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The 18 Greatest Contemporary Actors Who Have Never Won an Oscar

04 November 2014 | Features, People Lists | by Jeffrey Anderson

actors never won oscar

We all know the Oscars are not fair, but they seem to wield so much power over popular tastes that it’s fun, and necessary to complain about the voters from time to time. Not everyone can win, of course, but when we look at a list like this, you have to wonder, why don’t those guys get their act together?

 

18. Glenn Close

Fatal Attraction

Glenn Close is classy, and severe. If she were a bird, she’d be a hawk. She has been a love interest in films, and she was dangerously sexy in Fatal Attraction (1987), but she seems to have inspired more respect from Oscar voters than out-and-out admiration. She has been nominated six times without ever winning.

The first three were for Supporting Actress: The World According to Garp (1982), The Big Chill (1983), and The Natural (1984). Then three leads: Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and Albert Nobbs (2011). The latter one she co-wrote and co-produced herself, a costume drama, and playing a woman in drag as a man.

It was a ready-made Oscar-nominee, perhaps in an attempt to get back in the awards limelight after having been absent for two decades. A great many more people saw her in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Nominations

Best Supporting Actress: The World According to Garp (1982)
Lost to: Jessica Lange, Tootsie

Best Supporting Actress: The Big Chill (1983)
Lost to: Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously

Best Supporting Actress: The Natural (1984)
Lost to: Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India

Best Actress: Fatal Attraction (1987)
Lost to: Cher, Moonstruck

Best Actress: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Lost to: Jodie Foster, The Accused

Best Actress: Albert Nobbs (2011)
Lost to: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

 

17. Edward Norton

american-history-x

In 1996, Edward Norton had the kind of year that actors can only fantasize about. He was cast in a pivotal role in a minor thriller called Primal Fear (1996), which required him to pull an acting stunt that was quite difficult and shocking. He not only pulled it off flawlessly, but he did it after so many others had tried and failed.

Word of his feat spread like wildfire, and it led to his casting in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), where he sings, and in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), where he gives a speech that, honest-to-goodness, sounds like a man talking rather than giving a memorized speech. Many awards organizations chose to give Norton a three-way tie for Best Supporting Actor, but the Academy could only choose one and went with Primal Fear.

Norton could go nowhere but up. He was next seen as the cheating, gutter-rat “Worm” in Rounders (1998) and, hard and scary as a neo-Nazi in American History X (1998). He received a Best Actor nomination for the latter, and then, nothing. Not that Norton had a downfall or anything. It’s just that, to date, he has not been nominated again.

He might have been nominated for good films like David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), John Curran’s The Painted Veil (2006), Curran’s Stone (2010), Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2011), or even for fun films like The Score, The Italian Job, or The Illusionist. But he wasn’t. For the record, he also directed a good film, Keeping the Faith (2000), inspired by his mentor Milos Forman. And he’s awfully good in Birdman (2014), playing a ridiculously talented actor.

Nominations

Best Supporting Actor: Primal Fear (1996)
Lost to: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jerry Maguire

Best Actor: American History X (1998)
Lost to: Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful

Best Supporting Actor: Birdman (2014)
Lost to: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

 

16. Sigourney Weaver

Working Girl (1988)

Signourney Weaver continues to appear in high-profile movies (she was the best thing in Avatar), but she has not been nominated since the 1980s. She is one of only 11 actors in history to be nominated twice in the same year — Best Actress for Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Best Supporting Actress for Working Girl (1988) — and one of only four not to have won during those occasions.

The reason she matters, however, is that she was nominated for Best Actress for James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). She never had a chance of winning that year, but this time it truly was an honor to be nominated. Too often, the Best Actress category consists of soft, weepy roles that are rarely remembered after the statue is handed out.

This time, Weaver had created a role for the ages with Ripley, the tough alien-fighter who also takes time to be a mother figure to the orphaned Newt (Cameron did not fail to notice that the alien was also a mother figure). It was a real role, physical, emotional, demanding, and commanding, and one that could actually inspire newcomers to the craft. Weaver had played Ripley before, and would play her twice more, but this was her greatest moment.

Nominations

Best Actress: Aliens (1986)
Lost to: Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God

Best Actress: Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Lost to: Jodie Foster, The Accused

Best Supporting Actress: Working Girl (1988)
Lost to: Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist

 

15. Michelle Pfieffer

dangerous liaisons

As soon as she grew her luxurious blonde hair out, Michelle Pfieffer became a big screen beauty, and, even though beauty is rarely taken seriously, she was easily accepted as a terrific actress. She was noticed in The Witches of Eastwick (1987), could have been nominated for Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob (1988), but was nominated the same year for Dangerous Liaisons (1988). She was nominated again for The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989).

Then followed fine performances in Fred Schepisi’s The Russia House (1990), Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). In-between, she received her third, and last (to date) nomination for a film called Love Field (1992). Today people probably remember her for this period, mostly for either slinking around on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys or in that stunning Catwoman costume in Batman Returns.

Things slowed down after that, with a series of films that looked like they were meant to be Oscar contenders, but which were not. Lately, she has returned to making silly entertainments again, like Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007), Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (2007), Burton’s Dark Shadows (2011), and Luc Besson’s The Family (2013). Perhaps the cycle can begin again.

Nominations

Best Supporting Actress: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Lost to: Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist

Best Actress: The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
Lost to: Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy

Best Actress: Love Field (1992)
Lost to: Emma Thompson, Howards End

 

14. John Cusack

say-anything

John Cusack was one of the voices of his generation. He was the guy we all wanted to be, but also a hopeless romantic; he truly believed in love despite all his joking around. He had his signature roles in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing (1985), Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead… (1985), and Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989). He had serious parts in Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), and many others. He was not afraid to work.

All of his co-stars in both Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990) and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994) were nominated, but he was not. Certainly those movies wouldn’t have been so good, and so acclaimed, without him?

He began co-writing his own material and came up with Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and the wonderful High Fidelity (2000). He worked with great directors: Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999). But despite all that, no nomination ever came.

His films beyond 2000 have been a bit more spotty, with some good ones here and there, and they have increasingly been distributed direct to video. Yet he still brings his own personality to each film, even if he seems to be growing more and more protective and withdrawn. Will the Academy forget about him, completely?

No nominations

 

13. Michael Keaton

Beetlejuice_Michael_Keaton

This guy is a great actor. You wouldn’t know it from his first few films, made between 1982 and 1987. In 1988, however, he emerged. He was the title character in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988), manic and demented, speaking and moving so furiously that he wound up terror and laughter in a twisted twine ball before you could realize it.

Just a few months later, he was in Glenn Gordon Caron’s Clean and Sober (1988), a totally serious film in which he wrestled with drug addiction, raging and aching with bitter truth. Certainly he should have been nominated, but was not.

Everyone remembers his Batman (1989), cast not because he was a musclebound street fighter, but because he could embody the obsession that it would take for a man to dress up as a bat and go out on the streets at night. He repeated his performance in the even better Batman Returns (1992), both directed by Burton.

In the 1990s and beyond, he moved beyond simple comedy and played bad guys, cops, psychopaths, etc. He seemed to understand that humor and darkness were connected, and that both came from the gut. He was a profoundly physical actor, and responses to his films were just a little bit stronger than emotional.

He gave very fine performances in two little-seen films, Michael Hoffman’s Game 6 (2005) and The Merry Gentlemen (2008), which he directed himself. His latest film Birdman (2014) got some award buzz, but he lost to the young Redmayne.

Best Actor: Birdman (2014)
Lost to: Eddie RedMayne, The Theory of Everything

 

 

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  • Apollon Moropoulos

    Oldman has directed a great but very difficult to see movie in nil by mouth…must see for all movie lovers

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  • Arnaldo Fernandez

    Tom Cruise???….WTF!! (Not as bad actor as Keanu Reeves but….)

    • Brian Lussier

      He’s not that great, but he was still fantastic in both Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut, and deserved that nomination for Born On The Fourth Of July. However, calling his role in Rain Man more difficult than Dustin Hoffman’s is a travesty! Cruise was playing Cruise in that film, nothing more.

  • sina

    brad pitt is the best in this list!

  • Lourdes

    Tom Cruise in Magnolia is overwhelming. And John Cusack is totally underrated, he’s great.

  • It’s crazy to me that all of these actors are white, especially in a year when race got so much attention at the Oscars. Here are actors who have never received an Oscar: Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson, Lawrence Fishburne, Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, Djimon Honsou, Alfre Woodard, Samuel L. Jackson. Sheesh. Oh yeah, and John Goodman too.

    • Brian Lussier

      Well, Samuel L. Jackson is the only one here that I can say has ever deserved it. And Viola Davis, I guess. But she was often pitted against much stronger contenders. However, I notice you only mention black people. What about Asians, and Latinos and all? Seems to me that not just blacks are underrepresented here…

  • Brian Lussier

    Happy to see Sir Ian McKellen on here. He’s my favorite actor. I would have added Sir Ian Holm (still can’t believe he didn’t get nominated for The Sweet Hereafter), too, who was also in LOTR, as well as Viggo Mortensen, who was nominated for Eastern Promises but overlooked for A History Of Violence, The Road and A Dangerous Method. Quick comment: wasn’t Brad Pitt also nominated for Babel? Or did I dream that one up? And finally, Jim Carrey just sucked horribly in The Cable Guy! If you think different, your taste in cinema and acting is dubious.

  • Adel Narimani

    Kirk Douglas,Richard Gere,Samuel L. Jackson,Ewan McGregor,Joaquin Phoenix are obviously more qualified to be on the list comparing to kristen dunst and scarlett johansson that can’t even be consider as good actors! I love bill murray and robert downey jr. but neither of those deserve to be here.

    • Brian Lussier

      Give me an example of why Richard Gere. I agree with the others, but Gere? What the heck?!

      • Moviegoer71

        See Internal Affairs (1990). Gere gave great performance in that film as really nasty, sociopathic cop

        • Brian Lussier

          I saw it. He was great, yeah. But Oscar worthy? I don’t think so.

  • Angel Soledad Castillo Cordova

    i’m completely agree with the list. i always listen people saying that willis or cruise are horrible actors, but they never watched their best movies. i would really like to watch ewan mcgregor winning an oscar sometime 🙂

  • Jem Davids

    Where’s Sam Rockwell, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloë Sevigny, Winona Ryder, Toni Collette, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Lange, Christina Ricci, Ewan McGregor, Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Blunt?! Seriously this is a flawed list.

    • Chris

      Jessica Lange has won two Oscars for Tootsie and for Blue Sky.

    • Moon

      You beat me, my first though was exactly about Sam Rockwell. One of the most underrated actor alive today because if you are a character actor and not a movie star, the posh version of the MTV Award AKA the Oscars will ignore you most of the time (not always after all Dustin Hoffman has won). It is a very flawed list indeed.

  • DyanSwan

    I’ll be in the minority here, but I am not a fan of Michael Keaton’s work. To me, he just plays themes and variations of the same character. I will said that I thought that he was good in Birdman, but I believe that was do the director shaping his performance.

  • Abhishek

    Frankly amy adams is too damn overrated and has been nominated quite a lot number of times than she deserved. And yes, where is Jake Gylenhall? Heck, he wan’t even nominated for Nightcrawler.

  • Paloma Pizarro

    Sam Rockwell?

    • Minz

      Agreed. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a great performance, but Moon really is something special. Brilliant film and Rockwell blew me away. He seems to bring so much heart to every character he plays.

    • Rich G

      Also superb in 7 Psychopaths

  • Bwohahaha

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Hardy

  • Joe Trudnak

    I definitely would have singled out Joaquin Phoenix in the top 19. Jesus he can act circles around Tom Cruise with his eyes wide closed!

  • jefferson

    Agree with these: Ian McKellen, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Edward Norton, and most especially Gary Oldman, my all-time favourite actor!!

    I think Ed Harris and Ralph Fiennes should be in the main list and not just runner-ups. And Woody Harrelson is not even mentioned. These guys can take the place of Tom Cruise any time!

  • Rich G

    I guess if they changed the rules on the nominees having to predominately come from an English speaking western country preferably being white then this list could get pretty big.

  • Nancy Hall

    DiCaprio’s nomination for Gilbert Grape may be a cliche, but his performance is not. I work with mentally challenged people of all ages and with all kinds of problems. I can attest to the fact that his performance had an authenticity that’s absent from the performances of most adult actors who try to portray people with developmental disabilities. Tom Hanks’ cringemaking Forrest Gump is an example, as is Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. Hoffman came a little closer than Hanks, but DiCaprio nailed it.

    I also think the movie was kind of memorable. It was a decent story, well acted by a strong ensemble. It also had a 400+ pound woman at its core, who might have been reduced to a joke but was not.

  • Where’s Sam Rockwell? And what are Kirsten Dunst and Scarlett Johansson doing in here?

    Sonia | A Film A Day

  • Mark Jeffery

    Most of the list are at the very least as deserving of an Oscar as Leonardo, with a few even more so, How Gary Oldman hasn’t won one is a mystery.