20 Film Characters That Were Never Nominated for an Oscar
Every year, a noticeably brilliant performance tends to miss out when by the time the Oscars swing round. This year it was Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her) who were left without deserved nominations. Which is not to say that the other nominees didn’t deserve to be listed. Rather, there just wasn’t enough space on the shortlist for everyone.
The Academy could increase the number of performers eligible like they did for the Best Picture category, of course, but where would it end? Increase it to 10 acts and there would likely be an outcry for those incredible performances that still went unrecognised. Would you increase it 15? 20?
Still, sometimes a performance will fail to shine in the Academy’s eyes, but will prove itself to have the staying power and memorability that cements a certain character in cinema history. Some of the most incredible acts have been snubbed, not only for the Oscar itself, but for a nomination, even. You’d find it hard to believe that the following 20 didn’t even make the cut, given their lasting resonance and popularity.
The Academy should be kicking themselves for letting these classic performances go unnominated, then. But admiration and longevity are reward enough, perhaps, for the captivating and tireless talents of the actors who imbued these roles with a lasting power. Roles like…
20. Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) – Jaws (1975)
Leading the chase for Steven Spielberg’s killer shark is Roy Scheider, whose paranoid turn as Chief Brody, battling the fishy monster as well as Amity Island politics, is a downplayed master-class in tension and increasing anxiety. Coming face to face with a shark would be enough to reduce even the hardest man to a quivering wreck, but Scheider plays his part with a balanced blend of growing terror and a great deal of human emotion; something that stretches to the less-than-spectacular sequel.
It would have been a tall order for Scheider to win the award if he had been nominated, but his name would have fit snugly beside Jack Nicholson’s (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and Al Pacino’s (Dog Day Afternoon). You’re gonna need a bigger boat? The Academy is gonna need a bigger shortlist!
Oscar Worthy Moment: When the Kintner boy is eaten at the beach. Scheider plays the whole scene with nothing but his facial expressions – channelling the wariness, paranoia and dread that comes with facing off against a Great White in a great scene supported by an top-notch actor.
19. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) – Withnail And I (1987)
Appearing as the Withnail from the film’s title, Richard E. Grant emerges as one of the great British cinema characters. The role isn’t much of a stretch as he is essentially playing an actor, but his muddled protagonist is the driving force behind one of the funniest British comedies of all time. Never have drink and drugs and the British weather been so hilarious. The humour is ironically dry and Grant bounces off his co-stars with foul-mouthed diligence, crafting a character that is as humorous as he is sad.
Given the recent success comedies have had at the Oscars – Melissa McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr have both been nominated for comedic performances – it is not unreasonable to suggest Grant would be well worthy of a nomination if Withnail and I had been filmed nowadays.
Oscar Worthy Moment: The final scene where Withnail recites a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is British acting at its best – classic theatre roots adapting to contemporary cinema resulting in an incredibly moving portrayal of a man aware of an inevitable oncoming loneliness.
18. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) – Goodfellas (1990)
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster!”
You cannot understate Ray Liotta’s performance as Henry Hill. Everybody remembers his opening monologue and he’s the one character we follow until the end, which means the weight of the story rests on his shoulders. He is dutifully compliant in his role as protagonist and more than holds his own against the heavyweights in support. He is cool and cocky… and brutal with the butt of a pistol. Henry Hill was a breakout role for a young Liotta and, quite honestly, it is his best performance to date.
He may have struggled to recapture that magic he radiated in Goodfellas, and his career has inexplicably devolved into typecasting and extended cameos, but his performance was well worthy of at least a nod from the Academy.
Oscar Worthy Moment: An irate and desperate Henry Hill goes bananas when he can’t find the stash of cocaine his wife has flushed down the toilet – along with their lavish lifestyle and comfort. Ray Liotta is both explosive and extremely vulnerable in one visceral scene.
17. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) – Apocalypse Now (1979)
Before I watched Apocalypse Now, I knew about Walter E. Kurtz. That should give you a slice of perspective on just how memorable Brando is as the lunatic colonel.
The whole film is one big build-up to his appearance and when we finally do meet the character, we cannot take our eyes off him. With his signature mumbling and massive presence, Brando commands the attention of everybody watching. It’s easy to understand how the tribe in the film came to worship him. He exudes more charisma than Robert ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ Duvall and exerts his talents to such an extent that Martin Sheen seemingly shrinks in his presence.
We only have one question: What were the Academy thinking?
Oscar Worthy Moment: Willard comes face to face with his target. Immersed in shadows, Brando cuts to the bone with a performance that transcends the boundaries of acting: “you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks … to collect a bill.”
16. Renton (Ewan McGregor) – Trainspotting (1996)
In the classic Brit flick Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor stars as Renton; the hapless poster child for addled heroin addicts across the Great British Isles. Amplified by the wonderful direction and editing that accompanies any Danny Boyle film, McGregor delves deep into the real nitty-gritty of addiction – from a darkly humorous scenario involving a filthy toilet bowl and the prized drug at the bottom; to the just plain dark death of an infant child.
The subject matter alone probably hindered his chances of Oscar recognition and with Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire) and Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) in the same category, it would have been a momentous task to squeeze in alongside them.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Renton voices an explicit case for Scottish Independence against a backdrop of Scottish countryside. Foul-mouthed and spiteful, McGregor is at his best when he’s mad … or high.
15. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) – Blue Velvet (1986)
Nobody plays a sadist quite like Hopper does in Blue Velvet. Equipped with an oxygen mask and a clan of demented cronies almost as deranged as he is, he takes us on a bizarre trip of sexual violence and crime. Critics and film theorists would have you know that his scenes with Isabella Rossellini represent a filmic mother-father relationship with their on-screen ‘child’ Kyle MacLachlan… weird, right? You shouldn’t try to interpret David Lynch because it’ll just make your head sore.
Despite any cryptic metaphors, Frank Booth is a character who is difficult to shake from the memory banks once he’s wormed his way in there.
Oscar Worthy Moment: We don’t know how they could have shown this at an Oscars ceremony, but the scene he appears for the first time…. yeah that one, with Kyle MacLachlan watching on through the slits in a wardrobe door while ‘baby’ wants to f**k. That kind of film experience stays with you.
14. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) – The Searchers (1956)
Collaborating with the ever-brilliant John Ford, John Wayne studies the thematic predictability of many films in the Western genre; in particular, racist attitude towards the Native American Comanches. The Searchers is criminally under-appreciated in this respect.
Both races of people have reasons to hate the other – the movie doesn’t shy from this – but at the same time, both races are represented as human; intelligent and flawed. John Wayne should have walked away with an Oscar for what is perhaps his most important and fully-realised role as Ethan Edwards. Instead he wasn’t even nominated.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Edwards finishes the film as he starts it – an outsider. He reunites his family and naturally saves the day, although such a complex and hate-filled character cannot be restrained by the conventions of normality, so instead he returns to the wilderness.
13. Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) – Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971)
As Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder can do it all. He’s tender and sincere with quite the musical range. Not only is it a wonderful interpretation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, it’s also funny. Of course it is, it’s Gene Wilder.
His entrance really defines his performance as a whole. He hobbles out of the factory door and slowly makes his way towards an ecstatic crowd; his steps careful and considered. Then all of a sudden he pounces into a forward roll to rapturous applause. Methodical switches to mayhem in the blink of an eye. He is quite the charmer but also has his terrifying moments, namely the scene on the boat or the “you get nothing” outburst.
Here, Wilder presents the definitive incarnation of Mr Wonka – one not even Johnny Depp could overcome. He didn’t need Academy recognition to gain international acclaim.
Oscar Worthy Moment: The aforementioned “you get nothing” scene. Wonka had been so calm and collected to this point, but his outburst is heart-breaking for Charlie and devastating for us.
12. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) – The Truman Show (1998)
Playing on the horrible feeling that somebody somewhere is watching you, Jim Carrey wraps his usually exaggerated comedy around the charming Truman Burbank, a man who is unwittingly the star of America’s number one television show. His gradual journey towards an anarchic uprising against the artificial town built around him is well-handled and very sincere for an actor who is usually so manic.
Roberto Benigni took home the Oscar that year for Life is Beautiful – but should he have even been nominated? It is highly-contested that Jim Carrey should have taken his spot on the short-list. Instead he was nowhere to be found.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Truman turns on his wife Meryl when he suspects something is wrong. If you ever had any questions about Carrey’s acting ability, this is the scene to set you straight.
11. Dorothy (Judy Garland) – The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
From the moment Judy Garland opens her door to the colourful world of Oz, audiences are whisked away to a magical place that only a few films have gone. Her character is so likeable and so heartbreakingly out of her depth we cannot help but fall in love with her performance.
Whether she’s clicking her heels or whizzing through a song with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, she gives the most enjoyable and fanciful enthusiasm to her Dorothy – and sets up the good/bad divide perfectly with the Wicked Witch of the West. If we could turn back time, we’d shower this performance in Oscar gold.
Oscar Worthy Moment: A beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, perhaps the scene that stands out more than any other. A down and disillusioned Judy Garland sings her heart out in a truly brilliant moment of film.
10. Leonard (Guy Pearce) – Memento (2000)
Leading the confusion of Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Memento is the ever-reliable Guy Pearce who takes it up a notch as Leonard. Afflicted with short-term memory loss, he pieces together an elaborate and intricate puzzle that will lead him to the man responsible for his wife’s death.
The film could have fallen apart due to the complexity of its story and editing, but Pearce provides that glue that keeps the film in place. He anchors every scene with wonderful narration and a seemingly noble handle on his memory troubles, leading the viewer to a satisfying – but very dark – conclusion.
The editing and Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s script were rightfully nominated when Oscar season came around, but Pearce’s nuanced performance was overlooked during a very tough year in the acting category.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Natalie insults Leonard’s wife and his memory loss. He reacts violently and desperately searches for a pen to write down what happened before he forgets. The scene has very minimal dialogue save the hectic narration by an in-from Pearce.
9. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) – American Psycho (2000)
For Patrick Bateman, pop culture reviews and an outward appearance rule his life. He’s much too busy for marriage and he’s a vicious psychopathic serial-killer who enjoys killing hookers with a chainsaw. Yes you read that last little bit correctly.
Christian Bale is endlessly quotable and darkly hilarious, in fact the humour is so black you’ll probably question your own sanity for laughing so much. He bops around to ’80s pop band, Huey Lewis and the News before taking an axe to Jared Leto’s face, before partaking in a self-indulgent – rather self-admiring – sexual encounter with two prostitutes.
Why Bale wasn’t nominated is beyond us – but this might be his greatest ever creation.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Deeply satirical, Bateman explains the value of Huey Lewis and the News. It’s funny; it’s scary; and it’s just brilliant to behold.
8. Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – The Third Man (1949)
Venetian blinds and femme fatales aside, The Third Man’s true value lies in the work of the legendary Orson Welles – who actually only appears for the final act.
Though his screen time is minimal, Welles is a towering presence as the sneaky rat, Harry Lime. From the moment he steps out of the shadows revealing himself to Holly, to his ultimate demise in the underground sewers, he is despicable and insidious, a true horror of a character played to perfection by one of the greats.
Citizen Kane may be the film that won Orson Welles all the plaudits but he should have received a similar reception for The Third Man as well.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Lime’s conversation about the ‘dots’ below the Ferris wheel. Along with his cuckoo clock analogy, Welles has a way of putting evil deeds that we find hard to fault – his character may be a criminal but he’s so elegant and assured in his psyche that he commands our whole attention.
7. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) – Blade Runner (1982)
With Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer takes the genre to an unprecedented level. So many sci-fi villains come off as cheesy or one-dimensional, but Roy Batty is very human for a character who is essentially artificial. His menace isn’t borne out of some inexplicable desire to destroy the world – he simply seeks what everybody wants. That is the right to live. Hauer blurs the boundaries of what it means to be alive, and his replicant is fully-realised as he travels along a character arc of anger, hatred and – ultimately – redemption.
As a rule, science-fiction doesn’t do well at the Oscars, but Blade Runner is so much more than science-fiction. It is a noir in a similar vein to the classic black and white pictures, only it’s set in the future – a future that wouldn’t have been as entertaining without Hauer.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Batty saves Deckard from falling to his death. Sitting in the rain on top of a building, he contemplates life and death and what it means to be human in a beautiful and touching scene.
6. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) – Scarface (1984)
Believe it or not, it took Al Pacino until 1992 to win his first Oscar for Scent of a Woman. Some think his win was no more than a sympathy Oscar for screwing him over for so many years. He was nominated for roles like The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, but he never took the prize home.
Armed with his questionable Cuban accent, Pacino gives a career-defining performance in Scarface that goes down as one of the all-time iconic characters of cinema. He chews up the scenery in a way that only he can as he heads full-throttle into a downward spiral of drug addiction and criminal activity.
It may not be his greatest performance, but we still couldn’t believe this wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Brian De Palma fought hard to get this film into cinemas, reworking the final cut to lower the X rating. Perhaps its controversial nature was the factor holding Pacino back.
Oscar Worthy Moment: “Say goodnight to the bad guy!” Tony is left alone at dinner, stoned out of his mind, he confronts the other guests in the restaurant; serving them a big helping of realist philosophy on the nature of good and bad.
5. Tyler Durden/The Narrator (Brad Pitt/Edward Norton) – Fight Club (1999)
From the fear of losing one’s masculinity to an over-dependence on commercialism and materialistic values, Fight Club batters a blinded society until it finally sees the light.
And the characters to pummel society’s face? Tyler Durden and the Narrator. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton share the load of ‘two’ culturally significant figures. Pitt plays Durden with a real cockiness and deprecating manner, spitting his critique of the world in the face of all who come across him. Norton shoulders the responsibility of the Narrator – nameless and bland – who is very much an image of society; a society that desperately wants to shake off the shackles of a suffocating corporate America.
Perhaps the Academy didn’t pick up on the subtlety and importance of the two roles – perhaps they thought Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) and Russell Crowe (The Insider) gave better performances … they didn’t. If it was up to us, Pitt and Norton would have battled it out to take home the statue and earned the recognition such work deserves.
Oscar Worthy Moment: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can …” This line sets out the perfect precedent for the film; funny, compelling and dark. Both performances are unmatched in their social commentary – not to mention their exuding charisma and satire.
4. L.B “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) – Rear Window (1954)
Confined to his apartment after breaking his leg, Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff begins to snoop on his neighbours. As a hobby turns into an obsession, he suspects the man across the way is actually a killer, and makes it his mission to catch him out.
While the film was rather unceremoniously remade in 2007 as Disturbia, Rear Window still manages to enthral and excite younger generations sixty years after its release – no small thanks to Mr Stewart. His paranoia and fear are matched only by his like-ability. Seriously, who doesn’t love Jimmy Stewart? Apparently the Academy, who failed to notice this sterling effort… made all from the seat of a wheelchair.
Oscar Worthy Moment: When Thorwald catches on to Jeff and makes his way up the stairs to Jeff’s apartment. The suspense and fear is spine-chilling and James Stewart looks just about ready to drop one in his pants – Hitchcockian thrills at their best.
3. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – Psycho (1960)
Forget the remake and Vince Vaughn in a dress, Anthony Perkins is breathtaking as the original psychotic Norman Bates. His entrance would have you believe he was an innocent soul … by the chilling final picture, you’ll wonder if there are such people out there in the real world.
That is the magic of this performance, it clings to you after you’ve left the theatre or switched off the television. That last look he gives the camera before the credits roll is one of pure madness – collected madness stored inside a person. You might feel a sense of empathy for a person with mental problems – but not Norman Bates … never him.
Oscar Worthy Moment: At the suggestion of putting his mother in a madhouse, Bates’ dead eyes flicker with life. His cold, vacant expression changes and he becomes slightly more erratic – just enough to put you on edge. He’d have you think his mother is harmless, but we’re not so sure.
2. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) – The Big Lebowski (1998)
As one of the Coen Brothers’ greatest and most successful creations, Jeff Bridges combines the oddball wit that comes with their trademark writing and his own personal charisma to produce one of the most popular characters in recent memory. Supported by hilarious army veteran Walter (John Goodman) and (“shut the f**k up”) Donny (Steve Buscemi), The Dude unwillingly finds himself caught up in a bizarre series of events in the search for his stolen rug.
If ever anybody was born to play a particular role, it was Jeff Bridges as The Dude. Seriously, can you think of anybody more suited to their role than this one? Apparently, the Academy could that year, gifting nominations to Dustin Hoffman (Wag the Dog) and Peter Fonda (Ulee’s Gold). Okay, they’re big names but honestly, were they better performances than The Dude?
Oscar Worthy Moment: The Dude meets the real Jeffrey Lebowski; a man who is quite literally at the other end of the social scale. Pairing these two in the same room isn’t the wisest decision and both fall victim to a hilarious miscommunication… over who peed on the rug.
1. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) – The Shining (1980)
If you haven’t heard of them, the Razzies are a kind of mock award ceremony held the night before the Oscars where the worst films are named and shamed. Believe it or not, The Shining was nominated for two such awards: worst director, Stanley Kubrick (we know right); and worst actress, Shelley Duvall … we can’t argue with that one.
However, Jack Nicholson’s performance is so perfectly balanced and paced to suit the slow, tortuous narrative, and unsettling from the moment the family arrives at the Overlook Hotel. I suppose that’s the key word here – overlooked. From the vacant demented stare, to the wood-cutting explosiveness (axe in hand) Nicholson nails his role as Jack Torrance, chewing up so many iconic scenes that continue to reverberate around the pop culture spectrum.
Time has proven the worth of Nicholson’s performance – and proven we shouldn’t really give a s**t about what the Academy likes… they’re culpable of many, many mistakes over the years.
Oscar Worthy Moment: Wendy takes a look at what Jack’s been writing. Armed with a baseball bat, the hysterical wife is confronted by a manic and psychotic Nicholson at his deliciously devilish best.
Are these performances worthy of Oscar nominations? Are there any more we’ve missed off the list? This question should highlight the multitude of roles that have graced our screens since movies came into fruition. Some say the Oscars are political, and in some ways they are – winners are usually judged by the strength of a promotional campaign rather than mere skill or talent. However there are so many fantastic roles that have missed out during Awards season – and many more that will in years to come. It begs the question – how does an actor’s performance become timeless? How does this talent translate so well with audiences but not with the Academy? And ultimately, what is the more rewarding prize?
What do you think? Leave a comment.