By Alan Hurst
Oscar oversights are a favourite discussion points of cinephiles and have been for quite a while. I remember as kid constantly going through a dog eared softcover book on the Academy Awards and compiling my own lists of films and performers: who should have been nominated, who should have won, who should have been off the list. That continues to this day.
One of the things that always fascinated me as I scoured through that book were the stars – all talented actors and actresses – who never got a nomination despite stellar work. The list is pretty substantial.
I’ve decided to highlight 12 of those major stars who were never nominated, but this is only a small sampling. My focus is on those who made their mark before 2000 – the flimsy rationale being that there are still quite a few non-nominees who just might get a deserved nomination at some point.
John Barrymore came from a family of actors and he was one of the preeminent stage actors of the early part of the last century, as well as a major star of the silent film era. With the advent of sound, he was able to parlay his striking good looks and cultured speaking voice into continued film stardom. His hits included A Bill of Divorcement (1932), which also served as Katharine Hepburn’s film debut, and Grand Hotel (1932) opposite Great Garbo. His highwater mark was in 20th Century, a screwball comedy with Carole Lombard where he played a Broadway impresario and delivered one of the decades top comedic performances – one that should have netted him an Oscar nomination. There was definitely room as there were only three nominees that year (Clark Gable, Frank Morgan and William Powell). Although Barrymore’s alcoholism soon began to impact his performances and dependability on the set, he did deliver another great performance in 1939’s Midnight with Claudette Colbert. This is one of the top comedies of the decade, and Barrymore should have been among the five nominees for Best Supporting Actor that year.
One of the biggest stars of the thirties and early forties, Loy was typecast very early on as both a sophisticated comedienne and the perfect wife. She was not an actress of great range, but within that range she was superb – a warm, amusing presence in all her films. Loy received no Oscar nominations in her long career, only a special Oscar in the early nineties when she was too feeble to accept in person. Oscar should have taken notice back in 1934 with her sparkling work as Nora Charles in the first of The Thin Man movies. Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night and Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage got the most attention that year (even though Davis wasn’t nominated), but there was definitely room for Loy on the list. I think she should have also been recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a smaller role but beautifully handled.
Edward G. Robinson
A tough guy on par with James Cagney and, also like Cagney, an excellent actor. But despite a career of memorable performances showcasing his range as an actor, not one nomination for an Oscar. Like others on this list he was rewarded with a special Oscar at the end of his career, but these always feel like consolation prizes. He broke through in a major way with Little Caesar (1931), a tough, brutal film and a very tough performance. It should have brought him his first Oscar nomination. Other films that should have had him in the final five include Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Key Largo (1948) and his strong supporting turns in Double Indemnity (1944) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). His smart, tenacious work as the insurance analyst in Double Indemnity is the perfect foil for Fred MacMurray and his tough, old-time gambler in The Cincinnati Kid should have won Robinson Best Supporting Actor in 1965.
Harlow’s star burned brightly but briefly during the thirties and it took a few years and quite a few films before critics started to take notice. She wasn’t a great actress, but she was a wonderful comedienne as evidenced by her work in both Red Dust (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933), both of which should have been Oscar nominated. It’s too bad that the introduction of the supporting Oscar was a few years away in 1933 – Harlow’s work as the trashy wife of trashy tycoon Wallace Beery would have been a shoo-in. I think she also should have been recognized for her work in Libeled Lady (1936), a very funny film with Harlow the standout in a cast that included William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy.
Before he became America’s favourite dad thanks to a series of Disney films and the TV series My Three Sons (1960-72), Fred MacMurray was known as one of the expert light comic actors of the thirties through the fifties. He was handsome (but not too handsome) and he was masculine (but not really a tough guy) – he always came across as a decent, non-threatening everyday guy. But when he scratched beneath that nice guy veneer, he revealed a further depth that became very interesting to watch – and provided a subversive spark to each of those movies. I’m thinking specifically of Double Indemnity (1944), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The Apartment (1960). He deserved a Best Actor nomination for his duped insurance agent in Double Indemnity, and he deserved supporting nominations for the other two. His misogynistic adulterer in The Apartment is a great performance and deserved the award. His scenes with Shirley MacLaine are perfect.
Although primarily known for her spectacular run on television from 1951 until she passed away in 1989, Ball also made movies, more than many realize (around 80) with a few performances that should have caught the attention of the Academy. The first is Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a strong female centered film (directed by Dorothy Arzner) with a tough, wise-cracking performance from Ball as a burlesque dancer. She knocks everyone else of the screen and should have been on the list for Best Supporting Actress. I would have enjoyed seeing her get a Best Actress nomination for her bitchy, self-centered Gloria in The Big Street (1942), but the film ultimately lets her down and the competition that year was intense (Bette Davis in Now Voyager, Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, among others). Oscar should have looked Ball’s way with a supporting nomination for her hilarious performance in Easy to Wed (1946), a remake of Libeled Lady (1936) where she excels in the Jean Harlow role, and definitely for The Facts of Life (1960) with Bob Hope, a funny and bittersweet look at adultery. It’s a beautifully modulated, mature performance and a surprisingly daring film for the two stars.
Cotten seemed to be one of those actors who was always around in the forties and fifties, always good, always respected but never really a big star. He had a film career that stretched from 1938 to 1981 and included numerous classics – Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gaslight (1944), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), The Third Man (1949), Niagara (1953), and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). But not one Oscar nomination. Three of his performances should have been recognized. First up is his supporting work in Citizen Kane – a great performance as one of the many people caught up in Kane’s destructive life. It’s 1941’s best performance by a supporting actor. He should have also been in the running for Best Actor for his killer in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – a truly nasty piece of work – and for his lost soul in 1950’s superb The Third Man, one of the great noir mysteries of all time.
The beautiful Maureen O’Hara was in many Hollywood classics from 1929 onwards – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and numerous films that paired her with John Wayne – but no Oscar nominations. Her best shot at a nomination was with her classic performance in the near perfect The Quiet Man (1952), a wonderful comedy set in Ireland from director John Ford. She and Wayne were never better together and she’s terrific as the proud, temperamental object of Wayne’s attention. It’s a lovely performance.
The biggest female star of the fifties and not one Oscar nomination, probably due to the fact that Monroe wasn’t really taken seriously as an actress until people began to reassess her work after she passed away. Oscar should have taken notice with Best Actress nominations for both Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like it Hot (1959). She got great reviews for both and she’s excellent – particularly in Bus Stop where’s she’s the whole show as the funny but wounded dance hall girl. I think it’s her best work and it should have definitely brought her Oscar gold, even though it was a pretty competitive year. And her work in Some Like it Hot is one of the great comic creations of the decade.
Sutherland was finally recognized by the Academy with a special Oscar a few years ago but, throughout a film career that started in the late sixties, Sutherland never made the list of nominees. It’s a tremendous oversight for one of the most consistent and talented actors in the business. It would have been nice to see both Sutherland and Elliot Gould in the mix in 1970 for M*A*S*H, but it was a competitive year and there just wasn’t room. I think his work (and that of Julie Christie) in the classic thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) is among the top performances of the year. His most overlooked work – considering nominations went to all his co-stars – was in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). Sutherland is the calm centre in that film and it remains one of his best performances.
Mia Farrow absence from the list of nominees for Best Actress in 1968 for her superb performance in Rosemary’s Baby has always been a head scratcher. And there was room for her on the list of nominees that year. She didn’t enjoy a lot of success in the seventies, but Farrow really hit her stride as an actress with the series of films she made with Woody Allen in the eighties and early nineties. For about 10 years she became a sort of muse for him. Her performances in Broadway Danny Rose (1981), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Alice (1990) all deserved Oscar consideration, and I think the case could be made that she should have been the winner in 1990. These three films give a true sense of Farrow’s range as an actress. She’s hysterical as the tough talking mistress in Broadway Danny Rose, touching as the movie-obsessed wife in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and witty and stylish as the pampered society wife in Alice.
With the one/two punch of American Gigolo (1980) and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) Richard Gere was the hottest thing in movies for a while, but with his daring (for the time) penchant for full frontal nudity, his status as sex symbol overtook the serious actor. It took a few years for critics and audiences to not be so dismissive of his talents. It also helped that as he matured and took himself a little less seriously, he became a much better actor and a more interesting screen presence. Two of his later career films should have ensured Oscar consideration for Gere – his slick turn in Chicago (2002) and again for Arbitrage (2012). Gere was perfect as the tap dancing lawyer in Chicago, toying with his clients and the public for maximum exposure and dollars. He showed a great flair for comedy and was terrific in the musical numbers. Arbitrage was an excellent and suspenseful look at family duplicity in the world of high finance. This is Gere’s best performance.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.