6. Will Smith – Ali
Will Smith has had an interesting career, to say the least. Getting his start as a family-friendly rapper in the late 1980’s. Smith’s rap persona “The Fresh Prince” was found appealing enough to spin into a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which ran for six seasons.
Finding mainstream success in such popular films as Independence Day and Men In Black, Smith began branching out into more serious fare, to mixed results. However, one dramatic role was significant enough to garner a Best Actor nomination, as the heavyweight champion and social activist Muhammad Ali.
Smith was still not regarded as a serious actor when he was cast as the titular Ali but proved critics wrong with his authentic performance of the charismatic boxer and his turbulent journey as a controversial and inspiring figure in America through the 1960s and early 70s.
While competing against such weak nominations such as Sean Penn in I Am Sam, ultimately Smith lost to another black actor, previous nominee Denzel Washington, who won for Training Day. Unfortunately, Smith’s strong performance ultimately stung like a bee but floated past the Oscars like a butterfly.
7. Nicolas Cage – Adaptation
Known as both a brilliant actor and one that tends to make questionable choices in choosing his roles, Nicholas Cage had already won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. But his dour performance as a suicidal alcoholic in that film didn’t allow Cage to feature his surprising knack for comedy.
However, the weird and meta film Adaptation. did: besides Cage’s comedic performance, he also played both against type and in dual roles as the overweight, neurotic, and balding screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who wrote the film) and his more confident and lighthearted twin brother Donald (who doesn’t exist in real-life). Charlie struggles to adapt the book The Orchid Thief, written by Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), eventually despairing that he cannot.
The film falls into its own rabbit hole as Charlie begins to write himself into the screenplay as a screenwriter attempting to adapt a book. Cage’s sweaty, nervous performance as Charlie is unique and very different from his typical roles, and he inhabits the character completely.
Nominated for Best Actor for his performance, instead Adrien Brody’s surprise win was an Oscar upset. This is unfortunate, as this is perhaps Nicolas Cage’s most unique performance in a career full of them: by scaling back his manic energy and instead playing an insecure man, Cage’s acting ability was center stage.
Of all the nominations in the Best Actor category that year, Cage’s performance was the only one that seemed either completely human (as opposed to Daniel-Day Lewis’s caricature of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting) or completely transformative (such as Jack Nicholson’s misanthrope in About Schmidt, which he had already done in As Good As It Gets three years earlier).
Now on a seemingly never-ending career downturn, it would be surprising to see Cage nominated for another Best Actor award. Perhaps if he can get lost in another role like he did in Adaptation. we’ll see this wayward actor win another Best Actor award.
8. Ryan Gosling – Half Nelson
After spending the 1990s in various television roles and the early 2000s in supporting film roles, Ryan Gosling’s breakthrough came from his lead role in the romantic drama The Notebook. With this raised profile, Gosling could choose more substantial projects, and his starring role in Half Nelson proved that he had more than just good looks.
Playing a drug-addicted teacher who forms a friendship with one of his students, who learns of his secret double life, Gosling gives a moving performance of both a dedicated and inspiring teacher and a man falling apart at the seams. Although a small independent film (it was produced for just $600,000), Gosling’s performance was hailed by critics and at the end of the year was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.
Gosling was the underdog for that year, but his competition was rather weak in the category. Facing off against Will Smith for his role in the sappy The Pursuit of Happyness, Leonardo DiCaprio for the forgettable Blood Diamond, and the elderly Peter O’Toole up for his eighth nomination (with no wins) in what could be read as a nomination for his career as a whole. His only real competition was Forest Whitaker’s terrifying portrayal of ruthless Ugandan president Idi Amin.
When the Award was announced, it went to Whitaker, which made sense, but whose performance was of a human monster. In contrast, Gosling portrayed a complex character whose innate goodness contrasted with his descent into an out-of-control drug addiction. Perhaps it was in Gosling’s character being a more relatable (and likeable) character than Idi Amin that makes this loss particularly surprising.
9. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler
Talk about an actor who has been on a unique journey in life: starting as an amateur boxer, Rourke found more success as an actor, appearing in feature films in the early 1980s, including Body Heat, Diner, and Rumble Fish. With his acting career taking off, Rourke became increasingly difficult to work with and made poor career choices by turned down numerous roles that would have boosted his career–including parts in Platoon, Beverly Hills Cop, and Rain Man–while appearing in a string of box office failures.
Inexplicably, Rourke decided to go back to boxing, an activity that eventually disfigured his once-handsome looks. Returning to acting a changed man, Rourke had to start his once-flourishing career all over again, eventually scoring his comeback role as Marv in Sin City. But it was his performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler that brought him acclaim from the Academy.
Playing an over-the-hill professional wrestler, Rourke’s weathered looks and hulking physique, combined with a performance that seemed infused with personal regret, won him accolades from critics and led to a nomination for Best Actor. Pitted against a mixed bag of competitors in the category–including Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Sean Penn for his turn as assassinated gay politician Harvey Milk–Rourke was a strong contender for the award.
But it was Penn that walked away with the Oscar that year, not Rourke. Looking back, the soulful performance that seemed to be informed by Rourke’s own embattled career was probably the superior performance in a year of nominees whose performances were informed more by the characters and script than the actors themselves.
10. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio is a rare combination of being a popular box-office draw while also garnering critical acclaim for his performances. However, he had never nabbed an Oscar up to the point when he was nominated for Best Actor for his performance of amoral Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, despite three previous nominations.
DiCaprio had a fighting chance at the 86th Academy Awards, but the Best Actor category was filled with strong performances alongside DiCaprio’s dynamic and charismatic character.
Among the competition was Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar-bait performance as a cowboy-turned-AIDS patient advocate in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s moving performance as a free man abducted into slavery in 12 Years A Slave, and Bruce Dern’s elderly man on a mission in Nebraska.
But instead of either DiCaprio or Ejiofor, it was McConaughey who walked away with the Best Actor award, which was not particularly a surprise but McConaughey’s performance was not exactly a stretch, either, but more of a dramatic play on his normally laid-back Southern character.
But DiCaprio didn’t have to wait too long to finally win Best Actor, as he would win Best Actor the next year for his riveting performance in The Revenant. However, DiCaprio truly inhabited the sleazy, ambitious, and often reprehensible character of Belfort, and for that it’s a shame that he lost that year.
Author’s Bio: Mike Gray is a writer and academic from the Jersey Shore. His work has been featured on Cracked and Funny or Die, and he maintains a humor recap film blog at mikegraymikegray.wordpress.com.