Best Actor Snubs Over the Years

Wherever Oscar goes, controversy follows.

In the past, Movie FanFare has looked at the films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture that probably shouldn’t have taken home the big prize.  Now we’re going to train our magnifying glass on some of the miscues that may have made in the Best Actor category. (Check here for our look at the Best Actress category, as well.)


After losing to Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) the year before, James Stewart won his only gold statue for his turn as the reporter covering a wacky Main Line marriage in the classic romantic farce The Philadelphia Story. Stewart was perfect as the newshound, trading quick-paced dialogue with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey, but his previous year’s turn as the wholesome Boy Ranger leader tackling politicians in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a downright tour-de-force that went unrewarded. In 1940, facing off against  Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, this seems almost like a makeup Oscar.


Did Humphrey Bogart’s iconic essay of Rick Blaine in Casablanca really lose out to anyone in the Best Actor category? The answer is “yes,” and the winner of the prize that year was Paul Lukas for Watch on the Rhine.  The Hungarian ex-pat was a fine actor, best recognized for his work on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, as Athos in the 1935 version of the Three Musketeers and to baby boomers as Professor Aronnax in Disney’s 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea. There is no doubt Lukas made a strong impression in this film, playing an anti-fascist fighter returning to America with wife Bette Davis and family, and discovering pro-Nazi sentiment around them. In fact, Lukas’ reviews were sterling. Said Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: “Paul Lukas as the anti-Nazi German shapes a character of superb magnificence—a man worn with fighting and suffering, full of sorrow and humility, yet whose heart burns with human compassion and whose spirit is invincible.” But, hey, this is Bogie in Casablanca.  The rest of the field: Gary Cooper (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Mickey Rooney (The Human Comedy), and Walter Pidgeon (Madame Curie).


David Niven was a well-liked actor in Hollywood and was just coming off the Academy Award-winning 1956 adventure Around the World in 80 Days, when he nabbed the Oscar for his role in Separate Tables. This adaptation of two Terrence Rattigan plays offered Niven as a man of phony military pedigree who tries to win over shy Deborah Kerr, both of whom are staying off-season at a seashore hotel in England. Co-produced by Burt Lancaster, another member of the ensemble cast, Separate Tables let Niven show off his charm and dramatic range in his part. At awards time, however, he went against Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (who may have cancelled each other out) in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea. His win may have more to do with his popularity than his actual performance.


For bigger-than-life figures—in fictional and non-fiction modes—Charlton Heston reigned supreme for decades. With Ben-Hur taking in a then-record 11 Academy Awards, it came as no surprise that Chuck won Best Actor for his effort as the title character, the Israeli prince-turned-slave-turned-gladiator-turned-hero. Heston’s muscular performance was at the center of William Wyler’s 3 1/2 hour epic, but he had some formidable opponents in the Oscar race that year: Jack Lemmon’s drag masterwork in Some Like it Hot; Laurence Harvey representing New British Cinema in Room at the Top; Paul Muni, in his last film role, in The Last Angry Man; and James Stewart tackling something controversial in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. But it is tough to imagine anyone else playing Judah Ben-Hur—except, perhaps, Burt Lancaster, who (like Paul Newman and Rock Hudson) was once under consideration.


Many thought: “Wouldn’t it be loverly if Rex Harrison won the Academy Award for the role to which he was most closely associated with on stage and screen?” Well, it did work out that way, in a manner similar to Yul Brynner’s victory for his screen portrayal of the Siamese emperor in The King and I, a role he became synonymous with on the stage. Of course, Harrison took home the shiny trophy for his labors as the often dislikable phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins, set on teaching elocution and elegance to the cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in My Fair Lady. It comes as no surprise that the comfy part fit Harrison like a glove on screen, even opposite Hepburn’s Eliza (her singing was dubbed, and there was much grousing  that Broadway Eliza Julie Andrews didn’t get the part). That same year, however, Peter Sellers portrayed multiple roles, all brilliantly, in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove. His landmark performance(s) in an indelible classic gets better with age and looks way ahead of its time today. It seems that not even a special hotline call from the President of the United States could have won Sellers the Oscar over Harrison that year. Meanwhile, the others in the running were no slouches either: longtime Oscar also-rans Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton in Becket, and Anthony Quinn, who snagged an earlier supporting win in Viva Zapata!, for HIS signature role as Zorba the Greek.


Everyone thought Rod Steiger had it in the bag for his searing portrayal as a former college professor-turned-hockshop proprietor, facing his traumatic past experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and his current situation in Harlem, in Sidney Lumet’s powerful The Pawnbroker. Instead, Lee Marvin—playing a dual role as outlaw and alcoholic gunslinger in the sagebrush farce Cat Ballou—took home the gold. Steiger’s brilliantly realized performance was something to behold. The actor, however, usually played serious, while tough guy Marvin did an about-face, ribbing his repertoire of macho bad guys in Cat Ballou.  The others vying for the Oscar were Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Laurence Olivier (Othello) and Oskar Werner (Ship of Fools).


Staying with Steiger…his starring vehicle In the Heat of the Night certainly had staying power, as it eventually spawned a long-running TV series with Carroll O’Connor assuming the role of good ol’ boy southern lawman Sheriff Gillespie. In fact, co-star Sidney Poitier repeated his characterization as Philly Detective Virgil Tibbs in two sequels to the film. And while few can argue with the film’s effective suspense elements and its revealing take on race relations during a tenuous time for civil rights in this country, Steiger’s winning the Academy Award is generally looked at as a make-good for losing in ’65. Consider the competition: Dustin Hoffman for his career-making turn as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate; Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke; Warren Beatty’s complex gangster in Bonnie and Clyde; and the late Spencer Tracy in his last role for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, another survey of relations between the races.


Only 56 years old when he played Harry Coombes, a senior widower who takes a cross country trip with his beloved cat in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, Art Carney had spent decades in show business, mostly in TV. He was best known as Ed Norton, sewer worker pal to bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) in The Honeymooners.  Carney’s sentimental win as Best Actor jump-started a new screen career and got him lots of TV parts (including one in the notorious The Star Wars Holiday Special).  There happened to be an exemplary field this year in the Best Actor category: Dustin Hoffman as comic Lenny Bruce in Lenny, Al Pacino repeating his role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, Albert Finney as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express and Jack Nicholson as private detective Jake Gittes in Chinatown, our choice for who should have won the prize.  Of course, Nicholson got his turn the following year for playing mental patient Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


Did the wrong Richard win this year? Certainly the Richard that did win—Dreyfuss—was a surprise to most onlookers. But the actor’s string of headlining Steven Spielberg mega-hits—the then-current Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws the year before—couldn’t have hurt his chances. Richard Burton, meanwhile, had received his seventh career acting nomination for his part as a psychiatrist examining a teenager accused of blinding a stable of horses in Sidney Lumet’s screen version of Peter Shaffer’s Tony-winning play Equus. Dreyfuss was certainly appropriately engaging and energetic as struggling, eccentric actor Elliot Garfield in the Neil Simon comedy The Goodbye Girl. But between the formidable career, the past history and his impressive work in Equus, Burton seemed like the obvious—and worthy—choice. The rest of the field: Woody Allen (Annie Hall), John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever) and Marcello Mastroianni (A Special Day).


Dustin Hoffman should have won for The Graduate and should have gotten at least strong consideration for his Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. In Kramer vs. Kramer, a well-meaning domestic drama about divorce, Hoffman took home the top acting award. In retrospect, many people scratch their heads at the choice. Consider the more deserving contenders that year, including Roy Scheider as Bob Fosse’s all dancing-all smoking-all bed-hopping alter ego in All That Jazz (in a role that once belonged to Dreyfuss), Peter Sellers’ incredibly subtle work as Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There, Jack Lemmon’s whistle-blowing nuclear plant supervisor in The China Syndrome. Then there’s Al Pacino’s flamboyant, crowd-pleasing lawyer in …And Justice for All. But Hoffman…for Kramer vs. Kramer?


They don’t come any more “career award”-oriented than Paul Newman’s Academy Award for Best Actor in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese’s entertaining sequel to the classic pool drama The Hustler. It was simply Newman’s time (as it was Scorsese’s later for The Departed) after many nominations and no wins. And he won the Oscar in a pretty good field, too: jazz musician Dexter Gordon, calling on his own life to play a fictional saxophonist in Round Midnight; James Woods, all nervous energy as frenzied journalist Richard Stone in Salvador; William Hurt, excellent as a teacher of the hearing-impaired in Children of a Lesser God; and Bob Hoskins, turning in a streetwise but surprisingly sensitive turn as a British gangster in Mona Lisa.


It was Al’s time. Another career award for an oft-nominated performer, Pacino’s portrait of a blind retired Army officer in Scent of a Woman (a remake of the Italian Profumo Di Donno) marked his eighth nomination. The consensus is that Al’s performance there will not make people forget his attention-getting turns in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Godfather films, or even his supporting efforts in Dick Tracy and Glengarry Glen Ross. Also, why does it seem that these “career” gift awards tend to be given out in really strong years? Pacino’s competition included Denzel Washington’s mesmerizing turn as Malcolm X, Robert Downey Jr.’s uncanny  work as Chaplin, Clint Eastwood’s morally conflicted gunslinger in Unforgiven and Stephen Rea as the IRA fighter who falls for his friend’s, um, girl in The Crying Game. Hoo-ah!


There’s no doubt that Sean Penn is a fine actor, from surfer dude Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont High on up. Further, his work as the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s long-in-gestation Milk was terrific, forceful stuff.  But Mickey Rourke’s surprising career comeback turn as pro grappler Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler was a masterpiece of blood, sweat and jeers, and a type of role the actor is not likely to see again. In many ways, it also mirrored Rourke’s own professional struggles.  Penn had also won the Best Actor prize fairly recently (Mystic River in 2003), so the passing over of Rourke came as something of a surprise to fans of the performer and Darren Aronofsky’s gritty movie. While The Wrestler administered a shot of adrenalin to Rourke’s flagging career, there was no “Ram Jam” at the Oscars that year, even after he won other top awards for his performance. The rest of the field: Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor).

Was Paul Newman robbed when he didn’t get Oscar’s nod in 1967? See for yourself with the trailer for Cool Hand Luke:

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