Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Weekly Top Tens Part 1: The Ten Best Actors Never to Win an Oscar

Once again this week, I’m doing a two part top ten. The first ten are the ten best actors never to win an Oscar. The rules governing this one are that the actors had to receive at least one nomination in the past, but that’s all. Some of these guys are still alive so they have a chance. Some aren’t. Later today, I’ll do the 10 Best Actor Never to Be Nominated for Oscars. They were eliminated from this list, just for the sake of space reasons. Some would have easily made it here had they received a nomination at some point. I also shied away for actors who mainly worked in another language (not really fair, since they so seldom get nominated) or silent stars. But anyway, here’s part 1.

10. Harvey Keitel (Nomination: Bugsy - 1991).
I’m not sure how an actor as consistently great as Keitel has gone through a 40+ year career and only managers one nomination – and for a performance in Bugsy, that while wonderful, is nowhere near his best. Why he didn’t get nominated for any of his work with Scorsese – in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968), Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) or The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is beyond me. And what of his work in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)? Other great performances include Copland (1997), Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995), The Piano (1993) and Blue Collar (1978). But all of those pale in comparison to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant in 1992. I understand why the Academy didn’t nominate the performance – which after is in an NC-17 rated movie, and in which he plays a darkly violent cop, gone on drugs, who verbally rapes two teenage girls, and becomes obsessed with a the rape of a nun. But it’s one of the best, most undersung performances of the 1990s. Keitel should have an Oscar by now.

9. Jeff Bridges (Nominations: The Last Picture Show – 1971, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – 1974, Starman -1984, The Contender – 2000).
There are few actors that have Bridges range. Just look at his four nominated performances. In one he’s a confused teenager struggling in his small Texas hometown despite his popularity, in another irreonsible bank robber, another a visitor from another planet and finally he plays a President who while he isn’t corrupt, he isn’t fully nice either. An these are probably not even his best performances. What about his brilliant work as the father in The Door in the Floor (2004), or his work in American Heart (1992) and The Fisher King (1991). Go back father and you have The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Farther still and you have Fat City (1972). But his best work is obviously as The Dude in the Coen brothers The Big Lebowski, a pitch perfect comedic performance, and one of the most iconic characters in recent years. Bridges easily could have won for any of those performances, and yet after nearly four decades of stellar work, Bridges still is Oscar-less. It’s a shame.

8. Peter Sellers (Nominations: Dr. Strangelove – 1964, Being There – 1979).
Unlike Bridges, Sellers definitely had his two best performances nominated by the Academy, but in both cases, he lost to someone not as good as he was. In 1964, he delivered three great performances in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (had he not faked an injury, it would have been four) – one as the ineffectual President, one as the crazed former Nazi scientist, and one as British officier dealing with a crazy US General. Each character is different, and Sellers plays each wonderfully. In 1979’s Being There, he played Chance the Gardener, a mentally challenged man whose simple logic for how to tend to a garden is mistaken in the age of TV for profound life lessons. Sellers never betrays he knows precisely what is going on, and he simply wanders through the film, brilliantly oblivious. There were other great performances – in Kubrick’s Lolita as the perverse Claire Quinty, another three part roll in the brilliant political comedy The Mouse That Roared, in The Party, in The Ladykillers, or in the first two Pink Panther movies. Sellers was one of the most gifted comedic performers of all time, and therein lies his problem. The Academy doesn’t recognize great quality comedy nearly enough.

7. John Malkovich (Nominations: Places in the Heart – 1984, In the Line of Fire – 1993).
When he wants to be, Malkovich can be one of the most scarily intense actors in the business, as his nominated performance in In the Line of Fire proves. He turned what could have been a routine thriller into one of the best of the 1990s. His other nominated performance, as a blind man in Places in the Heart was sympathetic, even if I find the movie to be overrated in general. Add to those two performances his great work in The Killing Fields (1984), Death of a Salesman (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Of Mice and Men (1992), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Con Air (1997), Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Ripley’s Game (2002) and you have the resume of an extremely versatile actor. This doesn’t even mention two of his best performances – in comedies of all things – in Being John Malkovich, as an exaggerated version of himself and in the Coen’s Burn After Reading, as an alcoholic CIA agent. Give the man an Oscar already!

6. Johnny Depp (Nominations: Pirates of the Caribbean – 2002, Finding Neverland – 2004, Sweeney Todd – 2007).
It took the Academy a long time to catch up with the genius of Johnny Depp. He’s an eccentric actor who never delivers the same performance twice (unless of course it’s as a Pirate), who has the ability to take mildly interesting roles, and turn them into bizarre, wonderful characters. He turned a summer blockbuster, based on a theme park ride, into one of the more entertaining films of 2002. In Finding Neverland he was actually rather dull, but he’s still quite good. In Sweeney Todd, although he doesn’t have the voice of some other actors, he is still absolutely brilliant. He should have been recognized for brilliant work in two other Tim Burton films – Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994)– not to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). He has also been great in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Donnie Brasco (1997), Dead Man (1995) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). What does this man have to do to win an Oscar?

5. Barbara Stanwyck (Nominations: Stella Dallas -1937, Ball of Fire – 1941, Double Indemnity – 1944, Sorry, Wrong Number - 1948),
How Barbara Stanwyck went without winning an Oscar is beyond me. Her four nominated performances are all wonderful. Stella Dallas is an emotionally shattering drama. Ball of Fire a wonderful comedy. In Double Indemnity she became the prototypical Femme Fatale. In Sorry, Wrong Number is a top notch thriller. And none of these can compare to her great work in Anthony Mann’s Western The Furies (1950) or Baby Face (1933), as a woman who literally sleeps her way to the top. Her best performance ever though was as The Lady Eve (1941), a comedy about a con woman, who torments poor Henry Fonda. Stanwyck was equally adept at comedy and drama, and delivered many more great performances. Sure, they threw her the bone of a honorary Oscar in 1982, but they should have given her one for one of her many great performances.

4. Julianne Moore (Nominations: Boogie Nights – 1997, The End of the Affair – 1999, Far From Heaven – 2002, The Hours – 2002).
Julianne Moore is consistently great in nearly every movie she does. She should have easily won an Oscar for her performance as a porn star/”mother to all those you need love” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and for a 1950s housewife in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Her other nominated performance, as an adulterous wife in The End of the Affair, and a suicidal mother in The Hours, are also wonderful. This doesn’t even mention her work in Blindness (2008), Savage Grace (2008), Children of Men (2006), Magnolia (1999), A Map of the World (1999), The Big Lebowski (1998), Safe (1995), Vanya on 42nd Street or Short Cuts (1993). It’s going to harder for her to get great roles now that she’s almost 50, but please someone give her an Oscar caliber soon, so she can finally win a much deserved Oscar.

3. Peter O’Toole (Nominations: Lawrence of Arabia – 1962, Becket – 1964, The Lion in Winter – 1968, Goodbye Mr Chips – 1969, The Ruling Class – 1972, The Stunt Man – 1980, My Favorite Year – 1982, Venus – 2006).
Peter O’Toole has the dubious distinction of being the most nominated actor in history not to win an Oscar. Sure, they threw him a bone a few years ago with a lifetime achievement award, but it’s not the same. Looking at his 8 nominated performances (!) you see the work of one of the most extraordinary actors in history. In his debut film, he carried Lawrence of Arabia on his back for nearly four hours. In Becket and The Lion in Winter, he played two different King Henry’s with great wit, humor and humanity. He sang like a fool in Goodbye Mr. Chips. He was a mental patient who thinks he’s Jesus in The Ruling Class. He was a vein, egotistical movie director in The Stunt Man. A former matinee idol in My Favorite Year. And finally, a sad, lonely old man in Venus. There are too many other great performances to name them all, but sufficed to say, that O’Toole is a man who should have won a few of these by now.

2. Robert Mitchum (Nomination: The Story of G.I. Joe – 1945).
Robert Mitchum was never the most popular guy in Hollywood, which probably explains why he only ever received one Oscar nomination (and why even after nearly every other group did, the Academy never gave him a lifetime achievement award). Sure, a lot of the films on his resume are not very good, as he admitted to doing films for the money all the time, but when he stumbled into the right role – and he did often – no one was better. To name but a few there were Pursued (1947), Crossfire (1947), Angel Face (1952), Track of the Cat (1954), Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957), The Sundowners (1960), Cape Fear (1962), El Dorado (1966), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza (1974), Farewell My Lovely (1975) and Dead Man (1995). But undoubtedly his two greatest performance – in fact two of the greatest performances in history – were in Out of the Past (1947) and Night of the Hunter (1955). In Out of the Past, he became the quintessential film noir detective, falling dangerously for the femme fatale, and unraveling a complex case, that was only half of what the film was about. In Night of the Hunter, he plays a demented Minister on the hunt for treasure and two kids, after chillingly killing their mother. No actor in history held the camera quite like Robert Mitchum did – with a chilling stillness. Really, he should have won a few.

1. Cary Grant (Nominations: Penny Seranade – 1941, None But the Lonely Heart – 1944)
Cary Grant was one of the most talented actors in movie history – but he made it look all so effortless – so not only did he never win an Oscar (outside of the inevitable Career Achievement Award in 1970), he only received two nominations – and for two unmemorable melodramas at that! How did an actor who was so brilliant in The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philidelphia Story (1940), Suspicion (1941), Talk of the Town (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Notorious (1946), North By Northwest (1959) and Charade (1963) among countless others go an entire career and not win an Oscar? Look at those performances, and you see one of the most gifted comedic performers in history, who often outshone his nominated co-stars, but also an actor who was capable of doing drama, and in Hitchcock’s Notorious, even turn the male hero into a prick! My love for Cary Grant’s work grows with each new performance I watch. He was one of the greats, and the fact that he never won an Oscar is shameful.

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