Hang on a minute! Who did you say won Best Actor? The Oscars is once again upon us, ready & raring to bestow the highest accolades on cinema’s most deserving work. But the Academy Awards often gets it wrong…
The Academy Awards are considered the highest accolade any movie or person within the industry can receive. But you only have to look at the countless reviews, movie blogs and online chatter to see how much a film’s merits can divide audiences. Rotten Tomatoes is a great indicator of just how much opinion can differ. So it is unsurprising that the Oscars’ choice for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and all the rest can, and often does, see film fans arguing over whether the winner deserved the accolade or not. Sometimes we can almost unanimously agree on its choices but its more likely that we’ll find flaws and history tells us the Academy Awards often gets it completely wrong. In “11 Academy Award Best Actor Nominees who should have Won the Oscar” I look at great actors and actresses who deserved the Oscar but were pipped to the post…
10. 2009 – Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler
(lost to Sean Penn, Milk)
It isn’t easy arguing against Sean Penn winning the Best Actor Oscar for his typically confident turn in 2008 drama Milk but there was something extra special that year about Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Rourke had almost disappeared from the movie business, turning his attentions to professional boxing in the early 1990s. This saw his film output drop off significantly with occasional roles or bit parts in largely forgettable cinema. In 2000, he was invited by Sly Stallone to feature in his update on Get Carter and was incredible as a transvestite prisoner in Animal Factory but Rourke once again all but disappeared until 2005’s Sin City. It wasn’t until 2008 that the 1980s pin-up fully reinstated his credentials.
In Darren Aronofsky’s film he plays a professional wrestler who was once famous in the 1980s but now, way past his prime, desperately clings on to his faded star despite severe health issues that could see his next fight turn fatal. The irony is not lost on the director, actor or audience – this is Mickey Rourke’s film and it’s also reminiscent of his real life. Rourke’s performance is that of a man who once acted to live, and now lives to act. It is so perfectly nuanced there isn’t a moment when you query whether or not this character had been a professional fighter his whole life. With moments of true tenderness, mainly centred around him rekindling his relationship with an estranged daughter, alongside authentic, sweat-covered muscle-on-muscle action in the ring, The Wrestler is enthralling, surprising and heartbreaking. And it is all brought together by Mickey Rourke who delivers his greatest ever performance.
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9. 1963 – Peter O’Toole – Lawrence of Arabia
(lost to Gregory Peck, To Kill A Mockingbird)
Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird need few words. They are classics and continue to be loved by audiences today. Each featured two powerhouse performances from a pair of Hollywood greats who have incredibly only won one Academy Award between them. And it was this year – in 1963 – when that single award went to Peck. Yet, the Academy saw fit to reward O’Toole’s film with the most prestigious accolades of the night as it won Best Picture and Best Director. So why didn’t O’Toole take home the prize for acting, and, perhaps more interestingly, how is it possible that the man originally from Leeds in West Yorkshire, England never received the Best Actor Oscar despite being nominated eight times. Indeed, he holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations (eight) in acting without winning.
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Tie – 8. 1988 – Robin Williams – Good Morning, Vietnam
(lost to Michael Douglas, Wall Street)
Sometimes even an actor’s best ever performance isn’t good enough to win the Academy Award. Yet, despite Robin Williams dividing audiences in his credentials as a leading man, surely Good Morning, Vietnam was his moment to take home the Best Actor Oscar. But wait, it was Michael Douglas’ year too. Bringing ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko to life in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Douglas took top honours so Williams was left seated when the winner was announced. Perhaps this was the year they could have had a tie?
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Tie – 8. 1988 – Glenn Close – Fatal Attraction
(lost to Cher, Moonstruck)
The same year that saw Robin Williams’ career best performance in Good Morning, Vietnam lose to Michael Douglas’ career best performance for Wall Street, saw Glenn Close miss out to another – you guessed it – career best performance, this time from Cher. To make the link between these films even more acute, Close starred opposite Douglas in Fatal Attraction for which she was nominated for Best Actress. Her measured psychological destruction following the breakdown of her affair with a married man is the key ingredient behind one of cinema’s greatest female villains. Perhaps this was another example of the Academy favouring more straight forward drama over much darker thrills.
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7. 1977 – Sissy Spacek – Carrie
(lost to Faye Dunaway, Network)
Faye Dunaway claimed her only Best Actress Academy Award the same year Sissy Spacek rose to prominence with her shy, introverted teenager Carrie White in Brian De Palma’s horror Carrie. Perhaps it was too soon for Spacek, the Academy giving the more seasoned Dunaway her first and only top honour but Spacek’s performance was more worthy. Network is a fine film from a fine filmmaker, and its message feels as fresh today as it did in the 1970s, but it should have won Best Picture and Best Director in addition to its Best Actor for Peter Finch. Dunaway’s performance is strong but it isn’t as nuanced as Spacek’s and given how the character has become so iconic within the horror genre it highlights what a powerhouse Spacek was even during her fledgling years.
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6. 1987 – Sigourney Weaver – Aliens
(lost to Marlene Matlin, Children of a Lesser God)
As commendable as Marlene Matlin’s performance in Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God is, Sigourney Weaver should have bagged the Best Actress Oscar at the 59th Academy Awards. Weaver’s character Ripley is the epitome of the female hero. In an age dominated by male action stars flexing their biceps, Weaver showed that women could possess similar prowess. In Aliens she exhibits a tough exterior and an even tougher interior but her courage comes in many forms. She defies the misogyny and scepticism of her mainly male colleagues, she rises to the challenge of trying to survive and defeat the same monster that nearly killed her in the previous film, and draws on her maternal instincts to help a frightened young child. Retrospect teaches us many things and if the Academy Award for Best Actress went to the film that was going to stand the test of time and be just as loved thirty years after its release, then Aliens and Sigourney Weaver would take the prize.
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5. 1987 – James Woods – Salvador
(lost to Paul Newman, The Color of Money)
Oh, Paul Newman is up for Best Actor – we better give him the award then. Newman shouldn’t have won for The Color of Money. Notwithstanding the fact it is neither one of his best films nor performances, there were stronger candidates in the field. William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God would have been a good fit since his co-star won Best Actress but I would have given the award to the brilliant James Woods for his portrayal of loose-cannon photojournalist Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone’s film about war torn El Salvador.
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4. 1960 – Shirley MacLaine – The Apartment
(lost to Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8)
If we are honest, The Apartment should have cleaned up at the 33rd Academy Awards ceremony. Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy-drama was bestowed top honours in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories but, despite its leading stars MacLaine and Jack Lemmon getting nominations in starring roles, neither won, losing to Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Lancaster respectively. MacLaine is so radiant and lovable and layered and beautiful you wonder how her “manic pixie” could have been overlooked.
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3. 1970 – Dustin Hoffman – Midnight Cowboy
(lost to John Wayne, True Grit)
(lost to John Wayne, True Grit)
Out with the old, in with the new: not in the Academy’s case. The Oscars nearly forgot all about Hollywood icon John Wayne until 1970 when they decided they better give him a Best Actor Oscar before it was too late. Despite having the opportunity earlier in his career to bestow the man born Marion Robert Morrison with the highest accolade an actor in Hollywood can achieve, the Academy waited until young upstart Dustin Hoffman delivered the greatest performance of the year – by far – to fix their oversight. Indeed, Hoffman’s Midnight Cowboy performance has rarely been bettered by the actor despite him later receiving Oscars for his turns in Kramer Versus Kramer and Rain Man. Perhaps that was the Academy atoning for this error.
John Wayne is an American institution – a pin-up for masculinity, prowess and the Hollywood hero – but the late 1960s saw a sea change in Hollywood as the American new wave directors began stamping their authority. The Academy Awards recognised this by awarding Midnight Cowboy the top honours – both Best Picture and Best Director – but unfortunately not Best Actor for Hoffman.
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2. 1974 – Al Pacino – Serpico
(lost to Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger)
There is a case to be heard that Oscars go to actors almost in hindsight, either to ensure they get at least one having missed out previously in their career, or to reward them for a sustained period of excellence. It felt like that with Martin Scorsese. Having made the likes of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, by 2006 he incredibly still hadn’t won an Academy Award for Best Director. So he got one for The Departed. Yes, the film is typical of the director – superbly photographed, edited and paced, a joy to watch and re-watch, and full of great characters and sparkling performances – but is it more deserving than any of his others. Of course, it depends what the competition is every year but until The Departed gave Scorsese his much-deserved Best Director gong, there was a distinct feeling the Academy had wrongly missed him off the “winners” list.
At the awards in 1974, Hollywood great Jack Lemmon was bestowed the Best Actor award for his role in Save the Tiger which, similar to Dustin Hoffman missing out in 1970 for Midnight Cowboy, felt like old, classic Hollywood triumphing over new wave Hollywood. It was also another example of the Academy seemingly rewarding Lemmon for the cumulative quality of his efforts as he hadn’t achieved such heights with either of his most well known films – The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Al Pacino, sitting in the wings, his understated real life demeanour masking his ability to explode theatrically in front of a movie camera, was left as one of four unlucky losers (the others were Marlon Brando for Last Tango in Paris, Jack Nicholson for The Last Detail, and Robert Redford for The Sting). Similar to Scorsese, he would later get the big prize for a lesser if still stellar performance in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman.
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1. 1974 – Ellen Burstyn – The Exorcist
(lost to Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class)
If ever there was a case of the Academy damning the horror genre, preferring instead to celebrate the easy-on-the-eye delights of comedy-melodrama, then 1974 was the year. Horror has never sat well with the Academy but if one film was to ever change that trend it would be The Exorcist. Sadly it didn’t. The film was nominated for ten awards (clearly highlighting its significant contribution to cinema that year and the qualities it contained) but only took home two for its exceptional sound design and William Peter Blatty’s adapted screenplay.
The Sting is a much-loved film and delighted the Academy voters enough that year to bring it the key accolades of Best Picture and Best Director but, as enjoyable as it is, director George Roy Hill’s movie has not had the same profound effect on audiences, then or now, as The Exorcist. But aside from whether or not The Exorcist should have been given the top prizes at the 46th Academy Awards held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles in April 1974, Ellen Burstyn should have received the Best Actress gong.
She was up against Glenda Jackson whose portrayal of a British divorcee in Melvin Frank’s amusing A Touch of Class saw the actress enter into a love affair with an American played by Peter Segal. There’s some nice moments in the film with its elements of awkward sexually-frustrated farce drawing plenty of laughs underneath the theme of marriage breakdown and middle-aged rebirth but it’s slight and forgettable compared to The Exorcist. And Jackson’s performance, though admirable, is nothing compared to Burstyn’s groundbreaking turn as a mother fighting desperately for the wellbeing of her daughter against a foe neither she or anyone else understands.
Burstyn’s incredible raw energy is enlivened by her role as matriarch, depicting so beautifully the strength and the fragility that comes from harbouring an undying love for one’s daughter. Aided by The Exorcist director William Friedkin’s passionate megalomania, Burstyn grounds the film’s overarching paranormal themes to give us something that is both natural, authentic and, importantly, believable. She is an incredible actress and the early 1970s saw her produce her finest work but she should have received the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1974 for her role as Chris MacNeil. It’s no surprise the Academy saw the error of its ways and gave her the accolade one year later for Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
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Written and compiled by Dan Stephens
Over to you: where did the Oscars get it wrong in your opinion? What do you think of the performances listed above – did they deserve the Academy Award or were the recipients more deserving?
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