Every so often, an actor will put in a performance so unanimously, comprehensively praised that it cleans up come awards season — from the BAFTAs to the Golden Globes. Think Javier Bardem in There Will Be Blood. Or Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. Or Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, come to that).
But, for every undisputed year, we’ll be treated to four or five closely-contested awards seasons. Actors jostle for statuettes, picking up a Screen Actors Guild award here or a Critics Choice award there. But the real prize is the Academy Award for Best Actor; the Oscar that actors from Adrien Brody to Matthew McConaughey have dedicated their lives, minds and bodies to lifting.
And, sometimes, the Academy gets it wrong. From Willem Dafoe’s near-miss to a Denzel Washington snub, we’ve listed the ten most deserved-but-defeated performances to ever be nominated in the illustrious category. See if you agree…
In 1979, Robert De Niro lost out to Jon Voight
Who did Robert De Niro play? Michael Vronsky, the conflicted Russian American steel worker and captivating lead character of The Deer Hunter. To this day, De Niro says that this was not only his most physically demanding performance, but the film also featured the most emotional scene he was ever involved in.
Who did Jon Voight play? Luke Martin, a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran and the co-star of Coming Home, a dramatic romance featuring Jane Fonda. Several directors, uncomfortable with the subject matter, departed the project during production.
Why did the wrong man win? Because, for all of Voight’s impressive physicality, and his using the role as a way to give a voice to anti-war activists, De Niro’s embittered Vronsky is a tour-de-force. That final Russian roulette scene in the gambling den? It was improvised.
In 2019, Willem Dafoe lost out to Rami Malek
Who did Willem Dafoe play? Vincent van Gogh; a far-cry from the Floridian motel owner he’d been nominated for in The Florida Project the year before. The biographical drama, At Eternity’s Gate, controversially suggested that van Gogh did not commit suicide; but was rather killed accidentally.
Who did Rami Malek play? Freddie Mercury. In one of a slew of recent musical biopics (Rocketman, Stardust, the upcoming Elvis), Malek took on the role of the Queen frontman in Bohemian Rhapsody when Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out due to creative differences.
Why did the wrong man win? Because, while both actors were portraying real-life characters (Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney and Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Vallelonga rounded out a biopic-heavy category in 2018), Dafoe’s portrayal of the artist was utterly mesmerising — less Malik’s impression; more an artful interpretation of a famous figure.
In 2000, Denzel Washington lost out to Kevin Spacey
Who did Denzel Washington play? Another real-life figure; boxer Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter. Leading the biographical sports drama, The Hurricane, it was deemed Washington’s most powerful role since Malcolm X.
Who did Kevin Spacey play? Lester Burnham, the middle-aged magazine executive and protagonist of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. The film also won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
Why did the wrong man win? Because, while the film undoubtedly deserved its plaudits, Spacey’s performance wasn’t the key to American Beauty’s success; Mendes’ influence was. But Washington’s central portrayal of ‘The Hurricane’? From his scenes in the ring to his scenes behind bars, he commands the film from start to finish.
In 1974, Robert Redford lost out to Jack Lemmon
Who did Robert Redford play? Johnny “Kelly” Hooker, the con-artist, grifter, and sweet talking co-lead of The Sting — perhaps the best caper ever committed to film. He played the part alongside Paul Newman’s Henry Gondorff.
Who did Jack Lemmon play? Harry Stoner, the melancholic owner of a struggling L.A. apparel company. For this role in the slow-burning, arson-tinged tale Save the Tiger, Lemmon became the first man to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
Why did the wrong man win? Because nobody watches Save the Tiger anymore. But The Sting? It’s a classic. And, while that longevity could be chalked up to the story itself, we’d say that Redford’s central performance — one of sensational style, perfectly-pitched humour and genuinely enthralling entertainment — was the film’s secret weapon.
In 2012, Gary Oldman lost out to Jean Dujardin
Who did Gary Oldman play? George Smiley, in the cold, icy adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Previously played by Alec Guinness for the BBC, Oldman stepped into the spymaster’s shoes to hunt a Soviet double agent lurking in the British secret service.
Who did Jean Dujardin play? George Valentin, the eponymous showman of The Artist. Hugely entertaining, the black-and-white film told the story of an old silent film star in a modernising 1920s Hollywood.
Why did the wrong man win? Because, as with American Beauty above, Dujardin’s performance pales in comparison to the masterful filming techniques and overall concept of The Artist. But no actor could have helmed the circus of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like Oldman, whose stony-faced Smiley one-upped even Alec Guinness’ landmark portrayal.
In 1992, Robin Williams lost out to Anthony Hopkins
Who did Robin Williams play? Henry “Parry” Sagan, a homeless man suffering delusional after a psychotic break in The Fisher King. Jeff Bridges played opposite Williams as a former shock jock who feels compelled to help Williams’ character.
Who did Anthony Hopkins play? Dr Hannibal Lecter — although you knew that. In 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins immortalised Thomas Harris’ iconic serial killer in all his Chianti-slurping, tiger-masked glory.
Why did the wrong man win? Because, while both men play larger-than-life, exaggerated characters, Williams is perhaps the only person who could have conveyed the pathos and sincerity of The Fisher King’s ‘Parry’ convincingly. Conversely, actors from Brian Cox to Mads Mikkelsen have had similarly celebrated stabs at Lecter.
In 1952, Marlon Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart
Who did Marlon Brando play? Stanley Kowalski, in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando’s star-making turn distilled the essence of Tennessee Williams’ working class anti-hero and sweated it through a tight white T-shirt.
Who did Humphrey Bogart play? Charlie Allnut, the rough-and-ready Canadian mechanic who leads floating adventure flick, The African Queen. It was Bogart’s second nomination (he should have won eight years earlier, for Casablanca).
Why did the wrong man win? Because Streetcar to Brando is what Casablanca is to Bogart. This win had shades of ‘he should have an Oscar’ to it — a little like when the Academy awarded Leonardo DiCaprio his Oscar two years after The Wolf of Wall Street.
In 2004, Bill Murray lost out to Sean Penn
Who did Bill Murray play? Bob Harris, in Sofia Coppola’s quietly incredible Lost in Translation. Starring as a fading American movie star bereft in Tokyo, Murray kimono-wraps up every idiosyncrasy and triviality of mid-life crises in a whisky-soaked corker of a performance.
Who did Sean Penn play? Jimmy Markum, the ex-convict proprietor of a neighbourhood convenience store in Mystic River. In an exceptional tale of revenge and repressed emotion, he forms one point of a central trio of tour-de-force performances.
Why did the wrong man win? It’s a close call, but Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River has a lot of story and strong scenes in which to showcase your chops; it’s a film that makes it slightly easier to win Best Actor. Lost in Translation tasked Murray with a trickier, subtler challenge — and yet he still excelled.
In 1959, Sidney Poitier lost out to David Niven
Who did Sidney Poitier play? Noah Cullen, a black prisoner who escapes while shackled to a white prisoner, played by Tony Curtis, in 1958 adventure drama The Defiant Ones. Curtis was also nominated for Best Actor. Both lost.
Who did David Niven play? Major Angus Pollock, the disgraced protagonist of Separate Tables — an adaptation of playwright Terrance Rattigan’s two one-act plays. The film was nominated for seven Oscars.
Why did the wrong man win? Because, though Poitier became the first black man to be awarded Best Actor five years later for Lilies of the Field, this — arguably also a better showcase for his acting skills — would have made the win all the more meaningful.
In 1986, Harrison Ford lost out to William Hurt
Who did Harrison Ford play? Detective Captain John Book, the lead of neo-noir crime drama Witness, and a role that could have been written for Ford. Gruff, but with subtle sympathetic, emotive touches, the iconic actor carries the film.
Who did William Hurt play? Luis Molina, a prisoner and convicted rapist in the challenging adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman. One of two characters that the narrative studies, Hurt plays off Raúl Juliá’s fellow inmate.
Why did the wrong man win? Because it takes a certain skill to imbue real character into an action drama — or more skill than it does in a hard-hitting two-hander. Ford’s portrayal of John Book became a blueprint; establishing genre rules for decades of screen detectives to come.
Want more big screen action? These are the top 10 greatest British actors of all time…
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