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Home » Movies

Top 10 Performances Robbed of Oscars

Submitted by on February 18, 2009 – 12:57 am 31 Comments

Oscar Sunday is coming up this weekend and, though I’m really looking forward to it, I have a feeling at least one of my faves won’t win. I think my predictions are pretty solid but there’s always an upset. Last year, I thought Amy Ryan’s fierce performance in Gone Baby Gone was the obvious choice for best supporting actress but no, Tilda Swinton inexplicably won for her one-note work in Michael Clayton (I like Swinton but didn’t think she deserved to win for this).

Of course, it wasn’t the first time that’s happened. Over the years, many actors have been robbed of Oscars. I’ve narrowed this very subjective list down to the ten most egregious snubs (besides Ryan’s) in the last twenty-five years, starting with the most recent.

  1. jackie-earle-haleyJackie Earle Haley for Little Children. Seriously, did voters watch this performance? He was both creepy and impossibly sympathetic as the pedophile who loved his mama, but Alan Arkin won for his performance as a grandfather who taught his granddaughter how to dance. Whatev. Haley is bouncing back as Rorschach in the sure-to-be-blockbuster Watchmen so I guess the Academy can suck it.
  2. denchjudi_notesJudi Dench for Notes on a Scandal. Oh my gosh, she creeped me out in this. Like Haley, Dench pulled off a character that’s both disturbing and sympathetic. Her schoolmarm with repressed desires for Cate Blanchett’s character was incredibly manipulative but Dench also made her desperate loneliness palpable. I adore Helen Mirren and thought she was good as The Queen but her performance wasn’t as complex as Dench’s.
  3. pm_ledger_wideweb__470x3210Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain. I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly that claimed Ledger was relieved he didn’t win. So maybe he didn’t care but he made me care. His performance as Ennis Del Mar was simply devastating. Philip Seymour Hoffman always turns in good work but Capote felt like a very good impression whereas Ledger created an indelible character from just words on a page.
  4. eternal2Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. This isn’t taking away from Hilary Swank’s gutsy performance in Million Dollar Baby, which deserved to win. I just wish there could have been a tie that year (hey, it happened when Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn tied for 1968’s Best Actress). Winslet’s Clementine was a freewheeling, damaged soul but the actress also showed us her pluck and heart and never allowed us to feel sorry for her. Clementine might have been trying to clear her head of memories but, years later, I still can’t erase Winslet’s performance from my mind.
  5. j-mooreJulianne Moore for The Hours. Yeah, yeah, Catherine Zeta-Jones sang and danced very well in Chicago and looked great doing it. But this is an acting award and her acting was nowhere near as affecting as Moore’s as the depressed 1950s housewife Laura Brown. Moore’s dutiful smile hid her inner anguish from everyone but the viewer. Watching her, I just wanted to reach through the screen, take the poor woman away on a tropical vacation and give her some happy pills.
  6. Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind. This movie won Best Picture, Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress. Well, it wouldn’t have won any of those categories if it hadn’t been for Crowe, who carried this movie. Crowe’s performance as John Nash elevated the work of everyone around him so it’s rude the Academy gave them Oscars but sent Crowe home empty-handed (at least for this movie).
  7. tn2_sixth_sense_2Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense. C’mon, that little kid was so memorable, you can probably still quote some of his lines. His performance was subtle and poignant, which is doubly impressive considering his age at the time (what life experience did he tap into?!). But noooo, Michael Caine won for The Cider House Rules. Do you even remember what that movie was about or why Caine won? Exactly.
  8. Leonardo DiCaprio for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with mentally handicapped people and can tell when an actor’s portrayal of a challenged person is realistic or just wrong. When I saw this movie, I thought DiCaprio was really handicapped, not an actor doing a great job. He didn’t employ some broad, cliche mannerisms; he went inside Arnie Grape’s head and skin. Though his work was a true transformation, the Academy gave the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones for barking out orders in The Fugitive.
  9. pfeiffer-baker-boysMichelle Pfeiffer for The Fabulous Baker Boys. Oh, I’m not hatin’ on the late, great Jessica Tandy, who took home the Best Actress award that year. But that was more a lifetime achievement award because surely Pfeiffer’s performance as Susie Diamond was more spectacular than Tandy’s Miss Daisy. Pfeiffer’s Susie was a gorgeous, tough chick whose looks didn’t take her as far in life as she’d hoped, a diamond whose sparkle was becoming duller by the day. And who can forget her writhing on the piano in that red dress, purring her way through “Making Whoopee”? All I remember about Miss Daisy is she was a cranky old woman.
  10. h-hunterHolly Hunter for Broadcast News. As neurotic news producer Jane Craig, Hunter ran the gamut of being in charge to completely falling apart, sometimes within seconds. Jane was flawed, funny, frustrating—a full-bodied character. But Cher won that year for Moonstruck as a consolation prize for Silkwood.

So, do you think the Academy mostly gets it right or does it seem like they sometimes vote while high on crack? Which performances do you think were wrongly denied an Oscar? Comment away!

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  • newman says:

    some nice thoughts –

    however these days osccars is not about performance but about marketing campaign –


  • ARB says:

    I have to agree with newman. It’s all a PR campaign.

  • BizMan5 says:

    I still think it’s about taste as well.

  • Christian says:

    GREAT THOUGHTS and detail were made to your list. (I love how Haley is on top of it…) Here are some of my contributions:
    1) 2000: Ellen Burstyn (Requiem For A Dream) vs. Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich)
    2) 1998: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) vs. Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare In Love)
    3) 2005: Felicity Huffman (Transamerica) vs. Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)
    4) 1993: John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire) vs. Tommy Lee Jones (Fugitive)
    5) 1992: Jaye Davidson (Crying Game) vs. Gene Hackman (Unforgiven)

    • popculturenerd says:


      Those are good examples, too. I haven’t seen Felicity Huffman’s and Ellen Burnstyn’s performances in those films so I’ll take your word for it, though I did really enjoy Julia Roberts’ work in Erin Brockovich. I agree that Cate Blanchett’s acting was phenomenal in Elizabeth but I also really liked Gwyneth’s performance as the cross-dressing muse in Shakespeare so I’m not too disgruntled about her winning.

  • Julien says:

    Great list, PCN!
    I totally agree with most of the forgotten performances you mentioned (I’ve not seen all the movies concerned), especially the ones from Heath Ledger (truly amazing), Julianne Moore (my top favorite actress! “The hours” was so brillant!) and Leonardo Di Caprio (so young and already so talented!).

    Christian got some points too, Ellen Burstyn and Felicity Huffman definitely deserved a golden statuette.

    I’d like to add some others but I don’t know my Oscar history well enough!

  • Bailey says:

    Who did Russell Crowe lose to for his performance in A BEAUTIFUL MIND? I can’t seem to remember…..

    • John Bell says:

      I still think the only reason Russell Crowe lost for “A Beautiful Mind” is because he slugged out that director at the BAFTA’s the SAME WEEK that Academy voters were turning in their ballots.

  • Julien says:

    Hi Bailey,
    Previously I said that I didn’t know my Oscar history very well, but I think I know the answer to your question!
    Thanks for giving me a chance to show off!
    I think it was Denzel Washington who won the Oscar that year for “Trainig Day”.

    PCN, you definitely have to watch “Transamerica” (moving and smart, Felicity Huffman is stunning) and “Requiem for a dream” (a cult film with great performances from Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Ellen Burstyn and an amazing score)!

    • popculturenerd says:

      You’re absolutely right, Julien! I couldn’t come up with an answer for Bailey right away.

      I have a few friends who’ve been hounding me for years to watch Requiem because of how phenomenal Ellen Burstyn is in it. I’ve been avoiding it because I don’t enjoy watching bleak movies about drug addicts. Maybe when the list of people recommending it gets to 10, I’ll finally give in. I’ll look into Transamerica, though. I did want to see it when it was in theaters but didn’t get around to it. Now that you and Christian mention it, I should check it out.

  • Bailey says:

    Thanks, Julien! I have to say Huffman’s performance in TRANSAMERICA was the best one of that year….she was awkward, heartbreaking, vulnerable and challenged. Although Witherspoon’s performance had musical talent and inner conflict….Huffman’s performance was more difficult and had more range.

  • RaiulBaztepo says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

    • popculturenerd says:

      Hi Raiul,

      Welcome to my blog! No need to apologize for your English. Though I’ve lived in America for 30 years, English is not my first language, either. What country are you writing from?

  • Heretic says:

    Every time I read blogs or articles that take on this subject, I’m reminded of the 1993 Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor. You mentioned Leonardo DiCaprio’s work that year in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, while others go with Ralph Fiennes in “Shindler’s List”. My personal favorite that year for the Oscar was an actor who was never even nominated: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. His is still one of my all-time favorite supporting roles.

    • popculturenerd says:

      Hi Heretic,

      I never saw Tombstonebut I think it’s great how there were so many great male performances that year that everyone seems to have a different favorite. I thought this past year’s Best Supporting Actor race was ridiculously tight as well, what with Josh Brolin and RDJ and Ledger and Shannon and Hoffman. Any one of them would’ve been worthy of the gold.

  • Shelley n says:

    I couldn’t agree more with regards to Russell Crowe. He is one of our best these days. I also truly believe Heath Ledger AND Jake Gyllenhaal should have won for Brokeback Mountain. THAT was a true travesty.

  • Shelley n says:

    Well as much as i appreciate his acting chops, i have 2 admit that i adore him period. he’s just a hunky hunnybunny of a man. sorry if i offend w/ my shallow ways! ;-P

  • popculturenerd says:

    Oh, no need to apologize! I get absolutely ridiculous talking about the delicious Daniel Craig so I’m not one to judge.

    By the way, I like your avatar. I know it’s automatically generated but your guy looks so mischievous with his little mask on. It’s like he’s up to no good!

  • Shelley n says:

    mmmmm…yeah. it’s interesting, the ick-factor in “road 2 perdition,” was sky-high, yet in the bond movies i found him to be quite luscious! thoughts?

    • popculturenerd says:

      I completely agree. He was gross in Perdition and I think he even had bad (fake) teeth. I also did not like him in Sylvia where he was unsympathetic towards his poor wife who had depression. But then I saw him as Bond and thought, Whoa! Scrumptuous! and I’ve been drooling ever since. (Click here for my article on nerdy hot guys.)

  • Robinson says:

    you forgot eddie murphy in dreamgirls, he really deserved that. they just gave it to allen arkin because of his legacy, he was in little miss sunshine for all of 25 minutes. eddie was on fire and it was his best work ever…

  • le0pard13 says:

    Great list, PCN. I’m very much in agreement in the 5 – 9 slots. Crowe should also have at least been nominated for L.A. Confidential, too. Osment should have easily won this–if he’s not as great as he is in the film, do we care about Sixth Sense? No, and it’s one of my all-time haunting favorites. Same goes for DiCaprio’s performance.

    I have a soft spot, though, for Cher in Moonstruck. She still is quite good (but the consolation thing is a valid one) in that film–and it’s one of those date films I enjoyed with wife when we were courting. That likely means I should disqualify myself on emotional grounds ;-).

    Glad you pointed out this link, PCN. This was pre-Festival of Books. Thanks.

  • mark vincent says:

    I must contend that Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica was a definate snub. Reese Witherspoon’s performance in Walk the Line was a token gift due to her outstanding body of work. However, Walk the Line was hard to finish watching, and will probably be forgotten. As a native NYer and a San Franciscan, Huffman’s performance makes you think you are really watching a man who became a woman. It is the BEST LGBT performance ever, and probably lost the Oscar due to negative stigma. Ellen Burstyn in ‘Requiem for a Dream’ was also amazing, and on IMDB the movie is listed as one of best films ever as voted on the site. I encourage all diversity seeking fans to watch both of those films as we all know that those who are different or stuck in adversity deserve respect too.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Hi Mark,

      I think you’re a doppelganger of my friend Christian. He’s still miffed about the exact two snubs you mentioned–Burstyn and Huffman. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen either one. Perhaps after I will, I can jump on the wagon with you.

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope you’ll visit often.

      • Julien says:

        I’m a doppel-doppelganger of Christian and Mark Vincent then!
        As written before, I’m also a true admirer of Huffman and Burstyn’s performances in respectively “Transamerica” and “Requiem for a dream”. These two movies are among my favorite ones.
        PCN, try at least to watch “Transamerica” if you get a chance (“RFAD” is brilliant too but harsher and much more disturbing, I’m not sure it would be your cup of tea!).

  • John Bell says:

    I completely agree with you about the Oscar losses of Jackie Earle Haley and Julianne Moore.

    Michael Sheen actually gave the greatest supporting actor performance of 2006 as Tony Blair in “The Queen”, IMO, but wasn’t even NOMINATED (WTF??). However, Haley gave the most powerful and complex performance of the actors who WERE nominated. It ain’t no easy feat making me feel sorry for a pedophile but Haley pulled it off beautifully. Alan Arkin gave a decent but not Oscar-worthy performance. And, Eddie Murphy and Mark Wahlberg shouldn’t have even been nominated.

    Julianne Moore gave the most riveting performance in “The Hours” – no small accomplishment considering her co-stars (Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Nicole Kidman, etc.) And, will someone please take the week off and explain why Kidman was nominated as best LEAD actress when both Streep and Moore had twice as much screen time as she did?

    However, I have to vehemently disagree with you about the performances of Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. Dench certainly had the more showy (and overwrought) role in “Notes on a Scandal”. But Mirren not only displayed more complexity in her role as “The Queen” (witness the wide range of varying emotions she conveys(with complete credibility) in the deer scene alone but had a higher degree of difficulty as well. I think it is much easier to convey complex, turbulent emotions when you are betraying a histrionic character than when you are playing one as restrained and iconic as QEII.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Hi John, and welcome to PCN.

      Michael Sheen not being nominated for The Queen makes no sense. He was also brilliant as David Frost in Frost/Nixon but was overshadowed by Frank Langella. I also got to see Sheen in the title role in a stage version of Amadeus; that man can do no wrong. One day, he will get his due.

      Your defense of Mirren is persuasive and you make very good points. I evaluate performances from an emotional place—how much they move me/creep me out/inspire me, etc. And Dench did that: she creeped me out one moment, then made me feel sorry for her the next. I was less moved by Mirren’s performance, though I could appreciate its high level of difficulty.

  • Marco's says:

    That’s a pretty good list but as others have already pointed out, the biggest travesty in Oscars’ recent history is definitely Julia Roberts winning over Ellen Burstyn in 2000. Roberts was the flavour of the month at that time, Hollywood’s big star and all, that’s why she won (besides, RfaD is anything but mainstream). Don’t get me wrong: her performance in EB was pretty good. Burstyn was in a class of her own though. Simply stunning.

  • getgueti says:

    I’m 16 and I so agree with what you said about Miss Michelle Pfeiffer. I loved her in that film. I’ve never seen an actress as classy as her. She totally deserved that Oscar.


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