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The Best Performances to Not Win an Oscar

Updated November 20, 2019 22.6k votes 4.0k voters 134.5k views19 items

The actor is everything in film. Sure, the writer provides the words, and the director supplies the vision, but it's the actor who represents the characters and brings them to life. A bad acting performance can completely mar the best of dialogue, just as a superior performance can lift the most lifeless of words. We cherish the film actor, we revel in their celebrity, and often bathe in their beauty. However, there can only be one Academy Award winner for each category every year. This is a list of those other roles that weren't recognized, the best performances that did not win an Oscar.

This list is not about who should have won. No one is here to argue that Bradley Cooper should have beat out Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor in 2015. We're not taking anything away from Redmayne's brilliant depiction of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. But the fact that Cooper gave such an outstanding performance in American Sniper must be recognized. That's what this list is truly about. Call it Ranker’s list for acting redemption.

Some of the actors and actresses on this list, were not even nominated for Oscars. Their performance, for whatever reason, was not recognized by the finicky members of the Academy. Perhaps, it was because of genre bias? Both comedy and horror films rarely get the recognition they deserve. For example, most film buffs think that Jack Nicholson should have received a nod for his terrifying performance in The Shining and who can argue that Dustin Hoffman didn't turn in a perfect performance in Tootsie?

Let us know in the comments section if we missed any of your favorite big screen performances that failed to take home an Academy Award and be sure to vote up the performances below you think should be recognized for their outstanding quality, despite not winning on Oscar night.

  • The Role: "Stella! Stella!" Marlon Brando takes on the brutish Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize winning play. It was only Brando's second feature film role, but it was already clear that the method actor could show great range within a singular character. This would be the first of Brando's eight Oscar nominations (he won two).

    Winner for Best Actor in 1951: Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
    Was this Oscar worthy?
  • The Role: Orson Welles played larger-than-the-room, greedy newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in the 1941 classic. It was not only Welles's feature film debut as an actor, but it was also his directorial debut. Although Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made, the movie failed to win an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Actor (it was nominated for all those categories). Welles was only 26 years old when the film was released, but it would be the auteur's greatest achievement both on screen and behind the camera.

    Winner for Best Actor in 1941: Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
    Was this Oscar worthy?
  • The Role: Daniel Day-Lewis goes method on Bill "The Butcher" Cutting in Martin Scorsese's 2002 historical drama. Cutting is a barbarous and fierce villain, intent on keeping foreigners out of New York, during a time in the 1800s when America had its arms wide open. Lewis captures the character's ruthlessness in the dirty way he fights in the street, and in the calculating way he maneuvers politically. Despite not winning for this role, we shouldn't feel too bad for Lewis, who has been nominated for five Oscars, and taken home three.

    Winner for Best Actor in 2003: Adrien Brody, The Pianist

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  • The Role: Ellen Burstyn was quite a looker back in the day, which makes her turn as Sara Goldfarb in Darren Aronofsky's frightening look at four junkies, all the more impressive. Sara wants to look pretty for her supposed appearance on television. She finds herself a doctor who prescribes diet pills in the form of speed, and the senior citizen slowly loses her mind, and it's not pretty. In fact, in a film inundated with haunting images of self-destruction, it is Burstyn's take on a completely delusional train wreck that draws the most sympathy. The actress received a nod from the Academy for her performance. She took home an Oscar back in 1975 for her role as the titular character in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
    Winner for Best Actress in 2000: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
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