By John H. Foote
And to be clear, it is not always because I did not care for the performance, but more often than not that there were better performances that lost! So often the industry decides that an actor is “due”, it is “their time for an Oscar” and come hell or high water they are going to win that year, likely for an inferior performance or a performance that is not even their finest! Oh there have been howlers, performances that had no business winning an Oscar which I will never understand given the group of people doing the voting.
Here are the absolute 10 worst Oscar winning performances for Best Actor…shame on the Academy, what were they thinking?
10. MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY IN DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) — Is it a bad performance? Not at all, but it was not even McConaughey’s best performance that year which was in True Detective (2013) on HBO. No, someone decided he was “due”, or it was time, so it became about awarding him for a life’s work. Sadly, that meant the extraordinary performance of Leonardo Di Caprio in Martin Scorsese’s charged, electrifying The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) went home empty handed. Di Caprio did the finest work of his career in the film, and then won two years later for possibly the greatest physical performance in film history in The Revenant (2015). A bad year to decide someone was due.
9. BING CROSBY IN GOING MY WAY (1944) — Never much of an actor, I am not sure how Crosby even got nominated for an Oscar. Incredibly he won for this sentimental work, and then was nominated the following year as the same character in the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). How? Was it a weak year for nominees? For acting in general? Anyone care to take a shot at explaining how Fred McMurray was not nominated for Double Indemnity (1944) or Joel McCrae in Buffalo Bill (1944)? How did Bing Crosby get an Oscar?
8. LIONEL BARRYMORE IN A FREE SOUL (1931) — Barrymore was a name of acting royalty so it is no surprise that Lionel won an Oscar. What is a shock is that he won it in a year Charles Chaplin portrayed his beloved Tramp in his magnificent City Lights, the greatest silent film ever made. Refusing to convert to sound four years after all the studios switched to sound pictures, City Lights was the last great silent film, and the best film Chaplin ever made. His final moments in the film feature the greatest smile in film history as a girl realizes who her benefactor is, and it takes her by surprise. Breathtaking in every way. So tell me how Barrymore was even nominated? Shameful.
7. REX HARRISON IN MY FAIR LADY (1964) — Rex Harrison was never much of an actor. He portrayed the typical Brit, stiff upper lip, cold, an unpleasant sort of guy in most of his performances. As Dr. Henry Higgins, Harrison trains a street urchin how to behave in upper society and in the process of her training, falls in love with her. He won one of the many Oscars the film won, though it did not win Best Actress, the one it most deserved. Best Actor of 1964 should have gone to Peter Sellers for his multi-role performance in Kubrick’s vicious black comedy Dr. Strangelove … (1964). Sellers is remarkable, Harrison is … well, dreary.
6. HUMPHREY BOGART IN THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) — Marlon Brando changes only EVERYTHING about acting in North America, both onstage and onscreen, is extraordinary onstage and onscreen as Stanley Kowalski in Williams’ magnificent play and loses Best Actor. HE LOSES BEST ACTOR and to a silly performance from a beloved actor. My God even Bogart commented on questioning the votes that year. Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire was nothing short of magnificent, the measuring stick by which every actor to ever play the role is still measured, and he lost. The mind reels … still.
5. JAMES STEWART IN THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) — This one is easy to explain. Stewart deserved to win the previous year in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), as he was brilliant. But oddly he did not, as the Oscar went to a weaker, sentimental performance. So when he was nominated in 1940 there was never any doubt who was going to win. Despite performances for the ages from Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, stunning, haunting and deserving, and Charles Chaplin in his black comedy about Hitler in The Great Dictator, Stewart came out the winner. Even he knew what was going on, that it was a sentimental award, a make up award for the year before, and he championed Fonda’s performance the rest of his life every chance he got.
4. AL PACINO IN SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992) — “Hoo Haw” he blasts for more than two hours. His performance was animated, cartoonish, something a high school kid might give and think it was good acting. As Frank Slade, a blind military lifer hellbent on killing himself, Pacino gave the loudest performance of his career, and winning an Oscar must have thought it was great because he kept doing it. The actors who voted him this Oscar must have been blind when they saw the film, though they could have heard it. People down the block from the cinema heard it, EVERYONE heard it. We all know he deserved to win in the seventies for any one of his fine performances, the most likely being The Godfather Part II (1974). Instead, he gets it for this. Denzel Washington was the deserving nominee for Malcolm X (1992), but no, it did not happen, and we know why.
3. GARY OLDMAN IN DARKEST HOUR (2017) — Gary Oldman was “due”. He had never won, been nominated just once, so when he portrayed Churchill in this British film, he was deemed owed by the Academy and from the film’s first screening at TIFF sat in the winner’s circle for awards season. For me the make up and wig gave the performance, certainly not Oldman. Richard Burton, Albert Finney and Brendan Gleason all surpassed the actor as Churchill in performances for HBO, frankly leaving Oldman in the dust. Who loses because of this? James Franco in The Disaster Artist (2017) and the astounding Christian Bale in the dark western Hostiles (2017), both more deserving winners, both greater performances.
2. ART CARNEY IN HARRY AND TONTO (1974) — Not his fault that the vote was obviously split and he won an Oscar he did not deserve. And Carney was a nice man to boot, five-time Emmy winner as Ed Norton one of the most iconic TV characters of all time, but he never should have been an Oscar winner. Chances are Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Dustin Hoffman in Lenny caused a split of the vote, and Carney emerged the lucky winner. Pacino deserved to win, it remains the greatest performance of his career and a performance for the ages. Just so terribly sad.
1. ROBERTO BENIGNI IN LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1998) — Like a puppy trying to please his master, so did Benigni wildly over act and push for laughs in this terrible, irresponsible black comedy about the Holocaust. For whatever reason Hollywood fell in love with the Italian comic during awards season and suddenly he was everywhere with his eye on awards. When he won the Screen Actors Guild it was over, he was Oscar bound and everyone knew it. Watching the other nominees go down in defeat to him was disgraceful because everyone, EVERYONE knew Edward Norton deserved the Oscar as the neo-Nazi in American History X, or even Ian McKellen as thirties director James Whale in the lovely Gods and Monsters … people anyone BUT the winner.
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.