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The 51 all-time greatest acting performances... that Oscar ignored

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Everett Collection

There’s no official appeal process when an actor wakes up on Oscar nominations morning and doesn’t hear his or her name announced. Every year, the Academy selects its 20 favorite performances; a winner is crowned a month or so later, and the names get etched in the history books. But those who aren’t nominated aren’t necessarily discarded to cinema’s dustbin. In an era when infinite, instant access to 100 years of cinema keeps our favorite movies at our fingertips, time is the ultimate arbiter of greatness.

The more we watch, the more we recognize the Academy’s recurring myopia. Yes, there are always inexplicable Oscar oversights recognized immediately as snubs. But there are also performances that ripen with time, emerging as the classics that influence generations of subsequent audiences and filmmakers. Look no further than Anthony Perkins’ chilling and genre-defining Norman Bates: In 2015, how does it rate compared to Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry, the 1961 Best Actor winner?

Perkins wasn’t even nominated for Norman—so there’s hope for Selma‘s David Oyelowo and A Most Violent Year‘s Jessica Chastain, too. Heck, there’s hope for Tom Hardy (Locke) and Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer). Oscar may have spoken yesterday, but there is no final verdict.

Entertainment Weekly dug into the scores of great performances that have been overlooked by Oscar over the past 87 years. Some are so iconic that we had to triple-check the history books to make sure that Oscar had been so blind. (Really? Ingrid Bergman wasn’t nominated for Casablanca?) We could’ve made a list of 250—but from that list, we culled it down to 51 and ranked them, counting down to the single greatest acting performance that failed to grab Oscar’s attention. No doubt we left out some of your favorites, and no doubt you will tell us that in the comments. Please do. —Jeff Labrecque

[Note: Many of these film clips are not censored for language.]

50/51. Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke

Celine & Jesse, Before Midnight (2013)

Over the course of 18 years and three films, Delpy and Hawke taught audiences some memorable lessons about love. In 1995, the lesson was that love is serendipitous and maybe it’s everywhere; in 2004, it was that—oh, wait—maybe love really is exceedingly rare. Then, in 2013, it was that love is really, really hard. Their complementary performances as the wisecracking American Jesse and the more-worldly Frenchwoman Celine offered a breathtaking tour through the many different people two humans can be in relation to each other—strangers, friends, acquaintances, lovers, co-conspirators, enemies, exes, allies. Though the Academy recognized the actors for co-writing two of the screenplays alongside Richard Linklater, it’s a shame that their carefully-calibrated portrayals failed to earn the same appreciation as those in Linklater’s other, more recent years-in-the-making project, Boyhood. —Ashley Fetters

49. Zhang Ziyi

Jen Yu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

She fights! She flies! She loves! She kills! Ang Lee fronted his martial-arts sword opera with action pros Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. But Crouching Tiger ultimately belongs to Zhang. As Jen, a young aristocrat slated for a domestic life and an arranged marriage, Zhang explodes every princess myth: She’s a rebel, an adventurer, by turns passionate and cynical. The actress was barely over 20, and her only previous role had been in Zhang Yimou’s sensitive The Road Home—but Lee confidently gave her all the best fight scenes, and Zhang invests those scenes with a mixture of expert balleticism and untrained improvisation. We’re currently enjoying a bumper crop of action heroines—but the Lawrence-Woodley ingenues of Hollywood wish they had a role half as meaty as Jen, who’s Crouching Tiger’s hero, villain, and crazy heart. It’s a role Zhang plays to the hilt. —Darren Franich

48. Donna Reed

Mary, It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)

Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director were among the nominations for this now-indelible holiday classic. But there was no mention of the supporting actress who humanized the unhappy alternate-universe that would have existed without George Bailey. The love story between Reed and James Stewart’s characters is one of the most tender, comical and—by 1947 standards—sexy in Hollywood history. Remember her losing her robe in the bushes? While George sacrificed his own dreams and ambitions to take care of his town and friends, Reed’s Mary stood for the generations of wives, mothers, and homemakers who did the same for their husbands and children. There’s unspoken power in that, and although society has moved on for the better, the Academy chose to overlook this epitome of what it means to play a supporting role. —Anthony Breznican

47. Marcello Mastroianni

Guido Anselmni, 8 1/2 (1963)

In their follow-up to La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini and Mastroianni created something that still feels exciting more than 50 years later—a surrealist tale of one man’s struggles with art and the past. The ever-cool actor plays an essential role in grounding this tale of a skewed version of Fellini while also embodying everything we learn about Guido’s history. It’s a performance and a film worth revisiting every few years, just as a reminder of how ballsy these guys were all the way back in 1963. Excuse me while I throw on a black suit and some thick glasses. —Kevin Sullivan

46. Uma Thurman

The Bride, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

What more do you want from Thurman in both volumes of Quentin Tarantino’s epic revenge fantasy? As The Bride, an assassin out to murder her former associates and former lover, the actress is asked to perform pretty much every emotion that exists within the human spectrum of feeling, fight in every possible way with almost every manner of weapon, hold the center of a sprawling, fractured narrative, and make you care deeply about every gratuitously pulp frame of it. Whether she’s brawling in the kitchen with Vivica A. Fox or dragging herself out of her death bed and willing her toes to wiggle, scratching her way out of her grave or epically bantering with Bill before putting him down with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, Thurman thrills by throwing all of herself at you—raw, real, gutsy, and sweaty. She doesn’t just own the part: She kills it. —Jeff Jensen

45. Sacha Baron Cohen

Borat, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

The Academy favors serious performances in serious movies, which meant Baron Cohen’s gonzo portrayal of Kazakh journalist Borat didn’t have a prayer come Oscar time. (He shared a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay with four others.) But the most Method of actors had to appreciate Baron Cohen’s dedication, which allowed him to fool so many people that even the moviegoing public wasn’t sure how much of the film was fake. Baron Cohen did snag a Golden Globe, though, and during his acceptance speech he mentioned the scene that found him wrestling with his naked co-star, Ken Davitian: “Ken, when I was in that scene and I stared down and saw your two wrinkled golden globes on my chin, I thought to myself, ‘I’d better win a bloody award for this.'” —Kyle Ryan

44. Kirk Douglas

Chuck Tatum, Ace in the Hole (1951)

Billy Wilder’s ink-black satire of sensationalist journalism was a rare early misfire—commercially and critically—when it was first released. Luckily, this whip-crack of a film about an inveterate careerist at a small New Mexico paper who thwarts the rescue effort of a man trapped in a cavern so he can prolong his exclusive story has since received its proper due. Based partly on the death of spelunker Floyd Collins, and presaging everything from Baby Jessica to the Chilean miners, Ace in the Hole has only grown more relevant with time—but Douglas’s performance packed a wind-up punch from the very start. The actor bites down hard on the role, leaning into the character’s unsavory aspects chin-first. It’s a first-rate example of the kind of clenched vitality Douglas brought to Hollywood, and it’s amazing to think he would never take home a competitive Oscar (somehow losing out for Lust for Life to Yul Brynner in 1957). —Keith Staskiewicz

43. Maggie Cheung

Su Li-zhen, In the Mood for Love (2000)

The Academy loves, more than anything, to reward bigness: big speeches, big emotions, big huge gigantic capital-A Act-ting. But in Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece of minimalism, everything is internal. Cheung plays Su Li-zhen, a not-so-desperate housewife in early-’60s Hong Kong. Cheung’s wardrobe is legendary—she wears somewhere around 20 dresses in the film’s 98-minutes—but just as legendary is the careful, delicate, restrained power of her presence. Cheung discovers that her husband is cheating on her, and strikes up a relationship with next door neighbor Tony Leung—an affair that’s never quite an affair, a romance that seems to exist entirely in the quiet air around the couple. It recalls that line in Pulp Fiction—“That’s when you know you found somebody really special, when you can just shut the f— up for a minute and comfortably share silence.” Cheung’s performance in In the Mood for Love is a triumph of comfortable silence—and of deep emotions that simmer beneath a serene surface. —DF

42. Eli Wallach

Tuco, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Eli Wallach enters Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western like a bat out of hell: jumping through a window, smoking gun in one hand and bloody half-devoured chicken leg in the other, head swiveling right and left like a psychopathic sprinkler. And “like a bat out of hell” is pretty much the register Wallach stays in for the entire movie. As hedonist gun-thug Tuco, Wallach is a live-action cartoon of id unleashed, larcenous, vengeful, and stupid-smart. It should feel like overacting—it is—but Wallach finds something sublime in Tuco’s debauchery. The quiet moments echo like cannonfire; by the end of the film, as Tuco faces off against Clint Eastwood’s ethereal Man With No Name and Lee Van Cleef’s villainous Man In Black, you realize with some surprise that Tuco has become the movie’s Everyman. Oscar doesn’t tend to reward action movies, comedic performances, or unfamous actors playing unrepentant maniacs. Too bad: We could use more Tucos. —DF

41. Diane Keaton

Kay Corleone, The Godfather: Part II (1974)

One of the most acclaimed films of all time, the sequel to 1972’s The Godfather racked up six Oscars and 11 nominations—four of them for supporting performances—but none for Diane Keaton’s portrayal of Michael Corleone’s long-suffering wife, Kay. (Her co-star Talia Shire nabbed a Best Supporting Actress nod.) In the original film, Kay was a naïf, but events in the sequel break her. If her “It was an abortion!” confrontation with her husband flirted slightly with melodrama, Keaton’s transformation throughout the film—from prisoner in her own home to spiteful agitator to pariah—deserved more than having the Oscar’s door closed in her face again. —KR