Last year, during Oscars week, I wrote about 10 performances I felt were robbed of an Academy Award. This year, I put together a list of actors who didn’t even get nominated despite turning in powerful performances. There are way more than 10 (as I’m sure you’ll point out) but here are the most notable ones for me from the last 20 years, starting with the most recent.
- Mélanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds (2009). I’m glad the movie is getting some Oscar love, but how can the Academy ignore Laurent’s defiant, seething performance which finally erupts in an inferno of rage? The restaurant scene where her Shosanna eats strudel with Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa is heart-stoppingly suspenseful. She manages to appear cool while showing the terror and revulsion just below the surface.
- Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon (2008). Frank Langella may have had the Goliathan role as the former president, but Sheen’s work as David was just as skillful. Half of acting is interacting and, in a movie mainly consisting of two guys in a verbal duel, Langella could not have turned in his Oscar-nominated performance without Sheen as his sparring partner. Sheen didn’t just display the guts and ambition of a man taking on an impossible task, he showed us the insecurity and vulnerability behind the Cheshire grin and slick TV-host veneer.
- Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada in The Kite Runner (2007). This child actor, who played young Hassan, took a dagger and plunged it straight into my heart with his performance. Then he twisted it around a couple times for good measure. He did it with the expressive brown eyes and smile he was determined to keep on his face through all the unspeakable things inflicted on him. I wanted to beat up the bullies who hurt him, scream at all those who failed him, hug him ’til my arms ache, and just give him a big beautiful kite of his own to fly.
- Phyllis Somerville in Little Children (2006). In last year’s post, I decried the fact the Academy didn’t give the Oscar to Jackie Earle Haley for this movie. This year, I’m gonna talk about his mama. In lesser hands, I could’ve thought, “Lady, stop protecting your creepy-ass child-molesting son!” But no. Somerville made me believe that her fierce love for him was not only plausible but a natural thing. I mean, wouldn’t all mothers go to such lengths to defend their children, no matter how hideous?
- Sharon Warren in Ray (2004). Here’s another overlooked mama. As in Somerville’s case, the actor playing Warren’s son—that would be Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles—got all the attention while Warren was neglected. If voters go back and watch that scene where little Ray falls down and pleads for help while his mama, wanting her son to pick himself up, just stands across the room and watches while her heart is clearly breaking, I think they’d apologize and cough up a nomination for her.
- Michael Peña in Crash (2004). In a movie crammed with big stars, Peña stood out as the locksmith who remains steady and true despite all the racism he endures. The most tender scenes in the movie are ones in which he tells bedtime stories to his young daughter about the invisible cloak which would protect her from harm. When it looks like she might need that protection, Peña’s character unleashes his emotions in a scene so raw it momentarily stopped my breath.
- Emma Thompson in Love Actually (2003). There are many talented stars and memorable moments in this movie, too, but I’ll just mention one scene and you’ll nod your head vigorously in agreement that Thompson deserved a nomination for it. Remember when she’s so sure her Christmas gift from her husband (Alan Rickman) would be an expensive necklace because she’d seen him buy one? As she opens the box and finds it’s only a Joni Mitchell CD, we the viewers feel the full impact of his betrayal but she restrains from showing her devastation until she goes into their bedroom and cries alone. Then she smoothes down their bed cover and goes back out to be Smiley Mom to their kids. She may have pulled herself together but I was still crying after that scene was over.
- Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). The Academy loved these movies, granting the third one all 11 trophies for which it was nominated. One of them should’ve been for Serkis as Gollum. Yes, the creature was CGI but Serkis provided the voice, facial expressions and motion capture work. He brought a fantasy character to life, made it indelibly real and more complex than some of its human co-stars.
- Alison Elliott in The Spitfire Grill (1996). Never heard of this movie? Rent it immediately. Elliott’s performance as Percy, a girl who moves to a small town to start over after getting out of prison, is full of emotional colors: humble and proud, broken and hopeful, tough and vulnerable, and ultimately heartrending. Elliott was nominated the following year for Wings of the Dove, but that performance, as fine as it is, doesn’t even touch her master stroke in Grill.
- Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way (1993). Yeah, yeah, he went on to win two Oscars but it’s still unfathomable to me that Penn wasn’t even nominated for his work as Carlito’s slimebag, coked-up lawyer in this movie. His transformation left him so unrecognizable—with the red ‘fro, receding hairline and glasses—I kept thinking, “I thought Sean Penn was in this movie” while watching it.
OK, so that’s my 10. Now it’s your turn to tell me about all the performances I should’ve included on this list!