The Academy Awards are what separate the wheat from the chaff in Hollywood. There are a number of controversies surrounding the Academy’s voting methods, including a lack of diversity on the board and less appreciation for bigger-budgeted blockbuster movies than smaller arthouse fare, but generally, the Oscars decide which movies and movie-makers are considered to be the best and brightest.
In some cases, the brilliance of an actor will be recognized almost instantly as the Academy voters reward them for one of their first roles.
Recent examples of this include Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave.
However, other times, it takes the Academy decades to see how fantastic an actor is. Some of them spend years and years working their asses off and knocking it out of the park in every movie they do, and yet, they’ve only been rewarded with an Oscar in the past couple of years. For some actors, this becomes kind of a running joke in the press, as they give dedicated performances and campaign for Oscars every year and never manage to win.
There could be any number of reasons for a snub. It could be that someone else’s performance was more of a breakout hit in every year they were nominated or their movie didn’t get enough exposure or another performance in the same movie overshadowed theirs. Whatever the reason, here are ten actors who should’ve been awarded with an Oscar sooner than they eventually were.
10. Colin Firth
In his role as King George VI in The King’s Speech, Colin Firth nailed the stutter and the nervousness and the frustration and the accent. What with all of the critical acclaim and the fact that the reviews of the best-reviewed film of the year were focused on Firth’s performance, it was obvious that he would win the Oscar that year. But he was fifty years old when he won that award, and he’d been acting for almost thirty years at that point.
Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars, including acting awards for Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, but there was nothing in the Academy’s pocket for Firth, who played Lord Wessex in the movie. As an ensemble, the cast of the movie won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, but there was no award for Firth specifically.
Firth also gave a terrific turn in Academy favorite The English Patient. It wasn’t a huge role and his performance wasn’t strong enough to steal the limelight from the film’s central romance of Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, but he did make a memorable splash in a well-received movie.
When he played artist Johannes Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Firth portrayed the relationship between the artist and his subject Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson, as so complex and deep and erotic that the Academy should’ve taken notice. Also, Firth’s lead performance in the character study A Single Man one year prior to The King’s Speech was definitely worthy of an Oscar.
The Bridget Jones movies made it hard to take Firth seriously, so he had to claw his way in after that. Maybe that’s why the Academy finally awarded him for The King’s Speech. He was a serious dramatic actor again who brought serious gravitas to each role. So, they finally rewarded him for his efforts.
9. Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges is responsible for bringing one of the most iconic cinematic characters to life: Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski. Without Bridges’ hysterical and idiosyncratic performance as the Dude, The Big Lebowski might not have worked. The Coen brothers were combining Raymond Chandler-esque noir-ish mystery stories with Cheech and Chong-esque stoner comedy, and whether or not that was going to work was all resting on Bridges’ lead performance – and he made it work. The Academy should have recognized that.
They also should have recognized his career-making performance as one of the leads in Peter Bogdanovich’s epic ensemble masterpiece The Last Picture Show, as well as his lead performance in the transcendent and underrated genre picture Starman. He played a supporting role in Seabiscuit, the kind of inspirational, true events-based drama that the Academy usually goes nuts for. And still, he had no Oscar.
Bridges was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his hilarious and eccentric turn alongside Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a fun and sadly overlooked crime caper written and directed by The Deer Hunter’s Michael Cinimo. Eastwood had thought that his own acting in the movie was worthy of an Oscar, but it was Bridges who got the nomination. It was the only nomination that the movie received and Bridges earned it. Unfortunately, he happened to play Lightfoot in the same year that Robert De Niro played Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, so he never stood a chance of winning.
He had also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s beautiful dramedy The Fisher King and the deviously complex political movie The Contender, all before he finally won an Academy Award for playing a burned-out country singer in Crazy Heart. His work in Crazy Heart was incredible, but so was his work in plenty of other films before that.
8. Reese Witherspoon
With her early films like Pleasantville, Reese Witherspoon established herself pretty early on as a fantastically talented actress. But although she established herself in the ‘90s with some stellar performances, she would not win an Oscar until she played Johnny Cash’s second wife in 2005’s Walk the Line.
She was a terrific supporting player in American Psycho, the dark and grisly adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name. Hardly any actor could steal a scene away from Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in that movie, but a young Reese Witherspoon managed it. There could’ve been a Best Supporting Actress award in her sights if it wasn’t for Marcia Gay Harden’s revelatory turn as Lee Krasner in Pollock.
If there was any pre-Walk the Line movie that Witherspoon absolutely, unequivocally deserved an Academy Award for, it was Election. It’s the only high school comedy that has also toyed with ideas of political corruption and the chances of third-party candidates in elections, and it was Witherspoon’s turn as Tracy Flick that tied the whole thing together. She embodied Shakespeare’s idea of looking like the innocent flower while being the serpent under it. Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick is dark, funny, layered, emotionally complex, and unforgettable.
7. Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman’s tear-jerking performance as an aging boxing trainer in Million Dollar Baby certainly earned him his first Oscar, but he had done plenty of other brilliant projects before then that were equally worthy of Oscar glory.
Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Freeman’s co-star Jessica Tandy became the oldest winner of the Best Actress trophy for her performance, but there was nothing for Freeman. His performance as the titular driver was overshadowed by the overwhelming acclaim for Tandy’s work in the film, but it is the chemistry of the two that sells the whole movie. Not enough acclaim was directed at their partnership, and as a result, Freeman did not get the Oscar that he deserved.
He had also starred in The Shawshank Redemption, which is still ranked by IMDb as the greatest movie ever made. Tim Robbins is technically the star, but the quiet, contemplative performance by Morgan Freeman on-screen and the power of his silky voiceover narration off-screen combine to make it truly his movie.
He made two important movies about American slavery – Glory, about the black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and Amistad, about a revolution on a slave ship – which is usually a sure-fire way to win an Oscar, but he didn’t win for either. He wasn’t even nominated!
Unforgiven is arguably the revisionist western movement’s answer to The Searchers. It is a dark and powerful tale of redemption, anchored by terrific performances by Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. Still, Freeman went without an Oscar.
6. Paul Newman
Despite being one of the most iconic movie stars of all time, Paul Newman didn’t win an Oscar until he reprised his role as pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, the belated sequel to The Hustler. But that was in 1986 and he had been a hugely revered actor since the mid-‘50s. Even his initial performance as Fast Eddie in The Hustler was worthy of an Oscar.
Before finally winning, Newman had been nominated for the Best Actor award six times, and he had been giving Oscar-worthy performances in most of his movies for decades. The critics said that Newman’s charm – particularly his signature smile – was what made Cool Hand Luke work. He was nominated for movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hud, both of which feature Oscar-worthy performances from Newman, but he still went decades without a win.
His starring role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, alongside Robert Redford, is what turned a western that eschewed all of the conventions and characteristics of westerns into one of the greatest and best-remembered westerns ever made. It was a western with a comedic tone about two cowboys who flee in the face of danger that has an ambiguous ending. Without the charisma and chemistry of Newman and Redford, that wouldn’t have worked. The same goes for their crime caper The Sting.
These are all movies that could have easily won Paul Newman an Oscar that came out years before The Color of Money, which isn’t even that good. It’s one of those cases where the Academy goes so long without rewarding someone for their talents that they end up giving them an award for a weaker film as a kind of lifetime achievement award – like Martin Scorsese with The Departed.