The 18 Greatest Contemporary Actors Who Have Never Won an 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
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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?
13. 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