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? Yesterday, we singled out 11 performers who won statuettes for one movie but really deserved it for another; today we add 12 more. We’ve also highlighted the truly worthy work—made before or after the win—that failed to snag them the big Oscar prize.
1. Reese Witherspoon, Walk The Line
One factor has helped prevent Reese Witherspoon’s excellent performance in Wild from dominating this year’s Best Actress predictions: the fact that she won just under a decade ago for playing June Carter Cash in Walk The Line. It’s a hard performance to disdain; there’s something satisfying about an Oscar-bait biopic losing its hoped-for Best Actor Oscar (albeit to Capote, another biopic) while claiming Best Actress for what’s usually a nothing role—the strong and patient woman behind the legendary musician. It would have been even more satisfying, though, had Witherspoon managed to win the award for a movie that placed her steely resolve in a real lead. Walk The Line is a perfectly respectable movie, and Witherspoon gives a fine performance in it, but it’s far from her most indelible work, which tends to have some kind of comic edge.
What she should have won for: Witherspoon wasn’t Oscar-nominated for 1999’s Election, but her hilarious, sad, and frightening turn as Tracy Flick, the obsessive candidate for student body president, continues to inform her career. It’s a seething, satirical tour de force with real feeling behind it. [Jesse Hassenger]
2. Nicole Kidman, The Hours
Nicole Kidman’s Academy Award for The Hours was certainly well-timed. In 2001, she had a watershed year, starring in the elegant horror hit The Others and snagging a Best Actress nomination for Moulin Rouge!, in which she added musical melodrama to her list of genre accomplishments. When she played Virginia Woolf a year later in Stephen Daldry’s turgid, Woolf-centric The Hours—with a fake nose, no less!—her coronation was assured. But while Kidman is typically excellent in The Hours, her barely leading work in that drag of a movie is more notable for what it allowed her to do afterward: keep picking weird, sometimes abrasive films like Birth, Margot At The Wedding, and Dogville, all of which are more memorable than the one that gave her the leeway to make them.
What she should have won for: Kidman’s career is rich in awards-worthy performances, both nominated (Rabbit Hole) and not (To Die For). But to keep her career on the same basic trajectory, she could have just won a year earlier, for her outsized work in Moulin Rouge!. Her Golden Globe win in the Comedy/Musical category for that film provides a wonderful alternate history of performances too interesting for Oscar, as she beat out Thora Birch from Ghost World and fellow future Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon… for Legally Blonde. [Jesse Hassenger]
3. Paul Muni, The Story Of Louis Pasteur
Paul Muni was one of the most commanding actors of the early sound era, playing sympathetic crooks and luckless working stiffs of varying ethnicities. By the mid-1930s, Muni’s versatility and gravitas made him a go-to lead for big-budget biopics and literary adaptations, starting with 1936’s The Story Of Louis Pasteur—one of the first of Hollywood’s “watch a great man prove his genius” prestige pictures. Muni is very good as the 19th-century French chemist, capturing the passion, vision, and wit of a man who realized that microscopic bacteria could be deadly. But his win set a bad precedent, proving that actors would have to leave their pulpier pasts behind and get classy before the Academy would take them seriously.
What he should have won for: Muni had one heck of a 1932, starring in Scarface and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, two of the best crime stories from the genre’s best decade. He was nominated for the latter—his most essential performance. [Noel Murray]
4. George Clooney, Syriana
“All right, so I’m not winning Director,” George Clooney quipped while accepting the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his 2005 performance as a veteran CIA agent in the convoluted Syriana. Even the Cloonster knew he was claiming a consolation prize—not just for co-writing and directing the same year’s Good Night, And Good Luck, but also for an increasingly respectable body of Hollywood headlining gigs. He’s fine in Syriana, sporting some extra weight, a bushy beard, and very little of the slickster charm that got him onto the A-list. (The Academy loves a departure.) But “morose” isn’t really Clooney’s speed; Oscar would have been wiser to honor one of his effortless, soulful star turns or the wild comic risks he took for the Coen brothers. He’s just more convincing flashing those pearly whites than grimacing in agony while getting his fingernails pulled off.
What he should have won for: Clooney still hasn’t topped his work as a love-struck thief in 1998’s Out Of Sight; the hotel-bar seduction scene alone should have secured him a nomination, if not a win. [A.A. Dowd]
5. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
By the early ’50s, Humphrey Bogart had dominated the screen for about a decade, but was getting up in years. Perhaps Oscar voters weren’t sure how many films Bogie had left in him when they gave him the Best Actor award for The African Queen, his successful 1952 color effort with Katherine Hepburn. As Charlie Allnut, he takes Hepburn on an adventure-filled trip down the river through Uganda; on location, he and director John Huston drank only whiskey to avoid dysentery. (In protest, Hepburn drank only water, and got extremely ill.) Only the sentimentality of Oscar voters could have led Bogart’s portrayal of this drunken Canadian ship’s captain (complete with unfortunate accent) to defeat newcomer Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
What he should have won for: In the early ’40s, Bogart was transitioning from playing heavies and gangsters in movies like The Petrified Forest to detectives so hard-boiled they could be rolled on the White House lawn (as Dorothy Parker put it), including the iconic Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. But 1942’s Casablanca turned this unconventional leading man into the ultimate romantic anti-hero, as loner Rick runs his café and bravely faces his lost love. There’s never been a movie or a performance like it, before or since. [Gwen Ihnat]
6. Simone Signoret, Room At The Top
A commanding presence who could, by turns, be earthy or icy, Simone Signoret was one of the defining French actors of the ’50s and ’60s. The daughter of a League Of Nations interpreter, Signoret tutored English before becoming an actress, and though her Oscar-winning role in Jack Clayton’s all-but-forgotten 1959 British drama Room At The Top showcased an actor who could have easily crossed over into Hollywood stardom, it pales in comparison to the work she did in her native language.
What she should have won for: Signoret was never better than in her role as Mathilde in Jean-Pierre Melville’s grim French Resistance drama Army Of Shadows, though the film wasn’t distributed in American until 2006, over two decades after Signoret’s death. Her breakout role in Jacques Becker’s Casque D’Or would be just as fitting. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
7. Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
After a fallow period in which the Cockney Adonis was content to cash checks for the likes of Jaws: The Revenge or On Deadly Ground, Hollywood couldn’t help but be relieved to see Caine going respectable in a prestige picture like 1999’s John Irving adaptation The Cider House Rules. But while Caine does fine work as an ether-addicted doctor who runs an orphanage and mentors orphan Tobey Maguire to take over his practice, the role never pushes Caine out of his stock-in-trade: steely resolve with a thin veneer of genteel kindness.
What he should have won for: Caine’s real return from the wilderness was the previous year’s Little Voice, in which he plays a down-at-heel nightclub promoter who tries to push a shy singing prodigy onto the stage. [Mike Vago]
8. Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges had four Academy Award nominations (for The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, Starman, and The Contender) under his belt before his performance as haggard country singer Otis “Bad” Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart finally netted him an Oscar. But all of those roles only scratched the surface of this Hollywood lifer’s career, which began when he was just two years old. While Bridges is characteristically great as Bad Blake, the award seemed like more of a gimme for a life lived on screen than recognition for one particular role. In fact, his Crazy Heart win may have screwed him out of an award for a more deserving performance in the following year’s True Grit.
What he should have won for: While comedies are are rarely given their due at the Oscars, there are few characters as indelible as The Dude. [Molly Eichel]
9. Frank Sinatra, From Here To Eternity
It’s almost hard to imagine from today’s perspective, but Frank Sinatra was in dire straits in the early ’50s. His career floundering, Sinatra yearned for serious film roles after a string of light movie musicals. He saw the part of Maggio in the 1953 Pearl Harbor epic From Here To Eternity as his comeback and campaigned hard to get it. Urban legend tells us that Sinatra’s mob ties clinched the gig for him (remember the horse head in The Godfather?), but the singer was so desperate to play the Italian Maggio, the studio was actually able to hire him at cut-rate Sinatra prices. He then rode Eternity’s blockbuster coattails to his only Oscar win as Best Supporting Actor.
What he should have won for: Sinatra doesn’t do much more than drink, wear Hawaiian shirts, and fight with Fatso (Ernest Borgnine) in From Here To Eternity. But his Oscar offered a lot of leverage, and after his win, he was back on track. His 1955 followup, The Man With The Golden Arm, proved that the star’s award was no fluke, as he brought Nelson Algren’s drug-addicted musician to life in a bleak but unforgettable performance, backed by an amazing jazz score. [Gwen Ihnat]
10. Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou
Lee Marvin is so emblematic of rough-hewn, rotgut-fueled machismo, it’s strange that his only Oscar win was for a movie that satirized that. His dual turn in 1965’s musical comedy Cat Ballou, as both a drunken gunfighter angling for redemption and his cartoon-esque evil twin, riffed on tough-guy characters he’d established in various war dramas and Westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and Oscar loves to reward playing against type. But while Marvin’s performance remains an all-in delight (even if he credited half of it to his horse), the film its in only grows cornier with age. Suffice to say it’s not anywhere near the one he’ll be remembered for—at least, outside of the Academy.
What he should have won for: Marvin’s other turn as a drunk that year—as the failed, bitter baseball player in Stanley Kramer’s Ship Of Fools—would have made a worthy Supporting Actor nod, though he was never better than as the cynical leader of a group of Army rejects in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. [Sean O’Neal]
11. Denzel Washington, Training Day
Even at the time, there were murmurs from the film press that Denzel Washington’s Best Actor win at the 2001 Academy Awards was an “apology Oscar.” It’s not that the film he won for—Antoine Fuqua’s grittily entertaining Training Day—was a bad movie. In fact, Training Day is great, a twisty cop thriller that nicely handles the trick of keeping the audience guessing for a good long time about whether Washington’s Detective Alonzo Harris is a good cop with bad methods or a rampaging psychopath. And there’s nothing wrong with Washington’s performance, either—it’s equal parts bombastic and intense, forcibly jovial and coldly menacing. But it was also a performance that Washington could give in his sleep, despite the interesting edges of panic he allows into Harris’ face as the film progresses. Denzel had spent the dozen since his Supporting Actor win for Glory putting out consistently fantastic acting and being consistently ignored for the big award. Clearly, members of the Academy felt it was time to make up for past mistakes.
What he should have won for: You can find an argument for why Al Pacino shouldn’t have won an Oscar for 1992’s Scent Of A Woman elsewhere on this list. The fact that he beat Washington’s forceful, lyrical performance in Malcolm X only makes all the hoo-haa-ing and maudlin speechifying doubly painful. [William Hughes]
12. Burl Ives, The Big Country
Singer and real-life Ghost Of Christmas Present Burl Ives had a successful parallel career on screen, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1958 for his role in William Wyler’s overlong allegorical Western The Big Country—the kind of bumptious, literalist, ostensibly grown-up movie that tended to wow newspaper critics in the ’50s. Ives plays Rufus Hannassey, a cattle rancher locked in a bitter feud over water rights, which eventually spirals out into kidnapping and gunfire; he’s perfectly capable in the role, though arguably less interesting than Charlton Heston’s rare supporting turn as a rival ranch foreman in the same film.
What he should have won for: The Big Country wasn’t even the second best performance Ives gave in 1958; that honor belongs to his role as Big Daddy—a character he originated on stage—in the Tennessee Williams adaptation Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. But if Ives deserved a 1958 Best Supporting Actor award, it’s for his threatening, colorful turn as Cottonmouth, the plumed king of the bird poachers, in Nicholas Ray and Budd Schulberg’s eclectic, quasi-mystical, proto-environmentalist Wind Across The Everglades. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]