Williams is superb as the gentle, painfully shy doctor who had been a reseacth doctor for so long he barely knows how to work with living people. But his careful research skills and deep humanity take him down a road no one else had considered and gradually a group of comatose patients, living statues, got their lives back for a short time. Williams was never better as the kind doctor, recoginizing what coming back means to them, just as the horror of their return to that state means to both the patients and the good doctor. Often heartbreaking the actor slips under the skin of this good man and never comes out, he is as miraculous as the revivals.
10. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS IN THE CRUCIBLE (1996) — As John Proctor, one of the greatest roles written for the stage in the 20th century, Day-Lewis was extraordinary, bringing the flawed decency of the man to his character. Never before adapted to the screen by an American studio, Day-Lewis had the pleasure of his father-in-law Arthur Miller, who wrote the play, and adapted his work for the screen. Stalking the film as the conscience of the time, the actor is as always brilliant, but his famous speech, “Because it is my name!!!” is astonishing, simply the greatest reading of the scene I have ever witnessed. His cry to maintain his decency is an eruption of pain from the very soul, knowing admission of his actions will damn him to death. Knowing the girls who have pretended to be sent from the heavens to cleanse the town are false, but the reason he knows will humiliate both he and his wife, he proves himself to be a decent man. A remarkable piece of acting from the greatest actor of his generation.
9. VIGGO MORTENSEN IN THE ROAD (2009) — Though it is for long stretches of the film a near silent performance, Mortensen brings to the screen the absolute anguish of a man who has lost everything, except his son. A nuclear war has ended the world, which is slowly dying of radiation. Nothing grows, the grass and trees are dying, the oceans are grey and toxic, and the some of the humans roaming the roads have become cannibals, taken to capturing and using other people as their supply of meat. Mortensen, never named in the film, is trying to get his son to a warmer climate in Florida, but the journey is dangerous. You can feel the exhaustion in the performance, feel the ghosts that haunt his present reaching forward from the past, his wife, his childhood home, the magic of Christmas. The actor captures, superbly, the essence of a man who has lost everything he ever loved, except his boy, and knows without a doubt there is still more he will lose. It is a tough film to watch, a powerful performance of a man doomed by the actions of his government, his enemy memory.
8. PAUL GIAMATTI IN SIDEWAYS (2004) — The finest comedic performance since Dustin Hoffman worked his magic in Tootsie (1982), Giamatti was robbed of a nomination as Myles, the wine expert, failed writer, and teaching school to make ends meet. When he takes his best friend on a last week of bachelorhood, golfing and sampling wine, his darkest fears are realized and Myles is forced finally to face them. His ex-wife is remarrying, his latest book is turned down for publication, and the woman he loves, after a night of bliss, rejects him in anger. His friend has been sleeping with her best friend and they discover, by accident, he is unavailable to her as he is getting married on the weekend. Enraged, she throws Myles out of her life. Yet he persists, not willing to let her go, though he does allow the dust to settle before contacting her, where he discovers hope, the last thing he expected to find. Giamatti goes far beyond portraying Myles as a standard sad sack, bringing to the role an immense sadness that impacts his ability to feel real joy. So many of us looked at Myles and whispered to ourselves, “I lnow that man, I have been that man.”
7. GENE HACKMAN IN THE ROYAL TANENBAUMS (2001) — The two time Academy Award winner did the finest work of his career here as the rascally, selfish Royal Tanenbaum, but incredibly, shockingly, was snubbed for a Best Actor nomination that seemed all but assured. Hackman had already won the Best Actor award from the National Society of Film Film Critics and the Golden Globe (Comedy/Musical), but the performance was passed over by the fickle Academy. A lying, cheating, self absorbed horror show of a man, Royal is down and out so pretends he is dying of cancer to get close to his family again, and they take him in to care for him. But his ruse is discovered, leaving him on the street again, trying to gain back their love. There is never any doubt his love for them is true, but he cannot figure out why they want nothing to do with him. We can. He continually demonstrates why they do not trust him with one crazy scheme after another. As it is with most families, it takes a tragedy to bring them together again, to see the little good that exists inside this wild man who simply does not play by the rules. The pure joy in Hackman’s performance is that we sense this is his last great kick at the can, and he was miraculous in the film. Nominated? Hell he should have won.
6. JOHN WAYNE IN THE SHOOTIST (1976) — “I’m a dying man, afraid of the dark” the aging gunfighter tells his landlady as he admits to her he is dying of prostrate cancer. Cancer of any kind in the Old West was a death sentence, the staggering pain held at bay by Laudlum, a highly addictive pain reliever (not that it would matter) which dulled the senses. Books (Wayne), a living legend for his prowess with a gun, does not wish to die screaming, alone in a bed, lying in his own waste. Watching Wayne, who at the time was dying of cancer himself, be so vulnerable on screen for really, the first time was remarkable, as the actor gives himself over to the part, portraying a deeply flawed man facing down an enemy he knows for the first time, he cannot defeat. Paramount dropped the film into the summer months, cheating it of a chance for awards, as by the fall it was forgotten. Wayne called not being nominated the greatest disappointment of his career. Ours too.
5. MALCOLM McDOWELL IN A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) — Watching the film a few days ago, 48 years after it was released, I remain astounded it has lost none of its dark power. It futuristic feel remains, and the film could have been made today and still speak to a future that might be. That is Kubrick. Malcolm McDowell is jaunty as Alex, the dangerous sociopath who grins from ear most of the time but never more so when doing evil things, and his life is filled with the actions of such cruel, terrible things. Beating a a woman, he bursts into song, crooning “Singin’ in the Rain” as he kicks and punches with each stanza. Sent into a government program to be re-programmed against violence he manages to convince everyone he is rehabilated, and indeed is impacted by the sickness that comes over him during violent or sexual thoughts. But Alex of old is there, lurking under the surface. Grinning evil was never this entertaining, which as twisted and perverse as Kubick intended.
4. HUMPHREY BOGART IN THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) — Cast against type, Bogart was never better than he was as Dobbs, down on his luck man who wins a lottery and invests in prospecting gear, gathering two partners and heading into the Sierra Madre mountains to mine for gold. Warned by the oldest of the group that the gold will change them, Dobbs does not heed the warning and allows paranoia to take hold of his mind, becoming increasingly dangerous to the other men with his mistrust. It comes to the point he cannot remain with his partners and he heads off, the gold, his share, strapped to his donkey. Partway bandits ambush him, and he realizes all his thoughts of mistrust meant nothing, because the only men he could really trust were his partners, a lesson he learns too late. Briliant, risk taking acting from Bogart.
3. BRUCE DERN IN BLACK SUNDAY (1977) — One of the great character actors of the seventies, usually in supporting roles, Dern was astonishing in this film as a former Viet Nam veteran seduced by a terrorist group to blow up the Super Bowl for them. Dern was electrifying here as Lander, deeply traumatized by his experiences in Viet Nam, but more as POW for years, kept in a cage while life went on in the US. When he came home he found his wife had a lover, had left him with his children, and the army deserted him, sending him to counselling for his issues. Feeling betrayed Lander finds a home with the terrorist group and is being played by Ilsa, the pretty zealot hired to seduce him, keep him in line, control him as best she can. Seething with rage, dangerous when unhinged and paranoid, or weeping in shame, Dern is magnificent in the film and was sadly robbed of an Oscar, not just the nomination, the actor should have won.
2. ERIC ROBERTS IN STAR 80 (1983) — Had Roberts earned an Oscar nomination, as he should have, his career might have taken off into the stratosphere like his sister Julia. Hailed as a great actor early in his career, he took on this role when Bob Fosse offered him the part, knowing it was the part of a lifetime, but one that could also impact his career. As Paul Snider, he was pure sleaze, a complete hustler trying to break into a world that sees him for what he was and wanted no part of him. He married Dorothy Stratten, the pretty young Canadian who become Playmate of the Year for Playboy magazine, and initially because of her ran in the inner circle of the mansion owned by Hugh Hefner. But Hefner saw him for what he was, essentially a pimp and urged Dorothy to get away from him which enraged Snider. In the end he murdered her and raped her, in that order, before shooting himself in the head. A thoroughly unpleasant character, Roberts portrayed him honestly, frighteningly so, bringing members of the cast to tears. A classic case of “if I cannot have her no one can” that went horribly wrong. Roberts lives the character, seething with anger, yet also deeply hurt they will not accept him into the world he so wants to be a part of.
1. JOHN WAYNE IN THE SEARCHERS (1956) — For 40 years John Wayne walked the screen as the biggest movie star in America, in many ways he was what America wanted to be. Strong, honest, stoic, what Katherine Hepburn called the perfect man. Yet for much of that time he was poorly under estimated as an actor. Wayne was always a great actor, though he needed a strong character and director to guide him, but with that he was as great as anyone that ever was in a film. As Ethan Edwards, he gave a towering performance, raging across the country and the years, looking for his niece, taken by the vicious Indians, who rape and murder her older sister and take her into the tribe. Wayne portrayed the darkest of characters, a warrior who has too many ghosts around his waist, who has seen too much and done too much. On the search for the girl it becomes apparent Ethan has no interest in bringing Debbie home, instead he plans to kill her for being defiled by the Indians. But face to face with her, he cannot, and lifts her high over his head as he did when she was a child, and sweeps her into his arms whispering with deep affection, “Lets go home Debbie”. Though the darkest man he ever portrayed, there was much about Ethan to admire, from his fearlessness to his his ability to track, to his deep loyalty to his family. Film historian John Milius has called this performance the greatest in the history of the cinema, and though I think others have surpassed it, Wayne in The Searchers is among the best ten. Oscar blew it, in ever 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.