Winning an Oscar is much harder to do than being nominated for one as the competition is intense every year. Across all 24 categories, there can only be 5 nominees in each category (except for Best Picture, where at least five films but no more than 10 films can be nominated). From the four acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress), only 20 actors can receive Oscar Nominations.
Given how competitive it is every year to obtain a nomination, not even the performances that critics predict will win are guaranteed the victory. As a result of the unpredictability when it comes to voting for the winners, there have been several spectacular performances each year that get an Oscar Nomination but didn’t win due to an upset victory from one of the other nominees and/or how competitive the category was that year.
Listed below are 10 Oscar-Nominated Performances That Should Have Won an Oscar:
10. Annette Benning for American Beauty (1999):
Throughout her career, Actress Annette Benning has been nominated for an Oscar four times but has never won. The performance she should have won the golden statuette for was her work in the 1999 film American Beauty.
In Sam Mendes’s directorial debut, she plays Carolyn Burnham, the materialistic wife of the film’s main character Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), an advertising executive who suffers a midlife crisis after he becomes infatuated with the best friend of his and Carolyn’s daughter Jane (Thora Birch). American Beauty earned rave reviews and won five of its nine Oscar Nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Mendes, and Best Actor for Spacey (his second Oscar victory).
Benning, who picked up the SAG and BAFTA Awards for her performance, looked to be on track to win the Oscar. However, she lost (in addition to the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama) to newcomer Hilary Swank for her performance as Brandon Teena, a transgender man, in the biographical film Boys Don’t Cry. Both Benning and Swank were the two main frontrunners for all of the major Best Actress Accolades that year.
9. Christopher Plummer for All The Money In The World (2018):
Legendary Actor Christopher Plummer is one of two, technically three, actors to make this list who have actually won an Academy Award. From three nominations, his sole win was for Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 film Beginners, which made him the oldest actor to ever win a competitive Oscar for acting (He was 82 years and 75 days old on the day the 84th Oscars Ceremony took place). Despite this, Plummer was robbed of a second Best Supporting Actor Award for the 2017 film All The Money in the World.
Everyone knows the story regarding the Sound of Music star’s casting in All The Money in The World. The film was initially supposed to be released on December 8th, 2017, and two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey was originally cast as J. Paul Getty. However, in the wake of The MeToo Movement after the infamous Harvey Weinstein fallout in October 2017, Spacey came out as gay after being accused of sexual harassment by several actors that spanned several years. Due to the accusations, executives of the movie decide to remove and reshot all scenes with Spacey and recast the role with Plummer in the then-already completed film. Over eight days, all twenty-two scenes that Spacey was initially in were reshot and All The Money In The World was released on Christmas Day 2017.
Despite the craziness and drama, Plummer earned rave reviews for his performance as J. Paul Getty and earned Best Supporting Actor Nominations for a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar (He lost all three awards to Sam Rockwell from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri). His nomination for the latter award made him the oldest person to ever be nominated for an Acting Oscar.
Given the circumstances and how little time he had to prepare and film for the role, it is incredible that Plummer still managed to get an Oscar Nomination. The Academy should have made the Best Supporting Actor Award a tie that year or give Plummer an Honorary Oscar for his incredible feat.
8. Mary Tyler Moore for Ordinary People (1980):
Despite her successful career on television, Mary Tyler Moore starred in a couple of good films and was nominated once for an Oscar for Best Actress for the 1980 film Ordinary People, which won four of the six Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Although she lost the Oscar to Sissy Spacek for The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Moore still managed to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama.
In the film, Moore plays Beth Jarrett, a grieving mother who is struggling to cope with the accidental drowning death of her older son Buck and the attempted suicide of her younger son Conrad (Timothy Hutton, whose performance in the film made him the youngest recipient of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Throughout Ordinary People, it is implied that when Buck was still alive, Beth favored and loved him more compared to Conrad.
While Calvin (Donald Sutherland), Beth’s husband, tries to connect with his surviving son and understand his wife, Beth distances herself from her remaining family members as she tries to return to the perfection and normalcy her family once had, even if it means acting like Buck’s death never happened. Moore reminds us that there is no perfect way to cope with loss with her bitter, detached, and vulnerable portrayal of The Jarrett matriarch.
7. Eddie Murphy for Dream Girls (2006):
One of the biggest upsets in Oscar history took place at the 79th Academy Awards Ceremony when Alan Arkin won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Little Miss Sunshine over the heavily-favorited Eddie Murphy for his performance in Dreamgirls.
After getting his big break on Saturday Night Live, Murphy continued to make a name for himself for starring in several comedy films. When he played Soul Singer James “Thunder” Early in the 2006 musical drama Dreamgirls, he earned rave reviews for his dramatic turn and won several major awards for Best Supporting Actor. Many believed that he secured the Oscar after winning the Golden Globe and the SAG Awards.
Murphy was so upset about losing that he notoriously left the ceremony after Arkin finished his acceptance speech. Some pundits believe that one of the reasons why the comedian was robbed of his well-deserved Oscar was due to the fact that The Academy wanted to give Arkin a “Career” Oscar. Others theorize that Murphy’s 2007 film Norbit, which was panned by critics and released a few weeks before the Oscars Ceremony took place, cost him the award. The latter theory is widely known as “The Norbit Effect” and is brought up to this very day in discussions surrounding potential Oscar Winners.
6. Michelle Pfeiffer for The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989):
Of all the Oscar-Nominated Performances that should have won an Oscar, one of the most mentioned ones is Michelle Pfeiffer’s in the 1989 Romantic Comedy-Drama The Fabulous Baker Boys. She played Susie Diamond, a former call-girl turned professional lounge singer who helps revamp the careers of the musical act The Fabulous Baker Boys, which consists of brothers Jack and Frank Baker (portrayed by Jeff and Beau Bridges).
Critics highly praised Pfeiffer’s acting and singing abilities in the film and she won several Best Actress Awards from Major Awards Associations and Film Critics Associations. One major award she won was the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama. When she received an Oscar Nomination, she and fellow nominee Jessica Tandy (who Pfeiffer lost the BAFTA too) for Driving Miss Daisy were considered the major contenders for the awards as the other nominees didn’t stand a chance. Between her and Tandy, Pfeiffer had the better odds of winning the Oscar for Best Actress for films released in 1989. However, Tandy was announced as the winner in what is still considered a huge upset by film critics and even the public to this very day.
Some believe the reason why Tandy beat Pfeiffer was to due Academy Award voters feeling sympathetic to the former’s age. On the date of The 62nd Oscars Ceremony, Tandy was 80 years old and her win made her the oldest actor to win a competitive Oscar for Acting at the time until Christopher Plummer’s (see #10 above) win at 82 years old at The 84th Oscars Ceremony.
5. Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List (1993):
Another great Oscar-Nominated Performance which was robbed of an Oscar Win is Ralph Fiennes’s in the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List. In the film, Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, who was a brutal and sadistic Nazi Commandant of a Concentration Camp during the Holocaust. Fiennes’s portrayal of the real Goeth is considered as one of the most chilling villains in the history of cinema. In addition, his portrayal was so convincing that a Holocaust survivor who visited the set while the film was in production was scared of him as Fiennes, who was in a full SS dress uniform costume, reminded her of the real Goeth.
Fiennes’s performance earned rave reviews as he earned several awards and nominations for Best Supporting Actor for Schindler’s List, which included winning the BAFTA Award. The film won seven of its 12 Oscar Nominations, including Best Picture. Fiennes didn’t win an Oscar that night and many people still consider his lost as one of the greatest injustices in Oscar history today.
However, some can argue that the Best Supporting Actor Category for 1993 films as one of the most competitive lineups ever as two of Fiennes’s fellow Oscar Nominees for the 66th Oscars Ceremony included the eventual winner Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive and Leonardo DiCaprio for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
4. Judy Garland for A Star is Born (1954):
Although she won the now-defunct Juvenile Oscar for her role as Dorothy in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, late Hollywood Legend Judy Garland has technically never won a competitive Academy Award. She did receive two nominations though: one for Best Actress in the 1954 film A Star is Born and one for Best Supporting Actress for the 1961 film Judgement of Nuremberg. Her performance in the former film is often considered as one of the best Oscar-nominated performances that failed to win The Oscar of all time.
The 1954 film was the first of three remakes of the original 1937 film A Star is Born. Garland’s performance in the 1954 version was hailed by critics as her Big Hollywood comeback after personal struggles threatened to ruin her career years earlier. After winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, many predicted she would win the Oscar for Best Actress that year.
However, Garland couldn’t attend as she went into labor early and gave birth to her son Joey the night before the Oscars Ceremony. As many anticipated her to win, cameras were set up in her hospital room so she could give her acceptance speech on Live TV. However, in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar History, she lost the award to Grace Kelly, whose performance in The Country Girl was good, but nowhere near the level of Garland’s in A Star is Born. Comedian Groucho Marx famously sent Garland a telegram that stated: “Dear Judy. This is the biggest robbery since Brink’s.”
3. Joaquin Phoenix for Gladiator (2000):
Of all the actors who have yet to win an Oscar, Joaquin Phoenix ranks near the top of that list. So far, Phoenix has received three nominations: one for Best Supporting Actor for the 2000 film Gladiator and two for Best Actor for the 2005 film Walk The Line and the 2012 film The Master. Many argue that Phoenix should have won for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line (Not only did he win the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, but he also earned a Grammy for his contribution for some of the film’s music). However, in my opinion, Phoenix should have won for Gladiator as his performance in that film was much better than in Walk The Line.
In Gladiator, Phoenix plays a fictionalized version of Roman Emperor Commodus, the evil, power-hungry, amoral, and twisted son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Commodus murders his own father after finding out the latter’s plans of making Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), one of Aurelius’s most loyal generals, as his successor as a regent to help save Rome from corruption. After strangling his father, Commodus seizes the throne and Maximus, who has been reduced to slavery, avenges for the murders of his family (who were ordered to be killed by Commodus) and Aurelius by rising through the ranks as a gladiator.
Phoenix’s performances earned rave reviews from critics as his acting abilities made Commodus the perfect foil to Maximus. His portrayal of Commodus frequently tops lists for best movie villains. At the 73rd Academy Awards, Gladiator won five of its 12 Oscar Nominations,, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe. The film was robbed of a sixth win for Phoenix’s performance as he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Benicio Del Toro for Traffic. Phoenix has been long overdue of an Oscar win and his performance in the 2019 film Joker has many fans hoping that he will finally earn his Oscar for that film.
2. Michelle Williams for My Week With Marilyn (2011):
From the four Oscar Nominations she has received so far, Michelle Williams has yet to win. Like Joaquin Phoenix, Williams also ranks near the top for best actors who haven’t won an Oscar yet. The one performance she should have won for was for her portrayal of the iconic Marilyn Monroe in the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn.
The film is based on filmmaker Collin Clark’s (Eddie Redmayne) experiences during the production of the 1957 film The Prince and The Showgirl (a film the real Monroe starred in) in London and his brief affair with the starlet after her husband Arthur Miller (Dougary Scott) returns to America. The film earned rave reviews for Williams’s performance and applauded her for “Capturing the magnetism and vulnerability of Marilyn Monroe”. In addition, Williams was praised for conveying extremely well Monroe’s “Natural Charm and talents”.
Williams received several major accolades and nominations for Best Actress for her work in My Week with Marilyn. Among the major awards she won included the Golden Globe for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical and Comedy and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, to name a few. She also earned her third Oscar Nomination, but lost to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady. Given how competitive the Best Actress category was for 2011 films in general and not just the Academy Awards (Tilda Swinton, for her performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin, was notoriously snubbed of an Oscar Nomination despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA like Williams and Streep were), can be argued as a reason why Williams failed to win the Oscar that year.
1. Marlon Brando for A Street Car Named Desire (1951):
Just like Christopher Plummer (See #10 above) and technically Judy Garland (See #4 above), Marlon Brando still makes this list despite having already won an Oscar. Throughout his legendary career, the late actor received eight Oscar Nominations (one for Best Supporting Actor and seven for Best Actor), winning two times: Best Actor for the 1954 film On the Waterfront and Best Actor for the 1972 film The Godfather.
Although he has won twice, the performance that he was robbed of a third Oscar win from was the one that got him his first nomination: the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire. Based on the iconic play of the same name, Brando plays Stanley Kowalski, the brutish brother-in-law of the main character Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh) and husband of Blanche’s sister Stella (Kim Hunter). Both Brando and Hunter portrayed their film characters in the original Broadway Production of the play in 1947 as well.
The 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire earned rave reviews, especially for the acting performances of Leigh, Brando, Hunter, and Karl Madden, the latter of whom played Mitch, a friend of Stanley who briefly dates Blanche. A Streetcar Named Desire catapulted Brando’s career and made him one of Hollywood’s male sex symbols. At the 24th Academy Awards Ceremony, the film won 4 of its 12 Oscar Nominations and three of those wins were for acting: Best Actress for Leigh, Best Supporting Actress for Hunter, and Best Supporting Actor for Madden. This set the record for the most Acting Oscars ever won by a single film, a feat that has only been accomplished by the 1976 film Network since (No movie has ever swept all four Acting Oscars).
Brando’s failure to win the Best Actor Oscar that year was considered an upset as many felt that Humphrey Bogart, who won for his work in The African Queen, only won because it was a “Career” Oscar as he had been overlooked by the Academy in the past for several films (Prior to that ceremony, Bogart’s sole Oscar Nomination was for the 1943 film Casablanca).
To this very day, critics believe that Marlon Brando should have be awarded an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire as his performance is credited with promoting the idea that method acting was an acceptable style of acting. In addition, Brando’s take on Stanley Kowalski is considered as one of the greatest performances in modern film acting by legendary Film Critic Roger Ebert.