By EW Staff
February 21, 2019 at 03:10 PM EST
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-plus 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 2019, how does it rate compared to Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry, the 1961 Best Actor winner?

Entertainment Weekly dug into the scores of great performances that have been overlooked by Oscar over the past 91 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 54 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: This list was first published in January 2015 and most recently updated in February 2019. Many of the clips below are not censored for language.]

53/54. Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke

Celine and 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

52. 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

51. 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

50. Marcello Mastroianni

Guido Anselmni, (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

49. 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

48. Michael Shannon

Elvis Presley, Elvis & Nixon (2016), and Roy Timlon, Midnight Special (2016)

It’s honestly fantastic that an actor as idiosyncratic as Shannon has received two Oscar nods to begin with: one for 2008’s Revolutionary Road, the other for 2016’s Nocturnal Animals. But as inimitable as his granite jawline and unblinking, sometimes frankly terrifying gaze can be, they’re also surprisingly mutable features, too. How else to explain that in the same year he was recognized for Nocturnal he also produced two other stellar performances? The first as a father desperate to protect his gifted son in the eerie supernatural arthouse thriller Midnight Special, and the other as the King himself in Elvis & Nixon, a loopy historical farce in which his sweetly unhinged embodiment of Presley — opposite Kevin Spacey’s jowly, soon-to-be-disgraced president — was far, far better than it needed to be. —Leah Greenblatt

47. 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

46. 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’ 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

45. 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

44. 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

43. 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

42. Denzel Washington

Joe Miller, Philadelphia (1993)

Tom Hanks gobbled up the accolades for losing weight to play a dying, gay AIDS patient — a trifecta of character traits that Oscar traditionally calls up to the front of the line. Washington, on the other hand, played a blue-collar city attorney who sprints away from his sick potential client until his outrage at injustice slightly extends past his homophobic prejudices. Joe Miller doesn’t have a character hook — no limp, no childhood trauma, no speech impediment. He’s just a hustling Philly attorney who loves his family, his job, beer, and sports. That there’s nothing average about this Average Guy is a credit to Washington’s talent. Just ask Hanks, who once told James Lipton, “The greatest acting lessons I have ever received was from those days [watching Washington], and I steal from him every day, in every performance.” —Jeff Labrecque

41. Michelle Williams

Wendy, Wendy & Lucy (2008)

Sometimes, a great performance isn’t about what the actor brings to the role — it’s about what she doesn’t bring. As Wendy, a broke drifter who’s trying to make it to Alaska with her dog, Williams never relies on a dramatic line or a full-fledged emotional breakdown to show her character’s quiet suffering. She knows that it’s much more heartbreaking to see Wendy wake up each morning on the verge of collapse and still remain proud enough to hold it together. The film’s most wrenching moments come from watching that endurance drain out of her over the course of 80 minutes, as the dream of making it to Alaska slowly slips away. The film premiered in 2008, at the height of the recession, and Williams gave real depth to a struggle that many Americans were feeling at home. Wendy and Lucy might’ve sounded like a story about a simple girl with a simple purpose — but thanks to Williams, neither was simple at all. —Melissa Maerz

40. Lauren Bacall

“Slim,” To Have and Have Not (1944)

It may be the most indelible film debut in the history of motion pictures. Bacall is just 19, but already she seems to know more about the rigged way the world works than any woman twice her age. With her husky voice, sleepy bedroom eyes, and cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk, Bacall’s Slim turns Humphrey Bogart into putty (in the film… and real life). It’s one of those rare moments when you can actually see a star being born. She talks like one of the boys, but she’s all woman. And all she needs to do is utter one famous line and you know that Bogie’s world will never be the same again. There’s no turning back. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.” —Chris Nashawaty

39. Guy Pearce

Leonard, Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan’s breakout directorial effort is best remembered for its front-to-back narrative, but the entirety of that stunt hinges on Pearce and his ability to inspire empathy for a character who is, by design, barely there. He plays Leonard, a traumatized husband whose short-term memory deficit complicates his mission of vengeance against the man he thinks murdered his wife. As Memento spirals inward and more is revealed about who Leonard might be and what he is capable of, Pearce hangs right with the script, and his warmth makes many of the film’s third-act twists — especially the explosive finale — simultaneously thrilling and heartbreaking. His total mastery of the role allows the audience to keep up with what is a ridiculously loopy script, and he’s so good that he allows Memento to play one more trick on the audience: that they have any grasp on who Leonard really is. —Kyle Anderson

38. Jimmy Stewart

“Jeff” Jefferies, Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window‘s Jeff might not have the same near-psychotic range as Vertigo‘s Scottie, but the contained Hitchcock thriller provided plenty of challenges for its leading man. Locked into a wheelchair, Stewart has to work purely off of his chops. The way he reacts to action he’s probably not seeing on set with just his voice and face makes the convincing case that Stewart easily could have acted opposite modern CGI. This being Hitchcock, there’s still that “You’ve to go believe me!” suspense, which Stewart deftly handles, even if he doesn’t have the help of his legs. Few actors could hold the audience’s attention in such a limited setting; this is Stewart’s star persona at its very best. —KS

37. Catherine Deneuve

Séverine, Belle de Jour (1967)

The French beauty’s pliant but disenchanted housewife — whose psychosexual fantasies go unfulfilled by her new doctor husband — vibrated with an elegant eroticism. With just a little urging from a lecherous acquaintance, Séverine embarks on a surreal sadomasochistic adventure as a daytime prostitute, a lady of the day or a belle de jour — home in time to cook her husband supper. The role made the 24-year-old Deneuve an erotic icon, but what made her Séverine so memorably seductive was the blank resignation with which she pursued her kinky kicks, an enigmatic quality that director Luis Buñuel purposely cultivated. “I can’t help myself,” she says at one point. “I am lost.” Deneuve later expressed regret at the role, saying she “felt totally used,” but she will forever be the cinematic personification of unquenchable desire. —JL

36. John Wayne

Ethan Edwards, The Searchers (1956)

Considering how celebrated The Searchers has become in the 59 years since its release, it’s remarkable that the Academy completely snubbed John Ford’s western. Nuance and John Wayne rarely were mentioned in the same sentence, but as Indian-hating Ethan Edwards, who’s in pursuit of a niece abducted by Comanches, the Duke elevates an otherwise straightforward rescue ‘n’ revenge plot by increasingly obfuscating his character’s true motivation and intent. By the time the film reaches its climax, it’s impossible to know not just what Edwards plans to do, but also who he is and what he still stands for — all of which makes the resolution, with Edwards’s mostly joyless rescue of the girl, that much more resonant. Wayne admirably transformed Edwards into a man for whom the search had become everything. —Neil Janowitz

35. Susan Sarandon

Annie Savoy, Bull Durham (1988)

Sarandon was justly nominated for her performance in Thelma & Louise and won an Oscar for Dead Man Walking, but her Southern-gal turn in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham is her best work. As a maturing minor-league baseball groupie, Sarandon not only brings an exceptional comic timing to the role — she also presides over the film’s underlying sexual drama and carries with her just enough sadness to keep Annie feeling like a real person. And she does it while fending off the magnetic, scenery-hogging presences of both Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. Consider this: Could any of Sarandon’s contemporaries have handled Bull Durham’s particularly adult balance of sex appeal, humor, and baseball-related pathos? Here’s a hint: The answer is no. —KA

34. Jim Carrey

Truman Burbank, The Truman Show (1998)

Academy voters typically pay attention when comedians tackle serious roles. (See: Steve Carell as the deranged millionaire in Foxcatcher). But that dog didn’t hunt for Jim Carrey, the only actor in 50 years to win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and then be snubbed for an Oscar nomination. His Truman Burbank is a square guy who’s the unwitting star of his own TV show. More than a parable about reality programming, Peter Weir’s film actually concerns an existential crisis within all of us — that the life we lead is one big manufactured lie. “Was nothing real?” Truman asks a godlike figure he cannot see. Truman could be a Scientologist; he could be a citizen of North Korea. But in Carrey’s moving depiction, Truman emerges as something subtler: a clown who dreams of escaping the circus where a catchphrase gets mistaken for the truth. —Joe McGovern

33. Jeremy Irons

Beverly and Elliot Mantle, Dead Ringers (1988)

In the 1980s, David Cronenberg had a knack for directing fascinating, unconventional lead performances that were routinely ignored by Oscar — Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. This became a trend with Jeremy Irons’s deliriously creepy turn in Dead Ringers. Loosely based on real life identical twins, New York City gynecologists who were found dead in their apartment, the movie is a spectacle of grotesque medical equipment and evil-red operating scrubs. Within that lurid context, Irons’s disturbingly calm performance stands out. He doesn’t work with the usual chicanery of twin roles. The variations between the two brothers are almost impossible to perceive — the men are just close enough in behavior to be too close, and we study Irons intently to spot the deviations. The Oscar diss reverberated two years later, when Irons did take home a statuette for his performance as the slippery Claus Von Bulow in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune. In his acceptance speech, he said “Thank you, also — and some of you may understand why — thank you, David Cronenberg.” —JM

32. Christian Bale

Patrick Bateman, American Psycho (2000)

Academy members like to reward actors they believe have captured the essential essence of a character. So Christian Bale was never likely to give an Oscar speech for his portrayal of man who has no essential essence at all. Technically speaking, Patrick Bateman is an investment banker by day and serial killer by night. But regardless of the hour or activity, Bale brilliantly makes it clear that he is pretending to be someone who is pretending to be someone, while creating a worryingly believable portrait of modern manhood along the way. The result is the perfect central performance for a film that, like its source material, is at its core a deep study of superficiality. —Clark Collis

31. Ruth Gordon

Maude, Harold and Maude, (1971)

On paper, Maude and Harold’s relationship is strange at best and disturbing at worst: The 79-year-old Maude and the 20-year-old Harold connect over their mutual obsession with death, eventually striking up a romance that culminates in a sleepover (and almost a marriage). But Gordon shapes Maude into a character who’s a delightful eccentric rather than a creep, one whose lust for life is comical and contagious. There’s more to Maude than just her joy, though, and the actress’s performance hints that beneath all of the wide-eyed exuberance is a longing for something she hasn’t yet found — a suspicion realized by the film’s end. —Ariana Bacle

30. R. Lee Ermey

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman changed how we see authority, and I mean that in the most literal sense. I’m not even just talking about drill sergeants in movies, because there’s no doubt that Ermey’s performance became the mold for everyone that came after it. What I mean is that voice — the one you’re probably hearing in your own head right now — has become intrinsically linked with an entire structure of society. Each spitted syllable hits bone. That’s just how powerful a movie can be. Sure, it locked Ermey into a lifetime of rehashing Hartman — but how many Oscar nominees can say that they’ve done that? I can’t hear you, maggot! —KS

29. Bill Murray

Phil Connors, Groundhog Day (1993)

Don’t drive angry. This is just one of many lessons to be gleaned from 1993’s sly, philosophical romantic comedy Groundhog Day. Director Harold Ramis and Murray — longtime collaborators on classic works including Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Caddyshack — argued throughout filming, and stopped speaking soon after. But if the leading man was unhappy, his performance certainly didn’t suffer: Groundhog Day shows Murray as an actor at the height of his dramatic and comedic powers. As Phil, a weatherman trapped in an endless loop in Punxsutawney, Pa., Murray reaches ecstatic highs while experimenting with his newfound godlike powers, as well as existential lows as he endlessly repeats the same 24-hour period. Murray’s deadpan wit and sad clown face arguably have never been better.

28. Liv Ullmann

Elisabet Vogler, Persona (1966)

The great stealth-missile freakout of 1960s cinema, Persona is a film about two women in a house by the sea. Over the film’s not-even-90-minute running time, the two women become friends, then enemies, then… something else. Bibi Andersson is great as initially serene nurse Alma — but it’s Ullmann who quietly steals the movie. Literally quietly: Ullmann plays Elisabet, an actress rendered mute by some inexplicable mental/emotional illness. Ullmann’s performance is by turns sweetly innocent and insidiously cerebral. She gives Persona a Rorschachian rewatchability. Who is Elisabet, really? What is she thinking? “What is anyone thinking?” is what you start asking yourself — and if that sounds like artsy blathering, you have to understand how Ullmann grounds the artiest of art films with grace, humor, and sadness. Existential misery shouldn’t feel this exciting. —DF

27. Dennis Hopper

Frank Booth, Blue Velvet (1986)

The Academy might have taken Hopper’s demand — “Don’t you f—ing look at me!” — a little too seriously when it failed to nominate him for his apocalyptic performance as Frank Booth, the suburban boogeyman who breathes in nitrous and breathes out venom. A sadistic monster that lurched out of the recesses of David Lynch’s haunted mental attic, Booth is a greaser delinquent gone rancid — the mutated apotheosis of Norman Mailer’s hipster psychopath. So who better to play him than one of the goons who messed with James Dean? Hopper detonates on-screen, sucking from a gas mask like a hellish scuba diver and searing his performance on audience’s brains like a threat: See you in your dreams. —KS

26. Reese Withersoon

Tracy Flick, Election (1999)

PICK FLICK. Somebody should have sent the Academy a few of this dainty teenage steamroller’s homemade campaign cupcakes, but at the time Election was released, it did next to nothing at the box office and wasn’t considered any kind of awards contender. It wasn’t until later that moviegoers realized, “Hey, wait… this isn’t just a throwaway high school comedy.” It’s an epic battle between the Type-As and the Type-Bs, a clash of personalities that has no winners, only emotional casualties. And Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick will stand atop that ruin forever, raising her fist in the air. It’s a pity there isn’t a golden statue clenched in it. —AB

25. Idris Elba

Commandant, Beasts of No Nation (2015)

The industry has had no problem acknowledging Elba’s talent: He has five Emmy nods, and four from the Golden Globes. But actual gold statuettes have mostly eluded the lauded star of The Wire and Luther Stateside (though he does hold a British knighthood, anointed by the Queen). And it’s nearly impossible to understand how the London-born actor was snubbed for 2015’s Beasts of No Nation; maybe Carey Fukanaga’s stark, brutally honest story of child soldiers fighting for their lives in an unspecified West African nation was just too much for the Academy? Because Elba’s indelible turn as a menacing, fiercely charismatic militia leader earned him nearly universal critical acclaim otherwise, including a BAFTA and a SAG Award — the latter making him the first actor to ever do so without an Oscar nod. (And scorekeepers, while we have you, he was also pretty great in Molly’s Game.) — LG

24. Tom Cruise

Charlie Babbitt, Rain Man (1988)

Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for his flashier part, but Cruise is a revelation as Rain Man’s straight man, a fast-talking Lamborghini salesman who embarks on a cross-country road trip with his long-lost autistic older brother. Cruise (who was 26 at the time and coming off swaggering roles in Top Gun and Cocktail) simultaneously tees up Hoffman’s showy turn and propels the drama, maturing from a bitter, self-centered jerk to a caring protector. (Hoffman’s character, meanwhile, doesn’t evolve so much as reveal hidden talents). Rain Man cemented Cruise’s bona fides, demonstrating his emotional range as well as an ambition to take on projects showcasing more than just hard-charging charisma. —Chris Lee

23. Sidney Poitier

Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Poitier had already made history, winning the Best Actor prize three years earlier for Lilies in the Field, and costar Rod Steiger’s gruff performance as a stubborn Mississippi sheriff sucked up most of the pre-Oscar attention. Yet it’s still staggering that Poitier’s role, as a proud Philadelphia detective (“They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) marooned in the Deep South, missed the cut. In the movie’s watershed scene, Poitier’s character responds to a slap from a plantation owner by slapping the old white man right back. In that moment the whole movie crackles with genuine danger, all thanks to Poitier’s power. —JM

22. Nicole Kidman

Suzanne Stone Maretto, To Die For (1995)

Gus Van Sant’s blacker-than-black 1995 dramedy could have been remembered for featuring two of a generation’s finest actors — Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix — in early supporting roles. But come on… Can you even think about To Die For without remembering the gleaming sharp edge that was Kidman as sociopathic Suzanne Stone? Beautiful, ice cold, and fueled relentlessly by ambition, Stone dreamed of being a world-famous news anchor. With her long legs and Barbie eyes, Kidman plays both a believable seductress and a wicked villainess, often in the very same scene. Kidman was known at the time mainly as a flame-haired siren with a famous husband; it was this film and this performance that had the world sitting up just a little bit straighter and realizing the accomplished actress before them.

21. Mia Farrow

Rosemary Woodhouse, Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Part of the agonizing horror of this movie is watching poor Rosemary take so long to learn what the audience already knows about the people she trusts implicitly. She is simply too pure, too good-hearted, and too naïve to face the evil that is breathing down her neck, Snow White stepping out of her fairy tale and into a horror story. Watching her is like riding in the backseat of a car as the driver steers toward a cliff, pedal to the metal. This kind of aloof innocence could easily become grating, but the magic trick of Farrow’s performance as this mother-to-be is convincing us to care about her, to stay with her rather than jump. We feel so deeply for Rosemary. We see her inner strength and goodness as she desperately tries to break free of the constraints of dependence shackled around her. When she finally realizes what’s happening, her horror finally joins our own. And in the final scene, a mother’s act of love becomes a betrayal to an audience that still recoils in disgust. We stayed with her — and she sent us over the cliff alone. —AB

20. Robert De Niro

Rupert Pupkin, The King of Comedy (1983)

Johnny Boy, Vito Corleone, Jake La Motta — it was De Niro’s tough-guy roles that cemented his place in history as one of acting’s greats. But that animal intensity wasn’t the only arrow in his quiver. The King of Comedy was his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, a dark, daring satire of obsession and celebrity culture centered around Rupert Pupkin, an ingratiating aspiring comic and autograph collector who kidnaps Jerry Lewis’s late-night host in a bid for fame. Pupkin is like the extrovert analogue of Travis Bickle, a delusional social outcast on a destructive mission of self-actualization, and De Niro plays him as someone just pathetic enough to be dangerous, with a twinkle in his eye this side of deranged. —KS

19. David Oyelowo

Martin Luther King, Jr., Selma (2014)

There’s a lot the Academy famously got wrong with Selma — nominating the MLK biopic for Best Picture without even nodding to director Ava DuVernay, for one thing. (It did take home a consolation prize for its sole other nom, Best Original Song.) But surely voters could have passed over Robert Duvall’s turn in the tepidly reviewed father-son legal drama The Judge (he already has his, guys, for 1983’s Tender Mercies!) in favor of the British-born Oyelowo, whose impassioned, beautifully keeled performance brought true lifeblood to one of the most revered and least understood figures in history. —LG

18. Juliette Binoche

Julie Vignon de Courcy, Blue (1993)

Even in our shrinking world, it’s still rare for lead actresses in foreign-language films to be nominated, and when they are, they rarely win. (Sophia Loren in Two Women and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose are the sole exceptions). Binoche’s quietly devastating performance as a woman seeking a reason to live after the sudden death of her husband and daughter deserves to be among them. Blue, the first film of director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s dazzling three-color trilogy (Blue, White, Red), slips beneath the surface of grief and glides into deep, still pools of loss. If that sounds depressing, it isn’t. Binoche — in virtually every frame and often without dialogue — captures the sharp beauty of solitude and the clarity of pain. Her reluctant journey back to the land of the living will, yes, renew your faith in the strength of the human spirit. More importantly, it will renew your faith in the strength of a single actor to take you someplace you never want to go — and make you grateful that she did. —Sean Smith

17. Gene Kelly

Don Lockwood, Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Kelly’s signature film, with his classic drizzly song-and-dance, might be the greatest musical ever made. Early drafts of the film featured Don as a singing cowboy rather than a silent-film star, so it was kismet when Kelly came aboard to star and co-direct. Kelly and Don were the perfect pairing, and the actor’s blinding confidence in this setting, as this character, practically emanates through Don’s every pore. No one who ever lived could’ve been a better Don Lockwood, a perfect symbiosis preserved for all time in the most famous rain dance in movie history. —JL

16. Henry Fonda

Juror No. 8, 12 Angry Men (1957)

Playing young Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad earlier in his career cast Fonda as the face of humble righteousness, and playing the lone contrarian set against 11 jurors who want to sentence a murder suspect to death in Sidney Lumet’s classic cineplay cemented that reputation. There’s a reason he was cast so frequently as a U.S. president. Fonda’s compassionate Juror No. 8 never raises his voice or loses his cool — even as tempers flare. He never insults his colleagues or chastises them for their ignorant prejudices. He just shows them the path toward doing the right thing. In a decade when the movies were trying desperately to look different from upstart television, 12 Angry Men failed that test miserably and paid the price at the box-office. But time — and regular TV screenings — have rightfully confirmed it a classic, in large part because Fonda’s stoic and heroic performance reflects the American character as we want it to be. —JL

15. Humphrey Bogart

Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon (1941)

When we think of the doomed noir private eye, we think of Bogart. He is to tough-talking shamuses what Marilyn Monroe was to sex. And this is where it all kicked off — as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade in John Huston’s crackerjack adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. It was a turning point in Bogie’s career — the moment he went from playing villains to heroes. And it’s easy to see why. Whether he’s smacking Peter Lorre around, getting played by Mary Astor’s femme fatale, or receiving a blustery history lesson about a priceless statue of a black bird from Sidney Greenstreet, Spade is caught in the middle but always in control — and always as cool as the barrel of a revolver. —CN

14. John Cazale

Fredo, The Godfather: Part II (1974)

In the short, remarkable career he carved out before his tragic early death, Cazale never made a false move. Every performance — from Dog Day Afternoon to The Deer Hunter to The Conversation — was a master class in the battle between strength and weakness, power and impotence. Still, his most memorable character will always be Fredo Corleone. In Coppola’s sequel, Cazale’s Fredo emerges as more than just a black-sheep punchline: He becomes a tragic figure of heartbreaking proportions, an overlooked man who craves power and his due so much that he betrays his family. “It ain’t the way I wanted it!” he says, his voice cracking as he screams at his kid brother and boss, Michael. “I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb! I’m smart and I want respect!” —CN

13. Naomi Watts

Betty/Diane, Mulholland Drive (2001)

Watts’s performance in David Lynch’s disorienting masterpiece announced the young Brit as an actress with dazzling versatility. Mulholland Drive subverts any sense of narrative order and identity, but Watts’s bright-eyed, fresh-off-the-bus naïf, who transforms into something entirely unrecognizable by the closing reel, is the focal point holding all of its disparate pieces together. She’s vulnerable, she’s beguiling, she’s embittered; she’s eventually every woman who’s ever come and gone with dreams of Hollywood glamour. And in one spectacular audition for a B-movie, she’s all of them at once. —Stephan Lee

12. Robert Mitchum

Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Like Peter Lorre’s whistling in M or the two-note cello in Jaws, Mitchum’s resonant baritone dripping out the verses of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” signals a predator’s approach. Mitchum’s minatory performance as the Reverend Harry Powell, a murderous preacher, in Charles Laughton’s darkly dreamlike fairy tale is both dread-inducing and charismatic, a Big Bad Wolf who knocks on the front door with his hat in hand. Because the film wasn’t a success in its time, there wasn’t much of a chance of the actor getting a nomination — Ernest Borgnine won that year as the much cuddlier Marty — but it’s a performance that’s hard to shake. You can fit how we feel about it on four knuckles: LOVE. —KS

11. Maria Falconetti

Joan, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

To be fair, the Academy Awards only began in 1929, the year after Carl Theodor Dreyer’s epic-in-miniature was released in Paris. To be more fair, the early Oscars were almost entirely focused on domestic product. And to be the most fair of all, The Passion of Joan of Arc had a tangled history almost immediately: It was censored by the Church even before most of the film’s negatives were lost in a fire. But 87 years later, Falconetti’s turn as the sainted martyr is a first-round pick for the performance of the cinematic medium. Dreyer made the bold decision to shoot Passion almost entirely in close-ups, and so Falconetti’s performance comes with a high degree of difficulty: no set, no props, no actors. Really, there’s not even dialogue or story. It’s a film of faces, and Falconetti’s face begins to feel like an abstraction of human emotion: terror, joy, sorrow and strength. Falconetti had a difficult life — she never acted on screen again — but her Joan belongs to the ages. —DF

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 gender, 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! —AB

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. —AB

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

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