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

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PSYCHO
Everett Collection

10. Rosalind Russell

Hildy Johnson, His Girl Friday (1940)

Russell wasn’t the first choice to play Hildy Johnson, the ace reporter who talks like a overactive ticker-tape. In fact, she wasn’t even director Howard Hawks’s third or fourth choice. But she still manages to walk away with the movie while setting the mold for an archetype to which many others—like Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy—would later pay homage. In The Front Page, the play on which the film is based, Hildy is a man—but Hawks wisely changed the character’s sex, shifting the story’s central dynamic. There were other fast-talking dames before her (like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies), but Russell’s is the most memorable, spelling out her name in bullets with her machine-gun patter. Like Russell’s Shakespearean namesake, she’s an intelligent, witty force of nature blowing through a man’s world. —KS

9. Jack Nicholson

Jack Torrance, The Shining (1980)

How could this performance be snubbed? It’s of Jack Nicholson’s most fearsome roles in one of the greatest horror movies ever made. (Which, incidentally, collected not a single nomination—except contemptible Razzie mentions for Shelley Duvall and Stanley Kubrick. Honestly.) Maybe the Academy was very confused. Maybe they just needed time to think things over. Then again, The Shining came out in May of 1980. So they had SEVEN MONTHS to think things over. Darling, Oscar… LIGHT of my LIFE. I’m not gonna hurt you—now, let me finish my sentence before you go backing up those stairs. I said, I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just going to bash your brains in a little. So give me the bat! GIMME THE BAT! —Anthony Breznican

8. Gene Hackman

Harry Caul, The Conversation (1974)

The meat in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather sandwich, The Conversation is one of those movies that grow richer, darker and more complex with every obsessive viewing. And Hackman is the key to every haunting frame. He plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who digs through the mess of an audio track to find a simple message: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Those eight words send Caul into a morally ambiguous spiral, the perfect vehicle to prove just how good Hackman was. Here, he isn’t within a city block of the cocksure Popeye Doyle. Caul doubts himself. There’s a story behind that uncertainty, one we never learn—but thanks to Hackman and his always-simmering frustration, it’s one we understand. —KS

7. Judy Garland

Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

If a single, show-stopping vocal performance can be nominated for an Oscar—and it can; see Hudson, Jennifer in Dreamgirls—then it’s absolutely unforgivable that Garland’s beautiful, wistful, wise-beyond-her-years rendition of the bittersweet anthem ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow” wasn’t enough to score the teenaged actress a nod. Of course, there’s more to Dorothy Gale than one indelible tune. Garland is captivating throughout the film, projecting a yearning, cusp-of-adolescence innocence that both grounds the fantasy of Oz and lends it an unexpected poignancy. Sure, Garland was given a special Juvenile Award by the Academy for her signature role—but time has confirmed that her performance is as iconic as any actress’s of the 20th century, much less just 1939. —Hillary Busis

6. Cary Grant

Roger Thornhill, North By Northwest (1959)

It was always easy to underrate Grant. He made it all look so easy; he was so charming, so suave, with an impeccable accent geo-located somewhere between Upper East Side aristocrat and Westminster Abbey. In North by Northwest, the perfect leading man gets the perfect leading role: Roger Thornhill, twice-divorced advertising man mistaken for a secret agent. Grant shades Thornhill with equal parts egotism and desperation—not to mention a light, droll bemusement, as if he can’t quite believe how all occasions do inform against him. Pretty much every thriller protagonist lives in the long shadow of Grant in North by Northwest. (There’s an argument to be made that Cary Grant is a better James Bond than anyone who ever played James Bond.) But the real joy of Grant’s performance is watching him ever-so-subtly track Thornhill’s steady evolution from debonair cad to romantic hero, daring everything for the woman he loves. —DF

5. Marilyn Monroe

Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, Some Like It Hot (1959)

This film picked up several nominations for the men involved in making it, but there was no love for its lead actress that year—or any year. Maybe she was already too big a movie star. Maybe that blinded the Academy to a performance that was arguably the strongest ever from one of the 20th century’s most iconic stars. Monroe never got quite enough respect when she was alive, but there’s a reason she endures as a legend. Her ukulele-strumming Sugar Kane Kowalczyk almost tempts Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon out of the feminine disguises they’ve donned to hide from the mob. Sugar captures the allure and effervescence of a sex symbol while showcasing the warmth and soulfulness of the woman beneath. How much of that is thanks to the actress herself, and how much is her acting? That’s why it’s a great performance—almost as good as Norma Jean’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe herself. —Anthony Breznican

4. Robert Shaw

Quint, Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg originally considered Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden to play Amity Island’s resident shark hunter in Jaws. Their loss is cinema’s gain, because Shaw is devilish perfection as the snarling old salt Quint. Not only does the actor seem to have chum running through his veins, his half-cocked squint lets us know that he’s a modern-day Ahab. He’ll catch that 25-foot Great White that killed the little Kintner boy—or die trying. With his moonshine, ribald shanties, and single-minded obsession, Quint’s a character who’s so outsized that it’s easy to imagine how another actor might have turned him into a slice of ham. But go back and watch Shaw’s famous speech about the USS Indianapolis again. It’s haunting, intimate, and it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and salute. It’s as good as acting gets. —CN

3. Anthony Perkins

Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)

The madness that Perkins plays so memorably in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho isn’t just the psychosis that would inspire the knife-wielding lunatics of the modern slasher genre. It’s the insanity of irony, of pretending to be someone or something you’re not. His performance is a series of performances about performance, whether he’s the Good Son, the Bad Mother, or the cheerful, earnest caretaker to those unfortunate few who stumble upon the Bates Motel. What is casual about Norman is actually meticulously practiced; every smile is both genuine and phony. The real Norman peeks through only when his facades fail him—never more so than in the climax, when the Mother guise melts away and Norman’s face warps into a twisted smirk that barely conceals a terror akin to Munch’s “The Scream.” The misdirection of the movie makes it hard to appreciate Perkins’s work after only one viewing. Maybe that’s why Oscar didn’t see back then what we worship now, with the benefit of endless replay and a head full of spoilers. That final, killer smile still chills, and it always will. —JJ

2. Ingrid Bergman

Ilsa Lund, Casablanca (1942)

The beauty of Bergman’s performance can be summed up in one scene. You can probably guess the one: It’s when she asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By.” Bergman begins almost giddy, cajoling the pianist into playing the song he knows will cause her some measure of pain. As he plays, the camera lingers on her face as her expression changes from the warmth of remembrance to the sadness of heartbreak. By the time her gaze meets that of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick for the first time in Casablanca, her eyes are glassy. The moment speaks to the brilliant balancing act that is Bergman’s entire performance—how she conveys passion concealed beneath a mask of duty and fear. Rick may get the great lines and the cavalier moral ambivalence, but Ilsa is equally conflicted—torn between a man she loves and a man she respects, between her personal interests and a greater cause. —Esther Zuckerman

1. Jimmy Stewart

“Scottie” Ferguson, Vertigo (1958)

Watch Jimmy Stewart’s eyes. Watch how he watches. Early in Hitchcock’s dreamy masterpiece, there’s that famous sequence where Stewart follows Kim Novak. Stewart’s a former detective with a fear of heights; Novak’s a society gal, suffering from reincarnation delusions. Her husband has hired Stewart to investigate her. Forget all that. Watch Stewart watch Novak. He’s inquisitive, then bored, then confused, then intrigued—scared, maybe, or maybe falling in love. Stewart was America’s Nice Guy before the war; after, his roles skewed darker, stranger. He was never darker nor stranger than in Vertigo, a movie that calls upon him to incarnate love shading into madness and obsession. So it’s possible to appreciate Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo as one of the great anti-star roles: Mr. Smith Goes Bananas. But the movie is never a stunt. Not when Stewart descends into mourning, and then madness. Not in its final moment of salvation and doom. And not in all those close-ups of Stewart, watching. That’s what a movie star looks like; that’s what acting is. —DF