12. Jim Carrey
He had a rubber face, people said. He was a little like Jerry Lewis, a human cartoon character. He was for lowbrow, moneymaking comedy, and little else. He was so popular that he earned a record-breaking $20 million for Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy (1996). The news was so shocking that nearly everyone forgot to see just how frighteningly good he was in that film. He was so, so needy. He needed so badly that he was psychotic, and it seemed to come from a horrific place of truth. He was more controlled, funny, but lost in Peter Weir’s brilliant The Truman Show (1998).
He seemed to go to unimaginable lengths, plumbed untold depths of his own soul, to create his Andy Kaufman for Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999). Once again, he was funny, and unforgettable. Then there was Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), where he portrayed the anguish of heartbreak more convincingly than most other movies. The movie was widely acclaimed and admired, and chosen as one of the best of the decade. His co-star Kate Winslet was nominated, but he was not.
It seemed that the lack of recognition for his hard work took a toll on him, and he seemed to withdraw, to go a little nuts. He has remained very good, though. Just look at I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), or his weirdly intense supporting role in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013). Perhaps one day he’ll get an honorary award. The Academy just doesn’t understand comedy, even when people like Carrey make it so easy to understand.
11. Amy Adams
Amy Adams will win, perhaps soon, but it will be nice to re-evalute her career now, while she’s under-appreciated. She’s beautiful, a bright-eyed strawberry-blonde (or a blondish-redhead) with a cute nose, but her gift is in the wide-eyed optimism she can bring to so many characters. Indeed, she could almost be a cartoon character, and yet it was remarkable how long she was able to play this persona in different kinds of films.
She broke out in Junebug (2005), and earned her first Oscar nomination, first coming across as a bubble-head but slowly revealing her inner hurt. She should have been nominated for Enchanted (2007), a Disney film that made brilliant use of her persona, as a chirpy cartoon princess suddenly deposited as a real person in New York City, unaware of how the real world works. Mike Nichols’ vanilla Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) was an Oscar contender, but Adams did not receive a nomination; frankly, she was not given much to do.
How could she be used in other films? John Patrick Shanley solved the problem beautifully with Doubt (2008), a bright, prickly, yet deeply-felt adaptation of his own play. Adams played Sister James, who can’t quite believe (and seems pained by the idea) that anything untoward could possibly be happening in her church. She received her second nomination. That same year she was equally excellent in a lead role in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008), a kind of classic screwball comedy that might have been impossible without Adams. Julie & Julia (2009) was an Oscar contender, but more for Meryl Streep than for Adams.
She received her third nomination for David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), and it’s a very good movie, but one that did not make very good use of her. She’s more or less a “waiting, worrying girlfriend” character, and her nomination was part of a package of seven that came in for that film. (She lost to her older co-star Melissa Leo.) She was back to her plucky self again in The Muppets (2011), a wonderfully clever film. In 2012, she was in two major films.
She was amazing in Trouble with the Curve (2012), playing Clint Eastwood’s spunky, feisty daughter, and effectively sparring with the legendary guy onscreen. She was a pure pleasure to watch. But the film was totally overshadowed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s striking, but baffling The Master (2012), wherein she had very little to do as a “wife” character. Unsurprisingly, she received her nomination for The Master.
She got to play Lois Lane, which might have been perfect for her, but it was in a rather dull, joyless Superman film. She received her fifth nomination for Russell’s American Hustle (2013), and she showed some energy in it, as well as looking great in the crazy period costumes, but she was upstaged by darling-of-the-moment Jennifer Lawrence. She should have been nominated for Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), as Joaquin Phoenix’s frazzled, disconnected neighbor in an age of electronic gizmos.
Best Supporting Actress: Junebug (2005)
Lost to: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Best Supporting Actress: Doubt (2008)
Lost to: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actress: The Fighter (2010)
Lost to: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: The Master (2012)
Lost to: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Best Actress: American Hustle (2013)
Lost to: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
10. Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis may be the biggest movie star in the business with no Oscar nominations to his name, not that he hasn’t deserved one. He is, of course, best known for Die Hard (1988), and any number of big budget action movies attempting to repeat the success of that classic. To be honest, he could have been nominated for that movie, bringing a sense of vulnerability and everyday life to a genre that had been dominated by musclebound superheroes.
But he’s best in small roles, supporting roles. Maybe, if not for his big hit, he could have become one of our best character actors. Willis is frightening in a supporting role in Alan Rudolph’s Mortal Thoughts (1991), as a violent husband. On the other hand, he’s equally excellent as a frightened, sniveling rat in Robert Benton’s gangster film Billy Bathgate (1991). He made fun of his screen persona in Robert Altman’s great The Player (1992).
He was mesmerizing as boxer Butch Coolidge in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), and the only major cast member that didn’t get a nomination. He was also terrific in a small role in Benton’s Nobody’s Fool (1994), playing a small town contractor opposite Paul Newman (who was nominated). Willis’s co-star Brad Pitt received a nomination for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), but Willis did not. The Sixth Sense (1999) was a sensation, an enormous box office success, a critical favorite, and a six-time Oscar nominee, but without a nomination for Willis.
Willis quickly teamed up with director M. Night Shyamalan again for Unbreakable (2000), and though the result had its fans, it was nowhere near the phenomenon of their previous work. Oscar voters like war movies, and Hart’s War (2002) was a good one, but it was not noticed, and he received some audience love for the unusual action film Sin City (2005).
A few more small or supporting roles came along, many of which he knocked out of the park, and all of which were unnoticed: Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (2006), Michael Polish’s The Astronaut Farmer (2006), as himself in Andrew Fleming’s Nancy Drew (2007), refusing to shave in Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened (2008), and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Willis had a critical hit with Looper (2012), which was too much of a genre film to pique Oscar interest.
If he can edge away from action and dive into some juicy supporting parts, something may click at some point and Willis may be Oscared before too long.
9. Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise isn’t as big as he once was. Perhaps people will never forgive him for his general weirdness, around his relationship with Katie Holmes, the couch-jumping incident, the Church of Scientology, the arguments about postpartum depression, etc. But onscreen, he’s still very commanding, still quite boyish, and still capable of whipping up a crowd. He is viewed mainly as an entertainer more than a great actor, but like any big, big star, he certainly has some acting chops, even if they’re not immediately apparent.
He carried Risky Business (1983) and helped make it into something more than just a teen film. He was the talk of the town in 1986 for Top Gun, but his real achievement was in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) as the cocky young pool shark Vince. He electrifies the screen with his confidence and energy and not even Paul Newman can take his eyes off him. The Oscar focus that year was on Newman, who had never won, and Cruise was denied a nomination. (Their other co-star, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, did receive a nomination.)
Rain Man (1988) won Best Picture, and a Best Actor Oscar for Dustin Hoffman, but Cruise was not nominated, despite the arguable fact that he had the tougher job. Hoffman’s character is a collection of little actorly ticks that never really change throughout the film, but Cruise had to react to him, doing the job of generating the emotional arc of the film almost by himself; given the film’s reception, there can be little doubt about the quality of his work.
He received his first nomination the following year, for a traditional biopic, Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Big, showy, and intense, Cruise is quite powerful as Ron Kovic, and he showed voters a side of him they had never seen before.
Things were back to normal with several big box office entertainments; Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992) landed a Best Picture nomination, but not one for Cruise. Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) is not the kind of thing that gets nominated, but it should be noted that it’s one of Cruise’s most enjoyable films. Later that same year, the slightly less enjoyable, but more audience-friendly Jerry Maguire (1996) earned Cruise his second nomination for Best Actor as a sports agent who loses all of his clients (except one) but finds his humanity.
He disappeared for three years to film Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), a masterpiece, however debated and misunderstood, and one of Kubrick’s finest achievements, of which Cruise is no small part. The film is still being critically re-assessed and re-evaluated, but by Oscar time, 2000, it did not have enough defenders to rate even a single Oscar nomination. However, Cruise did receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for what could be his best performance, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999); this was his best year, by far.
That was about it. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) are among Cruise’s most interesting films, while The Last Samurai (2003), Lions for Lambs (2007), and Valkyrie (2008) smelled like Oscar bait. He’s hilarious in heavy makeup in Tropic Thunder (2008), and generated some minor Oscar buzz, but Robert Downey Jr. stole the movie in a slightly bigger part.
Despite his fallen star, he has made some of his most entertaining movies of late, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), Jack Reacher (2012), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Another chance at an Oscar seems long gone now, but at least he’s still a good movie star.
Best Actor: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Lost to: Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot
Best Actor: Jerry Maguire (1996)
Lost to: Geoffrey Rush, Shine
Best Supporting Actor: Magnolia (1999)
Lost to: Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
8. Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt is a movie star. This doesn’t necessarily mean that his movies are always events that excite the public, but he himself excites the public. Anyone who spots him in real life experiences a quickening of the pulse, and double that if he’s seen with his Oscar-winning wife Angelina Jolie. In movies, he is never less than commanding.
He has a way not only of controlling whatever space he’s in, including whatever co-stars may be appearing with him, but also he has a joyous way of savoring his control, exploring it, toying with it. He’s funny and heroic and there’s not a red-blooded American that wouldn’t follow him to an adventure. He has been making daring and outstanding choices for many years now, but perhaps his stardom prevents the Academy from considering him as often as they should.
He was in movies for about five years before the American public noticed him in a big way, in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991). He was not much more than a shirtless hunk with presence, and it was difficult for filmmakers to figure out what to do with him; mostly he was just called upon to be pretty.
He showed his first bit of greatness in a small role, as an immobile stoner in Ridley Scott’s True Romance (1993), ignoring his looks and stardom and making us laugh. He gave his first really good performance in David Fincher’s Seven (1995), and later that same year he earned his first Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor, as a manic and deranged mental patient, in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995).
More pretty boy roles followed, but he was excellent in Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), as a street boxer with a thick, unintelligible accent in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000), having infectious fun with all his buddies in the big hit Ocean’s Eleven (2001) (plus two sequels), quite good as the insubordinate, arrogant Achilles in the awful Troy (2004), funny again, and meeting Jolie, on Doug Liman’s big hit Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), and in the Best Picture nominee Babel (2006).
Andrew Dominik’s masterful Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) started a string of amazing films for Pitt. As James, he was almost like the glorious landscape, immovable and magnificent, and radically contrasting Casey Affleck’s sad, yearning Ford. Pitt might have been at his funniest as Chad in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008), struggling enthusiastically to keep up with the events of the story; even his body movements are funny.
Here’s the anomaly. He made Fincher’s awful The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), replacing himself with special effects. The film was a blatant, callous recycling of events that made Titanic and Forrest Gump Oscar winning hits, and it bloated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original story beyond all recognition, but it somehow clicked for people. The film was a hit, and Pitt earned his second nomination, for Best Actor, and his first in 13 years.
He nearly stole the show as Nazi hunter Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), except that Christoph Waltz earned the Oscar nomination (and the Oscar) for that film. Terrence Malick’s arthouse masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011) might not have been the easiest movie to promote, but it somehow caught on with both critics and viewers.
The same year, Pitt was incredible in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011), as the Oakland A’s general manager who uses math to bring his underfunded ball club to the finals. He earned his third nomination for it. He then re-teamed with Dominik for the crime film Killing Them Softly (2012), excellent but poorly received.
There were stopovers for voicework in Megamind and Happy Feet Two, as well as his biggest hit (and worst film), World War Z. He was in Ridley Scott’s hugely under-appreciated The Counselor (2013) as well as Steve McQueen’s earnest 12 Years a Slave (2013). He didn’t get a nomination for his small role in that film, but he did win a Best Picture Oscar as one of the film’s producers. It may throw voters off the scent, but Pitt’s onscreen power should not be underestimated.
Best Supporting Actor: 12 Monkeys (1995)
Lost to: Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects
Best Actor: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Lost to: Sean Penn, Milk
Best Actor: Moneyball (2011)
Lost to: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
7. (TIE) Kirsten Dunst & Scarlett Johansson
It’s interesting how much these two have in common, not the least of which is that neither of them have ever been nominated. They are about 3 years apart in age, and both around 30 as of this writing. They both have that trait known as an “old soul,” in which, even in their earliest films, they seem to have lived a full, real life, rather than a casual upbringing at Hollywood High and acting school. They seemed to carry a certain weight that only they themselves knew the true origin of.
They were both children in films. Dunst was remarkable in Interview with the Vampire (1994), seeming like a grown person trapped in a child’s body. At age 16, Johansson played an 18 year-old in Ghost World (2001), seeming older than her 20 year-old co-star Thora Birch.
They have both chosen wisely over the years, preferring grown-up films and talented directors to films that could bring easy money. They have both worked for Sofia Coppola, who may be drawn to their similar qualities. In The Virgin Suicides (2000), Dunst was a teenager that seemed to know everything about the world. In Lost in Translation (2003), Johansson was still not yet 20 when her character meets and bonds with the much older Bill Murray.
Though they have both done superhero films, they have brought that same pain and sadness to their roles. Dunst’s Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films seems unable to bear the weight of her boyfriend’s costumed activities. And Johansson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2 (2010), The Avengers (2012), and Captain America: Winter Solder (2014) carries herself as if she had a grim and necessary mission; she’s not doing this because she’s pretty and looks good in a costume. She’s doing it because she must.
Both actresses have done voicework, with Dunst’s voice sweet and sad in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, re-released in 1998), and Johansson’s throaty and playful in Spike Jonze’s Her (2014). They both exposed themselves, body and soul, in dark sci-f films: Dunst in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014). Both performances felt a part of their persona and neither felt gratuitous.
Dunst stood out in a couple of teen films, notably Bring It On (2000) and Crazy/Beautiful (2001). Her performance as Marion Davies in The Cat’s Meow (2002), another young woman with an older lover, was her first award-worthy one, but the film was overlooked. She was touching in Ed Solomon’s equally overlooked Levity (2003), a great supporting role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a romantic lead in Wimbledon (2005), and the lead in Coppola’s misunderstood Marie Antoinette (2006). She fought depression and took some roles in some bad movies, but she came back in Melancholia (2011) and The Two Faces of January (2014).
Johansson has rarely had a break from constant work. She was a sexy young thing flirting with Billy Bob Thornton in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), briefly courting some Oscar buzz for Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), startling and sensual in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005), underrated in Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo (2011), superb as Janet Leigh, capturing her sexy, girl-next-door quality, in Hitchcock (2012), superb again as a New Jersey shrew in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon (2013), and a credible action star in Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014).
They both remain among the most mature and fascinating out of the army of beautiful actresses working today.