The 18 Greatest Contemporary Actors Who Have Never Won an Oscar

6. Johnny Depp


Are people getting tired of Johnny Depp? There are no longer rumblings of a great actor doing great work, but rather the sound of a bored audience, seeing him as a guy who can do quirky things, but whose range is questionable. Certainly his films in the last five years can’t hold a candle to the work he did between 1990 and 2003.

He began as a male pinup on TV, with a name that sounded like hair product, and who caused girls to scream at the mere mention of it. He had parts in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), but nothing big enough for anyone to take seriously.

In 1990, he changed everything. He took huge risks with his career and image, camping it up in John Waters’ Cry Baby (1990), and giving a touching, open-hearted performance as a misunderstood freak in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990); the latter was later seen as a major achievement of its year, but not immediately.

A series of daring films followed: Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1992) was cut and not released in the U.S. until 1994. Depp gave a great silent-comedian performance in Benny & Joon (1993), worthy of Chaplin or Keaton. Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) earned a nomination for Depp’s co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. And Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) was a masterpiece, earning an Oscar for Depp’s co-star Martin Landau.

He did a Spanish accent — and appeared opposite Marlon Brando — in Don Juan DeMarco (1995). He was in Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece Dead Man (1996), which seemed to appeal to a limited crowd. He was in the surprisingly good undercover cop movie Donnie Brasco (1997), amazing as the Hunter S. Thompson-like Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and in Roman Polanski’s atmospheric horror movie The Ninth Gate (2000).

Depp could have won an Oscar for any of these things, but his first nomination had yet to come. As of 2000, he seemed to start choosing more “serious” films, or films more likely to get him a nomination. There was Lasse Hallstrom’s dull, but Best Picture-nominated Chocolat (2000), a small part in the Oscar-nominated Before Night Falls (2000), Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried (2001), and playing the real-life George Jung in Blow (2001).

Oddly the first nomination came for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), a film that should have been a total disaster. It came from lowbrow producer Jerry Bruckheimer and was based on, of all things, a carnival ride, but Depp stepped up and gave a truly hilarious, demented, outrageous, infectious performance as Captain Jack Sparrow (it’s impossible to even think of the name without hearing Depp’s cockney growl).

It was one of the all-time great summer blockbusters and it unfortunately led to several bloated, lumbering, mind-numbing sequels, which were even more successful. Depp gamely returned to the role again and again, but the freshness was gone, and more sequels are threatened.

His second nomination came for a clumsy, half-baked Oscar-bait biopic, Finding Neverland (2004), playing John Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. His third and final nomination to date came, at last, for one of his many films with Burton, Sweeney Todd (2007), not their best, but also not their worst.

His other work around this period consisted of a few failures and a few retreads and not much else. His best work was as an animated chameleon in Rango (2011), a truly outstanding work, bizarre and fearless, that ranks among the finest achievements in computer animation to date. (It won an Oscar, but the Academy still has not quite figured out how to deal with awarding actors for voice performances.)

It became clear that Depp liked to hide himself in his roles, behind accents and funny voices, hats, glasses, fake teeth, facial hair, makeup, tattoos, jewelry, baubles and bangles, and often using his long, versatile hair as a prop. The more stuff he has on the happier he seems, but he is the opposite of a chameleon. He bring his own sense of need to his roles, or in other words, he does not disguise his insecurity. He hides in plain sight. He could still be a great actor, and his slump could just be a run of bad luck and bad choices.


Best Actor: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Lost to: Sean Penn, Mystic River

Best Actor: Finding Neverland (2004)
Lost to: Jamie Foxx, Ray

Best Actor: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Lost to: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood


5. Jennifer Jason Leigh


One of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, Jennifer Jason Leigh has never received an Oscar nomination. Could it just be bad timing, or is there something threatening about her? Maybe she’s too sexy, or too dangerous, in some way?

She has chosen edgy material, exploring sex in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), using sex to survive in Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood (1985), in the critically-hated cult hit The Hitcher (1986), the very gritty and intense Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), and the overlooked crime film Miami Blues (1990).

She came to the attention of A-list directors, many of whom created Oscar-winning works on other occasions, but not for her. She was second to the special effects in Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991), a stalker in Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), among a huge, excellent cast — and a phone sex worker — in Robert Altman’s masterpiece Short Cuts (1993), great with the snappy, screwball patter in the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), as Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), and in one of the more mature Stephen King adaptations, Dolores Claiborne (1995). She at last generated some Oscar buzz for Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia (1995), but only her colleague Mare Winningham received a nomination.

She worked with Altman again on Kansas City (1996), with director Angelica Huston on Bastard Out of Carolina (1996), and two would-be Oscar season releases, Washington Square (1997) and A Thousand Acres (1997), that didn’t catch on.

Her window for receiving a nomination seemed to be closing as her work turned more toward indies. She was amazing in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), in the “Dogme 95” film The King Is Alive (2000), and in the underrated The Anniversary Party (2001), co-directed by herself and Alan Cumming. She was in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002), one of Mendes’ few films that did not generate Oscar buzz.

She was amazing again in Jane Campion’s hugely misunderstood In the Cut (2003), in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004), Todd Solondz’s disturbing Palindromes (2005), John Maybury’s The Jacket (2005), in her husband (at the time) Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (2007), in Charlie Kaufman’s challenging, passionately-defended Synecdoche, New York (2008), and in Baumbach’s “mumblecore” film Greenberg (2010).

She had small roles, as moms, in films that should have been nominated, but were not: Kill Your Darlings (2013) — in which she goes crazy — and The Spectacular Now (2013). She’s probably still too challenging for the Academy, and probably unlikely at this point to land a memorable leading role (although she’s said to be in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). She’s probably destined to get a “lifetime achievement” award sometime down the road.


Best Supporting Actress: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Lost to: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl


4. Bill Murray


A lovable goofball from “Saturday Night Live” and an anarchic, laid-back movie star in lightweight comedies (Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, etc.), no one considered Bill Murray an Oscar contender for many years. But, early on, he was in an Oscar-winner, acting opposite Dustin Hoffman in a small role in Tootsie (1982).

His job was just to be funny in a few scenes, but he received warm notices in reviews. Just a few years later, after the massive success of Ghostbusters, he made a strange attempt to be “taken seriously” in The Razor’s Edge (1984). But it seemed that Murray was not ready to surrender entirely to the material, and he couldn’t help clowning around.

He showed people he was serious about his career when he co-directed the dark comedy Quick Change (1990), which revealed just a bit more edge than Murray’s hits had exhibited. Groundhog Day (1993) opened in February to strong business and equally strong reviews, but by the end of the year, it had been left off many critics “ten best” lists and did not earn any Oscar nominations. In the years since, however, the film has been almost universally embraced as a great classic. Murray’s co-star Martin Landau received an Oscar for Ed Wood (1994), and though Murray is terrific in his smaller role, he did not generate any Oscar buzz himself.

This was a new chapter of more adventurous supporting roles for Murray. He was a gangster to Robert De Niro’s good guy in Mad Dog and Glory (1993), a supporting role in a Farrelly Brothers comedy, Kingpin (1996); with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in Space Jam (1996), and a sleazy lawyer in Wild Things (1998). In Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), he added a touch of sadness and regret to his funny performance as businessman Herman Blume; critics began calling for a nomination for Murray, but it was not yet to be.

He was in Tim Robbins’ Orson Welles story Cradle Will Rock (1999), amazing as Polonius in Michael Almereyda’s modern-day Hamlet (2000), another funny supporting role in Charlie’s Angels (2000), and again for Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); he was just one of a very strong cast and was not singled out.

That brings us to Lost in Translation (2003), Murray’s only nomination to date. In Sofia Coppola’s movie he plays a movie star (of action movies?) in Japan to shoot a whisky commercial. There, he meets the lonely young wife (Scarlett Johansson) of a busy photographer, and bonds with her.

He finds the perfect combination of all his talents; he riffs and jokes, but he is not always on familiar ground. He has some unseen sadness and regret, and for the first time, lets a few cracks in his armor show. The movie’s final moment, a private moment, has such a powerful resonance that it recalls the final scene in Chaplin’s City Lights. He lost to Sean Penn in Mystic River, a noble defeat.

He began working with Jim Jarmusch, in Coffee and Cigarettes (2004), and continued working with Anderson, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). He had another terrific supporting role in Andy Garcia’s underrated The Lost City (2005). Then came Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005), a worthy successor, and companion, to Lost in Translation.

He plays another lost, searching soul, whose humor breaks tension. He finds that one of his former lovers may have given birth to a son he never knew about, so he takes a solitary road trip to meet all five women and discover the truth. Weirdly, the movie met with a certain critical resistance, and it never quite caught on. No Oscar nomination followed.

He had a cameo in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), in a children’s movie, the “steampunk” City of Ember (2008), Jarmusch’s obtuse and misunderstood The Limits of Control (2009), terrific, opposite Robert Duvall in Get Low (2009), as himself in the very cool Zombieland (2009), and a voice in Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2011) was highly acclaimed, but his part was too small. Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) looked like a potential Oscar contender, and it’s an effective movie, with Murray combining himself and Franklin Delano Roosevelt into a commanding performance. But in the race between presidents, Daniel Day-Lewis’s more straightforward Lincoln took all the attention.

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (2014) was shifted from awards season 2013 to February of 2014, where it received “blah” reviews. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) received glowing reviews, but Murray’s part is too small to be considered. Then, there was St. Vincent, a minor comedy-drama, but with a powerhouse lead performance. 


Best Actor: Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost to: Sean Penn, Mystic River


3. Ian McKellen

Gods And Monsters

Ian McKellen was in movies and TV shows throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but he was best known for his stage performances, especially his Richard III. In 1995, that performance was brought to the screen in an outstanding movie by Richard Loncraine. His Richard was reptilian, twisted and sly. The movie brought him plenty of notice, but, weirdly, no Oscar nomination.

He was very funny in John Schlesinger’s Cold Comfort Farm (1996) and was in Bryan Singer’s disturbing Apt Pupil (1998) before he received his first nomination for Bill Condon’s beautiful Gods and Monsters (1998). He played film director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, etc.), at the end of his career, having suffered a stroke and unable to make sense of a flux of emotions and memories, between movies, the war, and life.

He notices a young gardener (Brendan Fraser) and the two become friends. Whale is gay and clearly sees the gardener as an object of desire, but the friendship progresses in a non-sexual way. McKellen embodied subtle desires, regrets, pains, and wonder in his performance, and it’s a masterful thing. But in another example of the Weinsteins and their gift for mass hypnosis, the Best Actor Oscar went to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful, which is a moment that most Oscar voters (and viewers) probably wish could be done over again.

McKellen received a second nomination for his rich, sympathetic Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), but though he has played that role five more times, in two more Lord of the Rings films and three Hobbit films (the final one coming soon), another nomination has been elusive. In 2000, he also took a role as Magneto in the first X-Men films and he has been busy dividing his time between Magneto an Gandalf.

He was in Ron Howard’s terrible, but popular The Da Vinci Code (2006), has done voice work for animated films, and has done television, as well as more Shakespeare. But it seems more likely at this point, with McKellen at 75, that he will earn an Honorary Oscar rather than winning one.


Best Actor: Gods and Monsters (1998)
Lost to: Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful

Best Supporting Actor: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Lost to: Jim Broadbent, Iris


2. Robert Downey Jr.


Robert Downey Jr. is the kind of actor that never gets enough credit. He’s insanely brilliant, and seemingly insatiable. He feeds on constant input and constant output; he’s a hot, fast-burning machine of emotions and information. He can play any part; he can sing, do accents, comedy, drama, period, Shakespeare, etc. He can be a leading man, or a great supporting actor. (He was even on “Saturday Night Live” for a season.)

But he always brings his own personality to the table. He faced drug addiction and did some jail time, but he has been totally forgiven by the viewing public, and has become the highest-paid movie star of the moment. But despite his ferocious talent and sheer power, he has only two Oscar nominations, sixteen years apart.

When he first appeared, the son of underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., he was usually cast as an obnoxious, spoiled brat, and it was not easy to like him. But then came Chaplin (1992), and his first nomination. He gave a canny interpretation of an artist that was often considered the greatest screen actor of his age, and it was good enough that no one was offended or questioned it. (It’s too bad the film itself couldn’t have been more daring.)

He was a manic Australian TV host in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), very fine in Richard III (1995), and warm, anarchic, and funny opposite Holly Hunter in Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995). He was the only good thing in Mike Figgis’s One Night Stand (1997), taking a potentially deadly role — a man dying of AIDS — and turning it into something magnificent.

Then came a tour-de-force in James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy (1998), playing a cheating actor whose two girlfriends unexpectedly drop by his apartment at the same time. It’s a whirlwind performance, fast-talking, exposed, cunning, but it was not widely seen or appreciated.

He worked with Robert Altman in The Gingerbread Man (1998) and Neil Jordan in In Dreams (1999), and then came Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys (2000). In it Downey gave a colorful, big-hearted supporting performance in a film that was certainly one of the year’s best, but despite enthusiastic critical acclaim, audiences did not really show up in droves, and it was largely ignored at Oscar time.

In the 2000s, his choices remained daring. He was in the Oscar-friendly but badly received The Singing Detective (2003), the little-seen Game 6 (2005) from a screenplay by Don DeLillo, Shane Black’s delirious, fun Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005), a small part in George Clooney’s Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006), Richard Linklater’s brilliant, rotoscope-animated A Scanner Darkly (2006), David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), and, the game-changer, Iron Man (2008). Without a doubt, it’s the most interesting and most human performance as a superhero since Michael Keaton’s Batman.

That’s sixteen years, and it brings us to Downey’s second nomination, for a comic performance in Tropic Thunder (2008). Ben Stiller’s movie is a very clever, very funny jab at Hollywood, and Downey is the lynchpin, playing an Oscar-winning Australian actor who is performing an African-American and insists on staying in character all the time. It’s a show-off performance, to be sure, but done with tremendous joy.

Since then, Downey made another potential Oscar favorite, The Soloist (2009), but the Oscar voters weren’t interested. Superheroes and Sherlock Holmes (2009) has taken up most of his time since then, with a pause for a small role in Jon Favreau’s wonderful Chef (2014).

Sherlock Holmes is an oddly perfect role for Downey, allowing him a chance to do his English accent, but also to delve into an equally obsessive, detail-oriented character, feeding on information. It’s too bad that Guy Ritchie’s movie was more of an explosion-fest than anything thoughtful or mysterious. 


Best Actor: Chaplin (1992)
Lost to: Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman

Best Supporting Actor: Tropic Thunder (2008)
Lost to: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight


1. Gary Oldman


Gary Oldman is certainly one of the finest actors alive. Few would question this. He’s known for playing a handful of cheesy villain parts, but then so is Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley. He has also collected some nice paychecks for his work in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises, but, just for a moment, consider his Sirius Black and his Commissioner Gordon and how totally different they are from one another. That’s Oldman.

Oldman first broke on the scene with his astounding portrayal of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy (1986), followed by his Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987). Though he received excellent notices for these, the films were fairly small and probably didn’t get much in the way of Oscar campaigning. He was frightening as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and as Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), brought to more attention in more mainstream, and Oscar-nominated movies, but a nomination still eluded him.

It was unlikely that he would ever get a nomination for his scary, street-smart drug dealer Drexl in True Romance (1993), not to mention his crazy bad guy (stretching out his neck to swallow some kind of dastardly pill) in Leon (The Professional) (1994), but these were just further proof of how far Oldman could, and would, go.

Immortal Beloved (1994) was another good opportunity to get noticed, memorably playing Beethoven, but even though voters love biographies of musicians, they did not cotton to this one. Some more villain parts followed, in Air Force One and The Fifth Element, both in the summer of 1997. Lost in Space (1998) was a misstep, but it was fun to see Oldman playing the cowardly Dr. Smith. Some of his fellow cast members were nominated for The Contender (2000), but he was not. Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001) was too gory to attract Oscar voters.

Then came Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Batman Begins (2005), two franchises that kept him busy for a while. He also began performing voices for video games and animated films. He was in the horror film The Unborn (2009) and several voices in Robert Zemeckis’s creepy mo-cap A Christmas Carol (2009). Increasingly drawn to science fiction, he had a role in the surprisingly good The Book of Eli (2010).

In the summer of 2011, he had his final outing as Sirius Black, and in the fall, came Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). It was a remarkable performance in a remarkable film. Director Tomas Alfredson somehow compressed a talky book into an intelligent, suspenseful, but visual movie. Oldman’s role as George Smiley required him to think on his toes in every situation, and he conveyed this with a powerful sense of worldliness.

It was one of his best performances, never mind that purists still preferred Alec Guinness’s interpretation of the same part in the TV miniseries of 1979. After 25 years, Oldman received his very first nomination. But two things happened. Casual viewers found the movie difficult and baffling to sit through, and it’s entirely likely that not many voters actually watched it. And then, there was the Weinsteins. As they have done many times, they orchestrated a kind of mass hypnosis around The Artist, convincing even intelligent viewers that it was some kind of great film, and against all logic, voters chose Jean Dujardin over Oldman.

Since then, Oldman had a small part in Lawless, and more science fiction with the Robocop remake and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s almost too horrible to think that he will never get another shot.

Best Actor: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Lost to: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Runners Up (Did we forget anyone)?

Kevin Bacon, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Steve Buscemi, Kirk Douglas, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Brendan Gleeson, Danny Glover, John Goodman, Pam Grier, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Laura Linney, John Malkovich, Steve Martin, Malcolm McDowell, Ewan McGregor, Alfred Molina, Jeanne Moreau, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Joaquin Phoenix, Dennis Quaid, Christina Ricci, Alan Rickman, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland, John Travolta, Mark Wahlberg.

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,,, and In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, 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.