Honoring the best of the best is what the Academy is meant to do. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are many reasons that the best performance of the year doesn’t receive the Oscar.
For one thing, there’s the racial bias. Only in recent years has the #OscarsSoWhite chant taken off, but this has always been an issue in Hollywood, with incredible actors of color passed up for their white counterparts when it comes to both casting and nominations. The cry remains: until Hollywood casting closer represents the full spectrum of races out there, there’s work to be done.
Often the reason is less controversial. Some years are saturated with outstanding performances, and others require a bit more digging to come up with qualified candidates. Several actors on this list didn’t receive the Oscar for their best or most notable role, losing out to another worthy performer, but later won for perhaps a lesser job, taking that award away from the most deserving actor. It’s a vicious cycle, and it must be stopped.
Whatever the reason, let’s make note of those monumental performances that deserved Academy recognition. Here are 15 Roles That Should Have Won The Best Actor Oscar.
15 Orson Welles - Charles Foster Kane - Citizen Kane (1941)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane is an enigma in a number of ways. First, Orson Welles directed, produced, wrote, and starred in the film. Additionally, due in large part to his theater success, Welles, a first-time filmmaker, was given final say on all decisions, from script to casting. What today would likely be considered a recipe for disaster somehow worked out in Welles’ favor, though financially, it was not particularly profitable.
Welles masterfully portrayed Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper publisher who had recently passed away. Due to Kane’s high-profile status, a young journalist is sent to learn about his life, and discover the meaning behind his last spoken word, “rosebud.” The reporter discovers the ugly truth behind much of Kane’s life, but never solves the mystery -- however, it’s revealed to the audience that Rosebud is the make of a treasured childhood sled belonging to Kane.
Citizen Kane was honored with nine Academy Award nominations, but only won for the Best Original Screenplay. Allegedly, this was because of a block caused by the extras who voted in this category, who had heard negative things about Welles through the press. Though he was never awarded an Oscar for his acting, Welles did receive an honorary award from the Academy in 1970.
14 Humphrey Bogart - Rick Blaine - Casablanca (1942)
Another classic that has stood the test of time, Casablanca is a love story set during early-World War II. Rick Blaine, an American who insists on remaining neutral, is reunited with his now-married ex, Ilsa Lund, and the flame is rekindled. Rick eventually puts Ilsa’s safety before his own desires, and helps her and her husband get away from the German general who is after them.
Humphrey Bogart had, up until this point, been gaining momentum in his career and Rick, his first romantic lead role, pushed him to peak stardom. “Bogie” was soon a household name, and while he continued to act steadily, was always most associated with his Casablanca persona.
Bogart did eventually win the Best Actor Oscar, for his role in The African Queen opposite Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps this was apt, as he felt it was his greatest performance. He starred in a few more films alongside his Rat Pack cohorts before he fell ill, passing away from cancer in 1957.
13 Cary Grant - Ernie Mott - None but the Lonely Heart (1944)
One of Cary Grant’s most unique qualities was his accent. Hailing from Bristol, England, he began performing with vaudeville troupes throughout the U.K. and U.S., eventually winding up with a hybrid “transatlantic” accent. In None but the Lonely Heart, Grant reverts back to his roots, donning a Cockney accent to play Ernie Mott, a drifter who has been unable to make something of himself during a time of war.
Though the film was nominated for four Oscars (including Grant for Best Lead Actor), only Ethel Barrymore won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. This may have had something to do with the controversy surrounding the film, as some at the time called it “Communist propaganda.” The flick also did poorly at the box office.
Grant went on to become one of the most recognizable names in old Hollywood history, but despite two Best Actor nominations, was never awarded one. However, post-retirement, Grant was given an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, in 1970. Due to his remarkable range, it’s shocking that Grant never received a competitive Oscar.
12 James Dean - Cal Trask - East of Eden (1955)
Telling an updated version of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible, John Steinbeck’s book of the same name was adapted for the screen as East of Eden in 1955. Cal and Aron Trask are brothers vying for the affection of their father, Adam, as well as the love of a woman, Abra.
James Dean portrayed Cal, the more hostile of the brothers who is jealous of his sibling's relationships. Like his other film roles, Dean played the bad boy protagonist, and this quickly became his well-known persona. Of course, this didn’t last long: Dean was only in three major films before his untimely death in a car accident.
East of Eden is the only one of Dean’s performances that he was able to view in its entirety. He was nominated posthumously for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar, but lost to Ernest Borgnine for Marty. The following year, he was once again nominated, this time for his final role, in Giant. Dean lost to Yul Brynner for The King and I, ending any chance of a possible win for the now-deceased actor. Despite his very short career, James Dean’s performances have continued to be enjoyed by generation after generation.
11 Jack Nicholson - J.J. "Jake" Gittes - Chinatown (1974)
Known as one of the greatest crime thrillers in cinematic history, Chinatown depicts a private detective, J.J. Gittes, as he investigates corruption surrounding Los Angeles’ water supply. Originally brought in by a woman claiming to be someone she was not, Gittes delves further and further into a twisted web of deceit.
Jack Nicholson played Gittes, and was deservedly nominated for the role. At this point, Nicholson was already a fairly big star. This was his fourth Academy nomination, and third in the Best Actor category. Nicholson had begun to break out as the anti-hero type, and the role was written with him in mind. He was directed by his good friend Roman Polanski, and the film went down in history as a remarkable example of the film noir genre.
As stated, Nicholson had been nominated prior to this role, but hadn’t taken home the award just yet. This was rectified the following year, for his performance as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson went on to win two more Oscars, and has been nominated a total of 12 times to date. The acclaimed actor hasn’t appeared in a film since 2010, but his casting in a remake of Toni Erdmann, co-starring Kristen Wiig, was recently announced.
10 Danny Glover- Albert "Mister" Johnson - The Color Purple (1985)
The Color Purple, the film directed by Steven Spielberg as adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, set a precedent for many to follow. The movie tells the story of a black woman, Celie Harris, growing up in the south. Celie faces domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, and much more in this tragic but powerful look at racism in the 20th century.
Though Whoopi Goldberg is wonderful in her film debut as Celie, her male co-lead, whom she calls “Mister,” also deserves recognition. Albert Johnson is Celie’s husband whom she’s forced to marry, and he treats her horribly. Danny Glover’s turn as Albert is both captivating and terrifying, and though the character does turn a corner in the end, it's much harsher than many the actor has become known for over time.
The film received a remarkable 11 nominations, but did not take home any awards, with Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa winning in many of the categories. Glover was not nominated for his role, and to this day, has yet to receive an Academy nomination. He continues to act, but as his focus has been more on political activism these days, an Oscar doesn’t seem to be in his imminent future.
9 Morgan Freeman - Ellis "Red" Redding - The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A banker, Andy Dufresne, is sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife. There, he meets and impresses a group of prisoners, led by Red, and The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of his 20-some years behind bars, his schemes, and his eventual escape from Shawshank Penitentiary after long-maintaining his innocence. The film is a widely celebrated drama, and maintains a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Played by Morgan Freeman, Red is “the guy who can get things” on the inside. He’s quickly taken by Dufresne’s relaxed demeanor and intelligence, and the two become fast friends. Sometime after Dufresne escapes, Red is released, and after trying to survive on the outside, goes to find his old pal in Mexico. The character of Red was initially written as an Irishman, but director Frank Darabont was so impressed with Freeman that he cast him, and later stated that he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.
Freeman was nominated for Best Actor for his role in the film, but lost to Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump. The Shawshank Redemption received a total of seven Oscar nominations, but didn’t win any category. Fortunately, Freeman himself has fared better: After nearly 40 years on screen, the actor finally won an Oscar, for his supporting role in Million Dollar Baby.
8 Edward Norton - Derek Vinyard - American History X (1998)
The past has a way of repeating itself, if we do not learn from it. This is a message relevant to the present day, and is emphasized in American History X. The film depicts one man becomes a white supremacist, and shows how this is detrimental to his life, his time in prison, and his family.
Edward Norton played Derek Vinyard, a troubled young man who joins up with other neo-Nazis after his father is killed by black drug dealers. Derek goes to prison for manslaughter stemming from his racist views, but ends up learning the error of his ways. Unfortunately, his ideals had an effect on his younger brother Danny, and he’s unable to save him in the end.
Norton’s fame was on the rise at this time, having previously been nominated for his debut film role in Primal Fear. But it was his turn as Derek that was truly powerful, and he was nominated for Best Actor for this role, losing to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful. Though Norton hasn’t yet won an Academy Award, it seems likely that his day will come, given his history of choice films and spectacular performances.
7 Bill Murray - Bob Harris - Lost in Translation (2003)
One of the more unique and aesthetically-focused films on this list, Lost in Translation is director Sofia Coppola’s self-described “Valentine” to Toyko. Taking place over just a few days, the main characters Bob and Charlotte are at two different points in their lives, but relate to each other in a sense of feeling lost and unsure. The title of the film has been said to reflect both the literal lapse in understanding between two very different cultures and languages, and the lack of drive and communication in the characters' personal lives.
Allegedly, Coppola was determined to have Bill Murray portray Bob, and sought out numerous connections to get him on board. Coppola valued his calm presence, and Murray brought an understated humility to the character that was necessary in empathizing with him.
Lost in Translation was a bit different from the actor’s previous more humorous roles, but it scored him his first and only Oscar nomination to date. In general, aside from his frequent Wes Anderson collaborations, Murray’s film and television choices are comedic in nature, making them unlikely contenders in the eyes of the Academy.
6 Leonardo DiCaprio - Howard Hughes - The Aviator (2004)
Film producer, pilot, and all-around businessman Howard Hughes is the subject of The Aviator, an acclaimed biopic directed by Martin Scorsese. The film follows Hughes throughout most of his adult life, and highlights his obsessive-compulsive disorder, showing how it affected his career and personal relationships and eventually led to life as a hermit.
Leonardo DiCaprio was certainly not an unknown face at this time. In fact, the actor, having been in the biz since his teenage years, had already been nominated for an Oscar, for his role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? DiCaprio then went on to star in hits such as Titanic, Romeo + Juliet, and Catch Me If You Can. But his turn as Howard Hughes truly set him apart as a dramatic actor, and though he received the nomination, he lost to Jamie Foxx for his role in Ray.
The Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar snub became a meme, and soon movie lovers everywhere were confused as to how such a talent had gone unrecognized for so many years. This was finally rectified last year, when DiCaprio took home the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in The Revenant.
5 Mickey Rourke - Randy "The Ram" Robinson - The Wrestler (2008)
When the title of the film reflects the main character, it’s clear that it’s a film focused on people above all else. The Wrestler is very much a character-driven film, with the lead character Randy attempting to make the most of his life after his wrestling career as “The Ram” is over.
Randy has been working at a grocery store deli counter, but has only ever truly felt comfortable in the ring, and with his wrestling buddies. He meets a woman, Cassidy, who encourages him to get to know his estranged daughter, and he tries to pour all of his focus into those relationships and controlling his rage. In the end, Randy ignores the advice of his doctor and of Cassidy, and returns to fight once again.
Mickey Rourke, a former wrestler himself, was the perfect choice for the role, and director Darren Aronofsky worked with him to make sure the script and the character were as realistic as possible. Rourke was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but ultimately lost to Sean Penn for Milk. Though he continues to act, Rourke’s role as Randy may have been his only real shot at an Academy Award.
4 Sam Rockwell - Sam Bell - Moon (2009)
As with many similar genre films both before and after it, Moon showcases one man, Sam Bell, who is the sole living crew member aboard a spacecraft. For three years, Sam has been contracted to maintain the collection and distribution of the alternative fuel source Helium 3, which has essentially saved planet Earth from its former crisis state. But things aren’t exactly what they seem, and in order to figure out what’s going on, Sam teams up with an unlikely ally: himself.
One of the most difficult feats in acting is when an actor carries the movie through an essentially solo performance. In fact, it’s often the hallmark of a star’s career, when they’re trusted with a role where they’re on screen alone most of the time. Rockwell has proven himself a talented actor many times over, but Moon is truly the film that sets him apart.
The movie received many positive accolades, but was ignored by the Academy. Rockwell’s propensity for roles such as this is likely why he has yet to be nominated for a major award, but there’s still plenty of time for him. He’s set to appear in four separate features this year, including a cameo in Mute, the “spiritual sequel” to Moon.
3 Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011)
Brandon works a dull corporate job, surrounded by ordinary people and circumstances. What makes him interesting is his sex addiction, which permeates into every facet of his life. Steve McQueen's Shame picks up when Brandon’s sister, Sissy, comes to stay with him, bringing his struggle to the forefront while giving a glimpse into what has made the two troubled siblings the way they are.
Fassbender’s understated demeanor in the role is juxtaposed with that of his overeager colleague, David, and Sissy’s dramatics. The anxiety and frustration that Brandon struggles with is bottled up, and the only release that works for him is an orgasm. Despite what many would deem “disgusting,” Fassbender makes Brandon’s addiction almost relatable.
Fassbender’s performance received much acclaim from critics and independent festivals, and even earned him a Golden Globe nomination, but the film failed to score at the Oscars. As for the Irish actor, he’s shown himself to be a tremendous talent many times over, with a recent nod for his turn as the tech genius in Steve Jobs earning him his second Oscar nomination. Still in his 30s, there’s no doubt an Oscar win in Fassbender’s future.
2 Chiwetel Ejiofor - Solomon Northup - 12 Years a Slave (2013)
After Shame, director Steve McQueen took on a very different project: directing and producing an adaptation of the acclaimed memoir by Solomon Northrup, detailing his life as a free black man who was kidnapped in the mid-1800s and sold into slavery in the South. Even before its release, 12 Years a Slave quickly became the most talked-about film of 2013.
Leading man Chiwitel Ejiofor starred as Northrup himself, a talented musician living in New York and raising a family. Northrup is offered a gig if he travels to Washington, D.C. with two men who praise his skills, but they then turn around and sell him into slavery. The film tells his story over the next twelve years and the various people, both slaves and owners, he interacts with.
Ejiofor was a rising star at the time of his casting, with many acclaimed film, television, and stage credits to his name. His role as Northrup earned him his first and only (to date) Academy nomination, and he lost the award to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. However, don’t count Ejiofor out just yet -- he’s got a number of projects on the horizon, and is still considered a hot commodity in Hollywood.
1 Jake Gyllenhaal - Louis "Lou" Bloom - Nightcrawler (2014)
Nightcrawler is the engaging, haunting tale of one man, Lou, who begins his career as a “stringer” -- a freelance video journalist -- and will stop at nothing to score the perfect story. Lou soon begins a relationship with a news station producer, and tampers with crime scenes in order to make his recordings more interesting. The film is a character study, but also a look at how the public’s fascination with crime and violence creates a demand for these news stories.
Gyllenhaal takes on the role of Lou with a convincing sociopathic air unlike anything he'd ever done before. It's initially difficult to relate to his character, as Lou’s utter lack of morals and integrity are apparent from the very beginning. However, the film is driven by Lou’s determination, and by the end, he’s shown the audience another side of themselves.
As he’s been acting for many years, Gyllenhaal is not a stranger to major awards and award shows. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Brokeback Mountain but, shockingly, wasn’t given a Best Actor nod for Nightcrawler. However, knowing Gyllenhaal and his film choices, he likely won’t remain empty-handed for long. In fact, his upcoming turn as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing has Oscar written all over it.
Which famous roles do you feel should've earned their actors Oscars? Let us know in the comments!