Peter O'Toole never won an Oscar. Nor did Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant or Vincent Price. That, right there, should tell you how flawed the awards have been, despite the best intentions of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As we barrel toward awards season and its annual slate of serious awards-bait films, we decided to remind you of 37 living actors you probably thought already had statues at home — and the roles they should have won them for.
Harrison Ford for
“Blade Runner” (1982)
“Subtle” isn’t a word you’d used to describe Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Both characters saunter through their films with a side-wink to the audience, and neither has a particularly complicated inner life (unless you consider “hating snakes” a neurosis). Ford’s starring turn in this sci-fi classic retains his signature cynicism, even his wry humor. But the central question — is his character Rick Deckard human or replicant? — required the star to flex a few new muscles, which he did with such finesse that fans still debate the answer. Yes, the academy tends to unfairly overlook the kind of genre films in which Ford shines. But in this instance, Ford transcended them entirely.
for “All is Lost” (2013)
The screenplay is a mere 31 pages, shorter than a traditional sitcom. The film features only Redford, as a single nameless character, dubbed in the credits as “our man.” He speaks a handful of words as his yacht begins to fill with water in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Yet you cannot pull your eyes off him. Redford was always considered more Handsome Movie Star than Great Actor — just watch how badly outacted he is by Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.” “All is Lost” makes a case that he simply never had the right material.
Samuel L. Jackson
for “Jungle Fever” (1991)
Jackson’s Gator Purify flies into this Spike Lee Joint like a hurricane. He’s a drug addict but a self-aware one, noting that he “really hate[s] knockin’ elderly people for their money” when begging his brother for cash. He caps it off with a song and dance about “I like getting high!” It’s hard not to love him, until his desperation kicks in and we see that his comic exterior hides an all-encompassing darkness. Jackson often portrays characters living on the thin line between light and dark, but never again did he fling between the two like a plucked rubber band.
Glenn Close for
“The Big Chill” (1983)
Look, she’s been nominated seven times and deserves about seven Oscars, if not more. At this point, it’s gone beyond tragic to just plain awkward for all of us. Think of how much angst we could have saved as a culture — that familiar misery of watching her deploy her thespian skills at the ceremony, clapping politely while someone else wins, yet again — if the academy had just given her a little supporting-actress trophy early on, maybe for one of her first two films, both of which earned her nods. Our vote is for her performance as Sarah, one of several old friends mourning the loss of their pal Alex. In a star-crowded movie, Close is its beating heart, displaying the full spectrum of grief in her limited screentime. From sobbing uncontrollably in a running shower to dancing joyfully with her friends to suffocating with guilt from her long-age affair with the deceased, Close proved she could do anything. And in the ensuing decades, she would. Maybe someone should give her a damn award for it?
Brad Pitt for
“Fight Club” (1999)
Some characters are icons, some performances are iconic — even if they’re misunderstood. Pitt as Tyler Durden fits both categories. The only thing more memorable than the image of his shirtless, chiseled Durden preparing for a fight is his citation of the first two rules of Fight Club. (Is there a line in recent history that's quoted more often?) Legions of frat bros and alt-right dudes have held up the character as the epitome of masculine cool; it takes many viewers a few rewatches to realize how much the story is actually mocking him. Toxic masculinity may be a buzzword of this era — but David Fincher and Pitt took on the concept two decades ago more concisely than any thinkpiece can manage.
for “Blue Valentine” (2010)
Ryan Gosling also gives a tremendous performances in a film witnessing the six-year journey from the joyous beginning to the rocky crumbling of a marriage. But it’s Williams who does the near-impossible: presenting the past and present versions of a character who hasn’t undergone much physical transformation but has matured so much she might as well be someone new. To do that without losing the thread sends an actor out on a tight rope without a safety net, yet Williams never stumbles once. Only the audience might, trying to walk away from the theater with teary eyes.
for “Beetlejuice” (1988)
The academy tends to reward quote-unquote serious acting, so there’s no way Keaton was even going to be considered for his turn as the goofy, schlocky, undead Betelgeuse. But it’s saying something that he doesn’t turn up until halfway through a movie named for his very character and then completely owns it. The walk, the voice, the clothes, the hair — it all came from Keaton trying to interpret Tim Burton’s vision, and, boy, is that a match made in heaven.
John Malkovich for
“Being John Malkovich” (1999)
There is no harder role than playing yourself, except maybe playing other people playing yourself. The dreamlike movie centers on office drones who find a secret portal into the idiosyncratic actor’s mind. At one point, Malkovich finds the portal into his own mind, bringing him into a restaurant in which every patron is Malkovich. There’s Malkovich in a tight pink dress seductively running a finger over his (her?) cleavage. There’s a trio of Euro-snob Malkoviches in tight black turtlenecks, laughing over wine glasses. There’s a besuited Malkovich feeding his date, a red-dress-clad Malkovich, a bite of his meal. There’s a lounge-singer Malkovich sprawled across a piano and singing, “Malkovich, Malkovich” — the only word in the language these Malkoviches speak. What more do you need to know? (Other than, uhh, how Pitt and Malkovich are both going to win for 1999?)
for “Dreamgirls” (2006)
Comics have a tough go of it in dramatic roles. Our familiarity with their stage personas often prevents us from suspending our disbelief. Murphy, though, disappeared completely into James “Thunder” Early, a composite of several R&B singers, most notably James Brown and Little Richard. He’s spirited on stage and morose off it, as he descends into the drug addiction that kills him. Murphy’s performance shocked audiences; producer John Davis watched five minutes of the movie and declared that “Eddie will definitely win the Oscar.” Put bluntly, he’s about as unforgettable as Alan Arkin was forgettable in “Little Miss Sunshine” — but the academy had flubbed so many opportunities to give the elder actor an Oscar he deserved that they decided to snub Murphy. Sorry, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
John Lithgow for
“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (1984)
Lithgow’s primary strength as an actor is range. Look at his portrayal of long-standing, slow-burning dedication in “Love is Strange,” or his take on an alien trying to understand humanity in “3rd Rock From the Sun,” or as a hardline preacher who can’t tolerate dancing in “Footloose.” At times he’s also, to use a colloquialism, realllllllly gone for it, like when he portrayed a man with multiple personalities in “Raising Cain.” That role bordered on parody, but his most extravagant performance was parody, as Lord John Whorfin/Dr. Emilio Lizardo in Earl Mac Rauch’s and W.D. Richter’s sci-fi sendup. To play the mad intergalactic doctor, Lithgow lifted an Italian accent from an MGM tailor and changed his walk to that of an “old crab, because my alien metabolism is supposed to be messed up,” he later explained. The bizarre result is a deeply committed performance that’s wildly over-the-top and a singular, hilarious character.
Mia Farrow for
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Talk about a master class in inner conflict. For a good portion of the movie, Farrow must portray the titular Rosemary Woodhouse as psychotic for thinking she was impregnated by a demon. Then, once it becomes clear she hasn’t lost her mind, she’s stuck between her maternal instincts and the knowledge that, yes, she is carrying Satan’s spawn. Throughout the movie, she acts with her wide, luminous eyes — always wet, from joy, fear, anger or sorrow. She twists and contorts her nightgown-clad body, signaling her submission to otherworldly evil. In doing so, she sets up a template that horror movie actors would follow for decades to come.
for “I’m Still Here” (2010)
Soooo, maybe it’s a lot to ask for the academy to reward an artistic statement that basically amounted to trolling. Dismayed that so many viewers fell for reality TV, Phoenix grew out a beard, became generally unkempt and announced his retirement from acting to become a rapper. For several months, he didn’t break character . . . ever. He’s a jerk throughout this sort-of-mockumentary, but damn if he isn’t committed. Watching David Letterman desperately try to pull something from him, or Ben Stiller trying to discuss a role for him in “Greenberg” only to learn Phoenix hasn’t read the script, is deeply uncomfortable — the Oscar is for acting, and there’s no denying Phoenix completely inhabits the role.
for “Fargo” (1996)
Everyone around him speaks in thick, Minnesotan accents, politeness hiding any untoward emotion. Not Buscemi’s Carl Showalter, the hit man who questions parking lot attendants about the “limits of your life, man.” For all his wisecracks, he’s ultimately a fool who underestimates everyone around him. Most people rightfully remember Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, the pregnant cop who won’t stop until the killings do. Carl is the other side of that coin. We might not like him, but the movie needs him.
Meg Ryan for “When Harry
Met Sally . . .” (1989)
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, the diner scene is unforgettable, a true pop-culture touchstone. But Ryan also created a character so indelible, people remember her sandwich order, know how she feels about air conditioning and can recite her sex dreams from memory. Sally feels like a longtime friend, one we never tire of seeing, the kind of presence most actors require multiple seasons of a sitcom to achieve.
Jim Carrey for
“Man on the Moon” (1999)
The comic once known for absurdist slapstick so fully wanted to become Andy Kaufman for this biopic, he famously refused to break character through the entire production. This created such a disruption on set that the studio reportedly refused to release behind-the-scenes footage. It later surfaced in the Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy,” which witnesses the process of Carrey ceasing to exist, as he puts it. The transformation is so complete, at times you forget you’re watching one of the most famous comedians of our time and instead truly believe you’re watching one of the most controversial. It’s too bad Carrey didn’t, you know, exist during its filming, because if he had, he certainly would have deserved the statue. (Uhh, you know, along with Pitt and Malkovich.)
John Goodman for
“The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Goodman’s hot-tempered Vietnam vet Walter carries a pistol to the bowling alley, doesn’t roll on Shabbos, isn’t fond of talking to Donny and knows how to get a toe, if that’s what you need, dude. The Coen brothers created many characters for the hulking actor over the years, but none as quotable as Walter. It’s the way he starts his sentences at a normal tone before breaking into screaming fits that always manage to circle back to ’Nam. “The Chinaman is not the issue here, dude! I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, dude, across this line you do not,” he barks, before abruptly reverting to his indoor voice. “Also, dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. ‘Asian American,’ please.” Almost every one of his line readings deserves an Oscar. Just try to read this quote and not hear it in his voice: “This is not ’Nam, this is bowling — there are rules.”
Tom Cruise for “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018)
The academy historically rewards great physical feats — the loss or gain of pounds in the three digits; the mastery of a previously unknown skill such as dancing or boxing; or just plain going full Method. So why doesn’t Tom Cruise have an Oscar? Here’s a brief rundown of stunts he has personally performed for the “Mission: Impossible” movies: holding his breath underwater through a 6½ -minute swimming/fighting sequence; dangling from the side of an Airbus in takeoff; scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower. For “Fallout” alone, he flew through the streets of Paris at 100-plus mph on a motorbike, performed 106 high-altitude free-falls (with a broken ankle!) and learned how to fly a helicopter in six weeks so he could confidently maneuver it through a narrow canyon. In doing so, he made the century’s best action movie. What’s he gotta do to win an Oscar — learn to pilot a spacecraft? That’s probably on tap for the next movie, to be honest.
Rosie Perez for
“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
She deserves an Oscar for the whole movie. She deserves an Oscar for “Fearless.” Hell, she deserves an Oscar for serving on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS under Barack Obama, if they gave that sort of thing out. But, really, she deserves one for her first 3 minutes and 47 seconds of screen time, during which she dances to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” as the opening credits roll. She’s pure energy, a combination of anger and joy — punching the air (in a boxing outfit at one point), fiercely throwing her body around and mugging unapologetically into the camera. Music usually adds emotional immediacy to scenes, but here Perez adds emotional immediacy to the music, summing up the entire film before it even begins.
for “Platoon” (1986)
The film will always be defined by the scene of Dafoe running toward the chopper, toward freedom, gunfire slamming into his back, the bird heading skyward, as the final bullets slice through his Sgt. Elias, who throws his hands up in anguish. But the one that should earn him the Oscar comes earlier, as Tom Berenger’s Barnes holds a pistol to a Vietnamese toddler’s head. When Elias stumbles upon the scene, we see his body go rigid, shock catching in his throat for an instant before he screams and slams Barnes in the face with his rifle butt. But what sells the scene is Dafoe’s eyes, huge and manic and furious and utterly defeated, when he yells to another character, “Lieutenant, why the f--- didn’t you do something?”
Emily Watson for
“Hilary and Jackie” (1998)
So let’s get this straight. Gwyneth Paltrow beats out Emily Watson for an Oscar at 26 years old, for her turn in a costume drama (“Shakespeare in Love”) — meanwhile Watson is snubbed for, oh, I dunno, her ENTIRE CAREER? You people are good with this? Yeah, didn’t think so. Throw a dart at Watson’s IMDb page, and you’ll hit a movie that should have earned her a statue. The bull’s eye is her descent as Jacqueline du Pré from master cellist into a jealous sister and bitter musician, who eventually succumbs to multiple sclerosis. Rarely has an actor poured so much raw passion into what could be an uptight period piece. But, as this list shows, it’s definitely not rare for the academy to snub a glorious performance.
John C. Reilly for “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007)
That an Oscar statue doesn’t decorate the mantle of John C. Reilly’s home should be the cause for congressional hearings. Name another actor who could exemplify quiet yearning (“Hard Eight”), murderous vengeance (“Gangs of New York”) and slapstick stupidity (“Step Brothers”), not to mention singing and dancing like the Broadway pro he is in “Chicago.” Go on, I’ll give you a minute. Despite having a résumé that looks like a mash-up of three separate thespians, it’s his most unlikely role that stands above the rest: Dewey Cox in “Walk Hard,” a sendup of music biopics. It’s not just his commitment to the role; it’s how he fully became Cox. He didn’t just write the satirical songs such as “Let’s Duet,” “Hole in My Pants” and “Weeping on the Inside,” nor simply play the instruments while singing — he went on a countrywide tour as Cox. Talk about Method.
Jeff Daniels for “The Squid
and the Whale” (2005)
A pretentious yet failed novelist, a terrible father and deceitful husband, a professor who seduces his impressionable students, a generally awful person. That’s Daniels’s Bernard Berkman in a nutshell, yet somehow he suffuses the character at the center of Noah Baumbach’s divorce with true pathos. Is it the puppy-dog eyes Daniels flashes every time he knows he’s being a jerk? Is it that sad-dad, salt-and-pepper beard he sports? Is it the way he feigns excitement over his sparse new bachelor pad? Whatever it is, he makes you feel sorry for the guy who deserves no sympathy.
Amy Adams for
“The Master” (2012)
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix get most of the big, explosive, emotionally propulsive scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, but Adams’s Peggy Dodd, spouse to Hoffman’s California cult leader, has the harder job. She’s the puppet master, the Lady Macbeth calling the shots behind the scenes. Meanwhile, she must present a happy, subservient face in public. Adams achieves the dichotomy through a certain stillness, that of an animal taking everything in and ready to pounce whenever needed, emotions merely flickering across her eye, caught only by the audience.
Debra Winger for
“Urban Cowboy” (1980)
Not every Oscar performance has to be transformative; not every Oscar character must be facing destitution or dying of a terminal illness. What makes Winger’s breakout performance so striking is how little it feels like a performance at all. As she falls for John Travolta’s cowboy, then begins bucking against his outdated views on gender roles, we’re fooled into thinking we’re just watching Winger be herself — which might not seem like Oscar-worthy praise, until you consider how few other actors pull off such a feat.
Matt Damon for “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)
BEFORE YOU SAY ANYTHING — look, yeah, we get what’s happening here. We’re running out of statues because we’re giving them to four different actors from 1999. But it was a damn good movie year! The Oscars are a bogus construct anyway, so we’re gonna do what we want. (God knows the academy does.) Plus, if acting is a process of transforming into someone else, what is it when an actor transforms into someone who is transforming into someone else? That’s the trick of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which finds a young Damon-as-Ripley idolizing, murdering and assuming the identity of Dickie Greenleaf, a cooler, handsomer friend. Damon plays Ripley as a young man growing in confidence — and Ripley-as-Greenleaf as supremely at ease — but watch his lips, quick to quiver when he feels threatened, betraying a deep-seated fragility that is often the first sign that he’s about to extinguish someone’s life. Good for Damon for making the leap a couple of years later into lucrative action-adventure work with the Bourne franchise, which frankly doesn’t require a Ripley level of nuanced acting — but too bad for us.
Liam Neeson for
“Schindler’s List” (1993)
Though Neeson wasn’t particularly pleased with his acting in this role — he claimed he was micromanaged by Steven Spielberg — pretty much the rest of the moviegoing public was. It’s become easy to dismiss the film all these years later, due in no small part to “Seinfeld” using it as a punchline. But it’s one of the true masterpieces of our time, with great credit to Neeson. His brilliance comes from portraying Schindler not as a pure-hearted hero but as the conniving swindler he was, a lustful gambling boozehound who originally employed Jews because they were cheaper and ends up with a commitment to save them. Never does he say any of this, but after 184 minutes, there’s no questioning it. (Plus, he sure as hell isn’t winning for “Taken 6.”)
Angela Bassett for “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” (1993)
Know who thinks Angela Bassett deserved an Oscar for her turn as Tina Turner? Angela Bassett, who said so in 2018. Guess what? She was right. Portraying a real person is a bit of an Oscar-bait cliche, but Bassett is utterly electric when she’s onstage. Offstage, her Turner is a mouse, wide-eyed and lost in the world of record contracts and abusive managers turned lovers. Watching that transition occur seamlessly again and again, from suicide attempts to soaring ballads, is watching a master at work.
Ed Norton for
“American History X” (1998)
With a large black swastika tattooed on his chiseled chest and a pleased sneer on his lips after shooting and curb-stomping a pair of black men in the opening of the film, Norton’s Derek Vinyard is a vivid embodiment of the frightening philosophy we often see on the news today, without the camouflage of khakis and polos and tiki torches. What made the performance Oscar-worthy, however, is the way Norton carried the audience from a place of pure contempt to surprising empathy for Vinyard after he’s reformed by a three-year jail stint.
Don Cheadle for
“Hotel Rwanda” (2004)
Ever since “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Out of Sight,” we’ve known Cheadle as an explosive actor — sometimes manic, sometimes hilarious, always an enormous presence. Unfortunately, these towering performances were generally just not in the kind of movies they give Oscars for. Until, damnit, Cheadle went all in for a film about the Rwandan massacre. He did everything the academy loves: took on a challenging historical subject; dialed back the charisma and acted with his face as much as his body; adopted an accent and nailed it; portrayed a quietly noble hero — no guns blazing, just an extremely competent hotel manager. And yet he was snubbed. Now that he’s moved into his superhero-flicks-and-prestige-TV phase, it seems the academy may well have missed its window with him. Well, the academy’s got no one to blame but itself.
Diane Lane for
Critics often bandy about the term “brave” — a generally nonsensical description that just means the actors did their jobs. As telegraphed by the title, Lane plays a seemingly happy suburban wife who meets a young Frenchman in SoHo and launches into a passionate affair. Lane is almost always atremble — be it with erotic joy, suffocating guilt, tingling exultation or crushing self-loathing. Sometimes she expresses all of these in a single scene. In other words, she plays it like a human would truthfully experience it. Most actors would focus only on the remorse, but to show she actually enjoyed the affair — that’s brave acting.
for “A Star is Born” (1976)
Everyone fussed so much about Bradley Cooper grumbling his way through the fourth iteration of this movie last year, as if no one noticed that he borrowed his entire shtick from Kristofferson’s version. It’s easy to point out that being a musician certainly helped him play one, but that doesn’t detract from his looseness as the increasingly drunk John Norman Howard or his convincing ardor for Barbra Streisand, despite a dire lack of chemistry.
John Travolta for
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Decades had passed since his glorious dancing days in “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever”; before he met Quentin Tarantino, he was appearing in the latest iteration of the “Look Who’s Talking” franchise. But with his role as Vincent Vega, he was back — not only riffing on his former persona but reinventing himself in the process. No, Oscars shouldn’t go to actors just for rehabilitating their careers, but they should go to actors who can explain what Quarter Pounders are called in France so charismatically that even those with the slightest interest in movies can recall it a quarter-century later. Anyway, let’s be honest: He ain’t winning for anything else these days.
for “The Matrix” (1999)
Most movies include an expository character, the one who exists primarily to explain the story, particularly if that story comes with complicated, otherworldly elements. The trick is how to give that character an inkling of depth. Fishburne’s task isn’t an easy one, as he’s shrouded in dark sunglasses and leather while uttering massive amounts of pseudo-philosophical gobbledygook. But he uses that deep baritone and his inherent gravitas to ensnare us, to invite the inevitable question: Just who is this guy? Instead of laughing, we’re intrigued. Most important, we buy into his character — so much so that we aren’t even surprised when he handily kicks Keanu Reeves’s butt. Yeah, yeah, it’s from 1999 again, but in this case Fishburne can have the supporting actor trophy for himself.
Annette Bening for
“20th Century Women” (2016)
Wanna hear a joke? Hilary Swank has two Oscars. Wanna hear a better one? She beat out the goddess Annette Bening FOR BOTH OF THEM. Maybe Bening kept that in mind when approaching her character here. Duty, loneliness and restrained joy make up the core of Bening’s Dorothea, a single mom that co-star Greta Gerwig described as “glorious and complicated and sexy and loving and mistake-filled . . . everything that humans are.” We couldn’t have put it better. At one point, Dorothea tells her son, “You don’t know what I feel.” She’s not what one could call open, but her face is a canvas, transmitting the shadows of life’s spectrum of emotion, leaving their interpretation up to the audience.
Ralph Fiennes for
“A Bigger Splash” (2015)
There’s a scene in the film in which Fiennes, wearing swim trunks and an unbuttoned short-sleeve shirt, dances almost manically to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” The top comment on YouTube is that it’s the “very best thing that has even been filmed in any film ever.” It’s difficult to disagree. The actor has played a lifetime of dour roles — Voldemort, anyone? — yet here, amid a proper drama, as Harry Hawkes, a man desperate for the past, he’s pure electricity, twisting his tan form throughout the movie like a charmed snake, all while thinking of himself as snake charmer. That he’s a pathological predator only adds another layer. Not many saw Luca Guadagnino’s steamy picture. Here’s hoping this piece will change that.
for “M*A*S*H” (1970)
How the hell is he even on this list? Seriously. Dude has never even been nominated for an Oscar. Hasn’t the academy even heard of “The Dirty Dozen”? Or “Don’t Look Now”? Or “Klute”? How ’bout “Casanova”? Do these people watch movies? Look: Alan Alda’s wacky, wisecracking version of Hawkeye Pierce became one of TV’s most famous sitcom characters, but forgetting Sutherland’s original take on one of America’s most vital characters in Robert Altman’s film is a grave mistake. He was responsible for the martini-drinking, wisecracking doctor who often crossed the line (because war is hell), all while saving lives in the process. His ability to show both the humanity and inhumanity of war helped launch one of the most popular sitcoms in history and created a character that lives on in our collective memory. Yet the spineless academy waited until he was 82 to give him their version of a mea culpa: an honorary Oscar.
Robert Downey Jr. for
“Tropic Thunder” (2008)
“I’m a dude, playin’ a dude, disguised as another dude.” So says Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, the fictional five-time Oscar-winning Australian actor who undergoes “pigmentation alteration” surgery to darken his skin for a role as a black soldier in the big-budget war film within this scathing Hollywood sendup. To see Downey Jr. in blackface in 2008 was shocking, but even more shocking was how uncontroversial it proved to be. The character takes the idea of Method acting beyond its extreme, cuttingly satirizing many of the Serious Actors who have won Oscars. The award would have been an admission that, you know what, maybe Hollywood does take itself a little too seriously.