One of the most popular criticisms lobbed at the Academy is that its members frequently choose the wrong performances by the right people. Sometimes this means “atoning” for a past oversight by rewarding weaker later work; other times, it means bestowing praise upon a more palatable but less adventurous turn from an actor otherwise too edgy for AMPAS. But how often do these kind of right-place, wrong-time mistakes occur? Below, we’ve singled out 11 performers (with 12 more to come tomorrow) who won statuettes for one movie but really deserved it for another. We’ve also highlighted the truly worthy work—made before or after the win—that failed to snag them the big Oscar prize.
1. John Wayne, True Grit
John Wayne was one of the greatest limited-range actors to ever grace a screen—a big guy with a catlike gait and a sing-song cadence, who could be credibly pathetic or fearsome, sensitive or hard-edged, charismatic or standoffish, all the while never coming across as anyone other than John Wayne. Wayne’s iconic work with John Ford and Howard Hawks never earned him as much as a nomination; instead, he won the Oscar for his self-deprecating turn as one-eyed marshal-for-hire Rooster Cogburn in the original True Grit. It remains one of the definitive legacy Oscars, the American Western’s most iconic leading man winning Best Actor for a comic role, well after the genre had passed into its sunset years.
What he should have won for: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Wings Of Eagles, Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, Fort Apache, Red River, Rio Bravo, El Dorado—pretty much any time Wayne was in front of the camera and either Ford or Hawks was behind it would qualify. For an off-kilter choice, you could argue in favor of his supporting role as an oafish Swedish sailor in Ford’s The Long Voyage Home—one of his few genuinely actorly performances. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
2. Al Pacino, Scent Of A Woman
As an actor, Al Pacino excels at two different modes: the quiet, haunting intensity that made him so compelling in The Godfather and Serpico, and the scenery-chomping, over-the-top gusto that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him in Dick Tracy and Scarface. Scent Of A Woman’s embittered, alcoholic Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade—the performance that finally netted Pacino an Oscar after seven unsuccessful lead and supporting nominations—falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes; Slade is neither as moving as Michael Corleone nor as entertaining as Big Boy. And while Pacino’s performance is easily the best thing about the film (give or take a young Philip Seymour Hoffman), his “Hoo-ah!” catchphrase has become a punchline—a perfect example of the histrionic tendencies that have dominated much of his latter-day work.
What he should have won for: The downfall of Michael Corleone is one of cinema’s greatest tragic arcs, and Pacino’s work in either of the first two Godfather films should have netted him a trophy. [Les Chappell]
3. Jeremy Irons, Reversal Of Fortune
When Jeremy Irons won Best Actor for his portrayal of Claus Von Bulow in 1991’s Reversal Of Fortune, he reserved part of his speech for someone who had no official involvement in the film itself. “Thank you also—and some of you may understand why—thank you, David Cronenberg,” he said toward the end of his remarks, and those who had been following his career up until that point did understand. A few years earlier, Irons had delivered a dual performance as twin gynecologists losing their minds in Cronenberg’s brilliant, disturbing psychodrama Dead Ringers. Managing, through mannerisms alone, to create an instantly recognizable distinction between the two characters, Irons earned widespread acclaim for Dead Ringers but no Oscar nomination. By referencing the film while accepting an award for a different film, Irons may have been expressing his gratitude to Cronenberg for helping him become a sharper, more confident performer. Maybe, however, he was just saying what plenty of others were thinking: that a win for his eccentric, tic-heavy performance in Reversal Of Fortune was really a “make up” award for the great work the Academy had inexplicably ignored.
What he should have won for: Dead Ringers, which is not just Irons’ best piece of acting, but one of the great performances of the last three decades. [A.A. Dowd]
4. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
There are few Oscar narratives more potent than a comeback, and there are few recent comebacks as impressive as the one Matthew McConaughey has mounted over the past three years. McConaughey’s initial strategy involved taking supporting or co-lead parts in eclectic and often smaller-scale projects, which means that of his nine film roles since the dawn of the McConaissance, only three have been unequivocal leads. It makes sense, then, that McConaughey would receive his award/reward for Dallas Buyers Club, a biopic that benefits from its deeply felt performances. But McConaughey does more inventive work in, well, almost every other movie he’s been in since 2011. He may have returned to his serious-actor roots, but in films like Killer Joe and Mud, he’s also crazy charismatic (or, sometimes, crazy and charismatic)—something Dallas Buyers Club exploits but fails to deepen.
What he should have won for: McConaughey was in the awards conversation back in 2012 for his supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. He didn’t ultimately make the final five, but his stripper-in-chief Dallas is just about the perfect role to encapsulate his newly perfected mix of honeyed charm, unusual line readings, and gravitas. [Jesse Hassenger]
5. Juliette Binoche, The English Patient
Juliette Binoche may be the most celebrated actress on the entire planet, having won an Oscar, a BAFTA, a César, three European Film Awards, and the Best Actress prize at three prestigious festivals—Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. The widespread acclaim is well earned: Film to film, Binoche exudes an almost unparalleled authenticity and confidence, and for all the great directors she’s worked with—a list that includes everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Hou Hsiao-Hsien to Krzysztof Kieślowski—she’s also capable of acquitting herself nicely when plunked down into something less high-brow. (Just look at the impression she makes with just a couple of scenes in last summer’s Godzilla.) So when we say that she claimed that aforementioned Oscar for the wrong film, that’s less of a slam on the winning performance—her perfectly commendable supporting turn as the nurse Hana in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient—than an acknowledgement that Binoche has a much worthier body of work from which to choose. Many of those movies, however, are in French instead of English, which pretty much rules them out of the Academy’s selection pool.
What she should have won for: Take your pick. We’re partial to Certified Copy, which is specifically about the value of imitation—a case made beautifully by Binoche’s impassioned, layered performance. [A.A. Dowd]
6. Jessica Lange, Tootsie
The 1983 Oscar ceremony looked like it was going to be dominated for once by a comedy: Tootsie, featuring Dustin Hoffman’s groundbreaking and realistic transformation into a soap-opera actress. The film received 10 nominations, including a few for actresses Jessica Lange and Teri Garr in the supporting category. Garr, the true supporting player, was in one of those “the nomination is the award” situations, but Lange’s appearance in the category was a sham. She was Hoffman’s co-star, not the supporting actress, even though her part didn’t consist of much more than portraying the object of Hoffman’s affections. But Lange had a great acting year; her more revelatory role was the dynamic and unstable Frances Farmer in Frances, a performance for which she received a Best Actress nomination (making her the first person to be nominated in two categories since 1942). And as everyone expected the unstoppable Meryl Streep to win Best Actress for her wrenching turn in Sophie’s Choice, Lange got the sympathy trophy for Best Supporting. It turned out be Tootsie’s only Oscar.
What she should have won for: Lange is breathtaking in Frances—high-spirited, uninhibitedly riveting at the beginning of the film, worn down and institutionalized by the end. Perhaps there could have been a tie that year? [Gwen Ihnat]
7. Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins
Of the five Oscars Mary Poppins won, Julie Andrews’ Best Actress trophy may be the most perplexing. Although she deftly and gamely brought the famous nanny to life in her film debut, dancing with animated penguins and taking Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent seriously, most consider her award the ultimate consolation prize for not getting the film debut she really wanted: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Although Andrews had owned this role onstage (and even put off accepting the Mary Poppins part because she, like everyone else, thought she was a shoo-in for My Fair Lady), the studio decided to go with a better-known quantity for Eliza, hiring Audrey Hepburn. Andrews even cheekily thanked Jack Warner in her Golden Globe acceptance speech, implying that his not hiring her enabled her to accept her award-winning role in Poppins. The ultimate revenge: Hepburn did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role in My Fair Lady, which won Best Picture and Best Actor that year.
What she should have won for: Andrews played a woman playing a man playing a woman in Victor Victoria, as her multi-octave singing won over handsome James Garner in a series of drag musical numbers. Her husband Blake Edwards directed her into the most impressive and fun performance of her career. Unfortunately, this was in the overcrowded 1982 film field that included the aforementioned Streep and Lange. Three-way tie? [Gwen Ihnat]
8. James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy
A song-and-dance man whom everyone preferred as a guns-and-dames guy, James Cagney spent much his career trying to outrun the gangster films that had turned him into a living cartoon. He got there, sometimes, by starring in Busby Berkeley films and playing war heroes. But Cagney was happiest with his role as a rah-rah music man in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the Academy agreed. Still, while Cagney the veteran vaudevillian may have felt right at home tap-dancing through a big, splashy musical full of WWII-era patriotic fervor, his greatest acting performances remain those cocksure criminals, among the most electrifying ever committed to film.
What he should have won for: Either his petty and vindictive momma’s boy in The Public Enemy or his twisted and psychopathic momma’s boy in White Heat; both remain high-water marks for playing a villain the audience can’t help but root for. [Sean O’Neal]
9. Kate Winslet, The Reader
Before taking home her first Academy Award for playing a secretive German woman with a dark past in 2009’s The Reader, Kate Winslet had been nominated five times in the lead and supporting categories, for worthy performances in films as varied as the 1996 Jane Austen adaptation Sense And Sensibility and the off-kilter Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman science-fiction romance Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Given all the memorable work Winslet could’ve won for, it’s a shame that her lone Oscar is for a mopey turn in a middling historical drama so nondescript that even when the ceremony’s host Hugh Jackman sang about it during his opening number, his lyrics were, “The Reader… I haven’t seen The Reader.”
What she should have won for: In the fairest possible world, Winslet would’ve been recognized for playing a teenage murderess in her 1994 debut film, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. [Noel Murray]
10. Paul Newman, The Color Of Money
Paul Newman’s Best Actor win for Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money would make sense as an honorary “overdue for past performances” sort of award—except he’d been given an honorary Oscar for precisely that, only one year earlier. As such, the Color triumph feels like a doubling down on Newman, proof that he could still win purely for a performance, and not as a pity party. Unfortunately, the Academy chose a role that didn’t exactly require Newman to stretch. His “Fast Eddie” Felson already knows who he is, and is mostly directed toward molding another character, Tom Cruise’s Vincent Lauria, into a world-class hustler. All of which just pointed out how much more impressive Newman’s performance was when he played the character the first time, in 1961’s The Hustler.
What he should have won for: Cool Hand Luke goes without saying, so we’ll mention 1982’s The Verdict, where the dignity with which he imbued bitter alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin sent Sidney Lumet’s film soaring. [Alex McCown]
11. Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8
Not even Elizabeth Taylor liked Butterfield 8. According to legend, Taylor declared the 1960 drama a stinker; after hearing of its success, she told the press she hated her character, a promiscuous Manhattan model. But Taylor got the statue anyway, in part because she was already an industry veteran without an Oscar at that point in her career. A slew of great parts—including three consecutively nominated turns in Raintree County, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly, Last Summer—had gone unrewarded. Taylor would later (and correctly) win for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but Butterfield 8 remains a head-scratcher.
What she should have won for: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is Taylor at her finest: oozing sexy confidence to mask underlying vulnerabilities and inner rage. [Molly Eichel]