Not everyone can win an Oscar, and awards are usually given in the heat of the moment at the end of a year before history can really judge, but it’s sometimes ridiculous to consider the lists of people that have won, versus people that have lost. Consider this list of fourteen of the greatest actors of Hollywood’s classic era.
Each of them served an entire career without ever winning a golden statuette. Hopefully the glory of their legacies makes up for it. Please note that this list does not include Hollywood legends who are best remembered as a filmmaker instead of an actor, like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.
14. Kirk Douglas
Mr. Douglas is still with us as of this writing, proving that he is indeed as strong as a horse. He’s 97, and survived a stroke that affected his speech. He has made a few movies in recent years, such as Diamonds (1999) and It Runs in the Family (2003), but it’s probably a safe bet that he won’t win a competitive Oscar at this point. He does have his honorary Oscar, and hopefully that’s enough.
Douglas’s characters could be abrasive, unlikeable, pushy, not necessarily heroic, and frequently failures. In his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), he was weak and weasly, an alcoholic District Attorney trapped in a marriage to a murdering entrepreneur, and second banana to the movie’s hero, Van Heflin.
He was a bad guy to Robert Mitchum’s good guy in his next film, Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). And he was emasculated as one of the husbands in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949). But the same year, he received his first nomination for his performance as a struggling boxer in Mark Robson’s Champion (1949).
He gave arguably his greatest performance in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), an extremely dark, acid look at the media, with Douglas as the centerpiece, choosing to put a man’s life at risk for the sake of a better story.
Even though Wilder was a perennial Oscar favorite at the time, this particular film alienated most people who saw it, and it did not get the attention it deserved. A year later, Douglas was in two great films, as a fur trader in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky (1952), and as a much-hated movie producer in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); he received his second nomination for the latter.
Many adventure-loving boys probably remember him in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), though not as Captain Nemo. He received his third and last (to date) nomination for a kind of biopic, Lust for Life (1956), playing Vincent Van Gogh.
Then came another masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), in which he attempts to defend three men against a brutally unfair court martial. He worked with Kubrick again in Spartacus (1960), perhaps his most straightforward, heroic role, and re-teamed with Minnelli for a fascinating, but underrated follow-up to The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962).
Though he worked steadily, Douglas may have begun to seem like a relic. The 1960s may have harmed his image as the muscular, virile, all-American male, though he had a little comeback in the 1980s with Burt Lancaster in Tough Guys (1986), one of the first “grumpy old men” comedies. But it’s clear from his filmography that he was a great risk-taker, and didn’t particularly care how he came off while onscreen. He may have seemed like a movie star, but he was really an actor.
Best Actor: Champion (1949)
Lost to: Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men
Best Actor: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Lost to: Gary Cooper, High Noon
Best Actor: Lust for Life (1956)
Lost to: Yul Brynner, The King and I
13. Peter Lorre
Back in the 1930s, Charlie Chaplin, who was no slouch in the acting arena, called Peter Lorre “the greatest living actor.” This would have been around the time that Lorre played the murderer in Fritz Lang’s astonishing M (1931), shrieking, “I can’t help myself!” in such a way that you couldn’t stop thinking about him.
With his bug eyes and nasally, panicked voice, Lorre might have been on his way, working with Josef von Sternberg on Crime and Punishment (1935) and with Alfred Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). He also made a creepy, effective horror film, Mad Love (1935), in which he plays a tragic, obsessed fellow whose destroyed hands are replaced with those of a dead man.
But he was quickly typecast, in the “Mr. Moto” detective films, and as a sniveling lackey to domineering villains, but he was wonderful, and unforgettable as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and as Ugarte in Casablanca (1942). He was in cult favorites like Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Beat the Devil (1954), but by the end of his career, he was playing in cheap horror flicks, and even in Frankie and Annette beach movies.
12. Joseph Cotten
Many would say that Cotten didn’t have much range, and that his soft, Southern twang (he was born in Virginia) never left his characters, but the fact is that he contributed to some of the greatest movies ever made, and never once received a nomination.
In just his first two years, he was in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), where his polite manner served three different purposes in three different films. He’s the polar opposite of Kane, he’s the responsible romantic in Ambersons, and the deceptive (possible) murderer in Shadow.
The next year, he did George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), saving poor Ingrid Bergman from Charles Boyer. He was entrusted to David O. Selznick’s super-Western Duel in the Sun (1946), and also in Selznick’s amazing Portrait of Jennie (1948) opposite Jennifer Jones.
He gave a great performance as the slightly befuddled Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949), though he was upstaged by Welles. He worked with Hitchcock again in Under Capricorn (1949), and with Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953).
After that came mostly “B” Westerns, TV work, and a small appearance in Welles’ later masterpiece, Touch of Evil (1958). In his later years, he became a kind of supporting actor in various cult films, moving further away from the Oscar: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Hellbenders (1967), Petulia (1968), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Lady Frankenstein (1971), Baron Blood (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and The Hearse (1980).
There was also Heaven’s Gate (1980), and a year later, he suffered a stroke that affected his voice. He lived until 1994 and never even won an honorary Oscar. But he was dependable, immensely likable, and trustworthy, a high-quality addition to any movie. Maybe if he had raised a little havoc here and there he could have turned more heads.
11. James Dean
There’s very little question that James Dean would have won an Oscar had he lived past the age of 24. Aside from some bit roles and some television work, he was in three major films, and two of those performances were nominated. The third, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was certainly worthy, and is arguably his best and most beloved film today, but it was canceled out since it opened the same year as East of Eden (1955).
Many have tried to capture this legend’s essence with mere words, but it basically came down to the way he showed his pain and his wounds. He was very handsome and moved like a wolf or a cat, completely confident, but unable to do anything false. When he was wounded, he howled, or he curled up.
He was instantly sympathetic, and instantly alluring. He also had a kind of cross-sexual quality, wherein he seemed capable of seducing, or succumbing to, either sex or any age. He is a beautiful, heartbreaking cipher that will continue to fascinate many generations to come.
Best Actor: East of Eden (1955)
Lost to: Ernest Borgnine, Marty
Best Actor: Giant (1956)
Lost to: Yul Brynner, The King and I
10. Carole Lombard
Like James Dean, Lombard died young, at age 33, in a plane crash. She was mainly a comedy actor, and also, at one point, the highest paid female star in Hollywood. Since the Academy generally doesn’t approve of comedy, she was likely headed for more “serious” roles, seeking more respect and prestige. But she did receive one nomination during her lifetime, and for one of her best films. And for now we can treasure her spunky, goofball performances in five great films.
In Howard Hawks’ fast-paced Twentieth Century (1934), she plays a talented actress stuck on a train ride with Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and a bunch of other loonies. In Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), for which she received her nomination, she plays the wealthy younger sister of a family that takes a “forgotten man” (William Powell) and makes a butler out of him.
In William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937), she plays a young woman who was once dying of radium poisoning, but — unbeknownst to anyone — is actually not; she hooks up with newspaperman (Fredric March) and becomes a media darling.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), she finds out that her marriage to Robert Montgomery was never legal, and the two begin playing all kinds of jealousy-inducing games with one another. (This screwball comedy was unlike anything else Hitchcock ever made.)
Then there’s her final film, Ernst Lubitsch’s wartime masterpiece To Be or Not to Be (1942), which was released after her death. It’s a complex mixture of comical deceptions, and dark humor, making dupes out of the Nazis. It’s remarkable that she’s still remembered far better than even a genius like Lubitsch, which just goes to show how lovely, funny, and irresistible she was.
Best Actress: My Man Godfrey (1936)
Lost to: Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld
9. Marlene Dietrich
German-born Marlene Dietrich was in silent films before she met director Josef von Sternberg, and their film The Blue Angel (1930) made her a huge star. In that film, she plays a nightclub performer, Lola Lola, who attracts the attention of a humble schoolteacher; he becomes obsessed with her and ruins his life. Sternberg was equally obsessed.
He made six more films with Dietrich, all incredible: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935). In them, Dietrich used her German accent and her husky singing voice to create characters that were aloof and unattainable, but with incredible allure, draped in front of lush backdrops.
After that, she could do anything she wanted, and she made a series of high-class films with top directors: Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936), Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel (1937), a big hit with Destry Rides Again (1939), Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941), Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) — never mind that she was older.
She was always wiser than anyone else around her. She capped things off with in Judgement at Nuremberg (1962), a film by Stanley Kramer, that Oscar specialist, but even that work failed to bring her a second nomination.
She died in 1992, but never even won an honorary Oscar.
Best Actress: Morocco (1930)
Lost to: Marie Dressler, Min and Bill
8. Boris Karloff
This may seem like a weird choice, but for a short time, Boris Karloff was the most impressive actor on earth. Let’s consider the work he did over a certain five-year period. He was the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), bringing a strange anguish and soul to his character, and credited with a mysterious “?”, as if to suggest that this man behind the makeup could be anyone.
He played a cocky gangster with a great death scene in Howard Hawks’ brilliant Scarface (1932), and a mute manservant, also covered in hideous makeup, in Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). He played the title characters in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Mummy (1932).
He was a wild-eyed religious zealot in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), and the leader of a bizarre cult in Edgar G. Ulmer’s horror masterpiece The Black Cat (1934). He topped it off with an even more pained performance in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), coming close to having his own friend, but denied.
Consider the way Karloff looked in these eight films, the way he completely changed his appearance, and the totally different way he moved and behaved in each. These are complete transformations, brave performances as monsters of different kinds, but all with human faces. Karloff himself was said to have been kind in real life; perhaps he learned empathy from looking into the darkness of the human soul.
He was in more very good films, including the sequel Son of Frankenstein (1939), three for producer Val Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946), as well as The Haunted Strangler (1958), Corridors of Blood (1958), Roger Corman’s The Raven (1963), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers (1967), and Peter Bogdanovich’s remarkable Targets (1968), not to mention many more that are more fun than they are good.
He became old-fashioned after a while, and the startling quality of his work was gone. If he were ever to win an Oscar, it would have been for those five years.
Karloff died in 1969 and did not win an honorary Oscar.