7. Greta Garbo
It’s hard to underestimate the kind of star Garbo was. She changed the lives of people who saw her films. They were never the same again. She was very frequently sad, in tragic stories. Her expressions went deep, into untold, intimate regions. She had so much charisma and so much star power that very few could co-star with her and be remembered the next day.
She was unattainable, strong, but when her heart was stolen, it was stolen all the way; the anguish of longing was hers alone. Once her star power was realized, her films rarely strayed much from a specific formula, beginning in the silent days, and up to her retirement from films in 1941, at the age of 35. It could be argued that she hadn’t much range, but her performances were intense, and immeasurably powerful.
She received four Oscar nominations (two in the same year, 1930), but never won. Actors who do the same kind of work again and again, no matter how profound, are usually overlooked. She received an honorary award in 1955, but of course, she never showed up.
She came to America from Sweden in 1926. By 1927, she had been paired with actor John Gilbert, who was also one of the few known to have been her lover in real life. Their most famous movie was Flesh and the Devil (1927). It was feared that her accent would ruin her career in talkies, but Anna Christie (1930) was a success. (It was advertised with the tagline “Garbo Talks!”)
Then came Mata Hari (1932), cast as the infamous spy, the Best Picture Oscar winner Grand Hotel (1932), the great Queen Christina (1933), a glossy, truncated, MGM adaptation of Anna Karenina (1935), and working for George Cukor in Camille (1936). In 1939, Enrst Lubistch directed her in Ninotchka (1939), a brilliant comedy, which made clever use of her deadpan delivery for humor. (It was advertised with the tagline “Garbo Laughs!”)
Finally, she re-teamed with Cukor for Two Faced Woman (1941). She lived until 1990, rarely seen, never married, no children. Simply wanting to be left alone, she inadvertently kept up her screen legend until the end.
Best Actress: Anna Christie (1930)
Best Actress: Romance (1930)
Lost to: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee
Best Actress: Camille (1937)
Lost to: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
Best Actress: Ninotchka (1939)
Lost to: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
6. Marilyn Monroe
Well, of course, she couldn’t be taken seriously, could she? She wasn’t really an actress? More recent reports indicate that even though she was drastically unhappy, she was also a very canny manipulator of her onscreen image, as well as the reactions of her co-stars. And what is that if not acting?
She is probably best known for only a few roles, notably the giggly ones in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Looking at those movies back to back, it’s clear that while she was more of an unwitting temptress for Tom Ewell in the former, she was more of a lonely heart in the latter.
Then there were some of her more challenging roles, which she pulled off effortlessly. She explored darkness and torment in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Niagara (1953), and took on some very adult material in Clash by Night (1952), Bus Stop (1956), and The Misfits (1961), her final film.
She was used as a cartoon character in things like Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), which may be her greatest film, but it takes an incredible wisdom and self-awareness to be used in such a manner. Monroe had incredible power, and amazing skill. She was more than a two-dimensional sexpot. She was unforgettable.
She won some Golden Globes, but an honorary Oscar never came. She died in 1962.
5. Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson broke out with his awesome portrayal of gangster Rico in Little Caesar (1931). He was not nominated for it, or for anything else, ever, but it was a performance of such power that it was impossible to forget it for the rest of his career.
He was a squat man with a pinched face, and he had a scowling voice that went with his looks. He played similar tough guys, guys that were perhaps overcompensating for lack of size or looks, but he worked with the great directors, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Orson Welles, etc.
Billy Wilder gave him a great role in Double Indemnity (1944), as Keyes, the insurance man who figures out what colleague Fred MacMurray is up to. It was a showy role, the kind that often gets nominated, but to no avail. Fritz Lang pushed him even further in Scarlet Street (1945), as an emasculated man stuck in a horrific marriage, becoming obsessed with a beautiful young woman and falling into a rabbit hole.
He came close to another nomination as gangster Rocco in John Huston’s Key Largo (1948). It was a meaty role, talky, with more focus on psychological drama than action or violence. Everyone knew his face by then, and his subsequent roles were a tribute to his screen presence, without giving him anything spectacular to do.
He was given an honorary Oscar the year he died, in 1973.
4. Robert Mitchum
“Laconic” describes Robert Mitchum, as does “rangy.” He was cool, heavy lidded, with a decisive, saxophone voice. He was a big man, and he had a walk unlike anyone else, rhythmic, shifting, almost like a dance. His biography is called Baby, I Don’t Care, after one of his more famous movie lines, and it perfectly sums him up. He was detached, and it made him all that much more commanding. He was one of the great screen actors.
He was noticed rather quickly in the war film Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and awarded with a Supporting Actor nomination. It was his first, and last. After the war, soldiers came home to a different America and found it difficult to fit in. This disconnect and uncertainty was one of the driving forces behind the genre that was later called “film noir,” and Mitchum was a key player in it.
Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) was one of his greatest achievements. He plays a gas station attendant in a small town, dating a local girl, trying to go straight. But his past catches up with him, and he’s sent on a mission to find a gangster’s moll, which leads to obsession and murder. Mitchum plays the entire story as if it were simply inevitable, and his choice resonates throughout the film. The same year, he was in Raoul Walsh’s one-of-a-kind noir Western Pursued (1947) as well as the noir Crossfire (1947), which received a Best Picture nomination for its message against anti-semitism.
Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) and River of No Return (1954) were other highlights, until Charles Laughton’s incredible The Night of the Hunter (1955) came along. Today, this is considered one of the finest of all American films, totally misunderstood in its day, and it did not receive a single Oscar nomination. Mitchum’s sinister performance as the “preacher” threatening two children to find a hidden fortune is one of the great and terrible things the cinema has ever produced.
He was in Thunder Road (1958), a movie about moonshine runners that he co-wrote and co-produced; he played another terrifying villain in Cape Fear (1962), and starred with John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ great, laid-back Western El Dorado (1967). In the 1970s he had a comeback, somehow fitting right into the new, gritty Hollywood of the time. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and The Yakuza (1974) are great crime films, Farewell, My Lovely (1975) is one of the finest adaptations of Raymond Chandler, and he worked with Elia Kazan on The Last Tycoon (1976). A second attempt at Chandler, The Big Sleep (1978), was a disappointment.
And that was about it. Mitchum is now a familiar face during the holiday season, appearing with Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988). He had a small role in Martin Scorsese’s razor-sharp remake of Cape Fear (1991), with Robert De Niro earning an Oscar nomination for the role that Mitchum once played. He put back on his cowboy hat for two more Westerns. He narrated Tombstone (1993) and took a small role as an industrial tycoon in Dead Man (1996). He died in 1997 and never received an honorary Oscar.
Best Supporting Actor: Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Lost to: James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
3. Peter O’Toole
Peter O’Toole received eight Oscar nominations for acting and never won, which is the current record. He received an honorary Oscar in 2003, was nominated again in 2007, and lost again. Often he has just had bad timing. It’s hard to argue that he should have won over Brando in The Godfather, or De Niro in Raging Bull. And how was he ever going to beat Gandhi? Or Idi Amin?
When he first broke out in the great Lawrence of Arabia (1962), he was fair-haired, handsome, and commanding. He could have been a prince. Thank heavens he revealed his sense of humor, which leaned toward the dark, in What’s New Pussycat? (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966). This side of him made his serious work seem more accessible, and admirable. He was rounded, experienced.
Finally he descended into dark humor, combining his wonderful comic timing with some very smart material. The Ruling Class (1972) and The Stunt Man (1980) paid off and became two of his most fascinating movies, as well as two of his nominations. My Favorite Year was much lighter, but O’Toole’s line readings added cutting laughs to the film’s nostalgia.
The 1980s led to a batch of fairly routine studio titles, including Supergirl (1984), although an appearance in the multi-Oscar winning The Last Emperor (1987) did not result in a nomination.
Finally, twenty-four years after his seventh nomination came his eighth, for Venus (2006), a very good, very touching movie about the relationship between a dryly funny old actor and a young girl. O’Toole was a hard worker, but kept re-inventing himself. Sometimes it was great to see him because you knew just what to expect. Other times, he gave you something completely new. He died in December of 2013.
Best Actor: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lost to: Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
Best Actor: Becket (1964)
Lost to: Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
Best Actor: The Lion in Winter (1968)
Lost to: Cliff Robertson, Charly
Best Actor: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
Lost to: John Wayne, True Grit
Best Actor: The Ruling Class (1972)
Lost to: Marlon Brando, The Godfather
Best Actor: The Stunt Man (1980)
Lost to: Robert De Niro, Raging Bull
Best Actor: My Favorite Year (1982)
Lost to: Ben Kingsley, Gandhi
Best Actor: Venus (2006)
Lost to: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
2. Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck may be the greatest actress of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, which may explain why she never won an Oscar. Sly, and with her throaty voice, she could speak while smiling; she was very seductive and quite sexy. She could convince a man to do just about anything, but at the same time, she was often a victim. She could play regal as well as trash, and she could break your heart or make you laugh. She was smart and a good manager of her own career. She had good roles from the 1930s all the way through her television career in the 1980s.
Her breakthrough role was Stella Dallas, although earlier titles, like The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Baby Face (1933) have recently been discovered as classics in their own right. Baby Face in particular is an extraordinary, insane example of female power in the pre-code era.
In 1941, she was nominated for Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941), in which she played the sexy Sugarpuss O’Shea, helping several doddering scientists complete their entry on “slang” in a new encyclopedia. But the same year she had two other great roles, in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), and in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), fast-talking her way around men in all three. She was the schemer in Double Indemnity (1944), and appeared in many more films noir after it.
As she passed forty, she found new blood in Westerns, starting with Anthony Mann’s great The Furies (1950), and becoming a tough, iron-jawed matriarch, with Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) — a perfect title — and commanding a roomful of men in Samuel Fuller’s snappy “B” Western Forty Guns (1957).
Her chance at an Oscar was gone. She eventually migrated to television, especially Western shows, with a famous recurring role on The Big Valley (1965-1969). In the 1980s, she could be seen in The Thorn Birds (1983) and The Colbys (1985-1986).
She received an honorary Oscar in 1982, and died in 1990.
Best Actress: Stella Dallas (1937)
Lost to: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
Best Actress: Ball of Fire (1941)
Lost to: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
Best Actress: Double Indemnity (1944)
Lost to: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Best Actress: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Lost to: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
1. Cary Grant
He was always “just Cary Grant.” Wasn’t he? Or was he really one of the two or three greatest actors of his time?
Here’s the test. Grant made four films with Alfred Hitchcock and five with Howard Hawks. They are: Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). Some of these are just fun, but others are among the greatest American films ever made.
Think about Grant in each one of these, back to back. Think about the styles and approaches of the two directors. There’s an incredible range here, from the goofy, emasculated professor in Bringing Up Baby, to the callous, commanding air mail pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, to the slick, fast-talking newspaper editor in His Girl Friday, to the creepy possible murderer in Suspicion to the intrepid loudmouth Roger O. Thornhill. All of these roles are “just Cary Grant,” charming, funny, charismatic, but they’re all tonally, totally different.
We could also throw in some others, George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940), Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939), Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), just to sweeten the pot and further underline Grant’s talent. In fact, the two drippy movies he actually was nominated for would be at the bottom of this list.
It’s really a mystery why someone so beloved should be so routinely ignored, unless you consider that he was so good at concealing his acting, at making it look effortless. Academy voters like to reward acting that looks like Great Acting, i.e. it’s showy, or it has some added bonus like a malady or physical condition, an accent, or it’s based on a familiar figure from life or literature. Grant was, yes, Grant. But he was so much himself, was so grounded, that he could read any character and find the truth in it.
He won an honorary Oscar in 1970 and passed away in 1986.
Best Actor: Penny Serenade (1941)
Lost to: Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
Best Actor: None But the Lonely Heart (1944)
Lost to: Bing Crosby, Going My Way
Author Bio: Jeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies professionally since 1997. He writes regularly for the San Francisco Examiner, Common Sense Media, and MacWorld’s online blog, The TechHive. His work as a freelance film critic has appeared in The Oakland Tribune, The Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Las Vegas Weekly, Cinematical.com, Movies.com, Greencine.com and BayInsider.com. In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, CombustibleCelluloid.com. He holds a master’s degree in cinema, and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.