Tom Jolliffe on the male acting performances criminally overlooked by the Academy for Oscar recognition...
With the Oscars around the corner and awards season in full swing, now is a perfect opportunity to tearfully remember those performances that were completely overlooked by the Academy. Reasons can differ. Sometimes a year is bloated with exceptional performances and competition is high. Sometimes a film's impact doesn’t strike instantly and takes years before it finally clicks with audiences. There are certain film subjects that are Oscar catnip, and others which rub against the grain of what is fashionable amongst the voters. There are almost always head-scratching inclusions and exclusions. It’s hard to know which films of a year, and which performances will live long in the memory and which will fade away.
Here are a few actors I humbly believe gave performances good enough to warrant nominations (lead or supporting) for the film industry’s highest accolade...
Here I’ll start with my own personal favourite film, and its most memorable performance. The history of Blade Runner is well documented. Initially proving far from popular on release, it's now-given masterpiece status wouldn't register until the director’s cut that followed ten years later. Hauer, as Roy Batty, delivers a truly mesmerising and unique characterisation. The Replicants are amped up, having to cram in all of life’s experience and emotion, and pain without aid of a childhood and conventional development, all into a four year lifespan. Hauer perfectly encapsulates this tipping scale of physical superiority, increased intellect, jarring against the inability to master his highly charged, bi-polar emotion and the oh so human desire to beat death. Truly what Hauer created, completely immersed into his role, was one of a kind and remains the performance that stands out to most viewers. Given the nature of the role, it’s the sort of performance that is normally a good bet for the supporting actor territory. It’s the showier antithesis to the straight leading man. However the film's early struggles really put paid to Hauer’s chances.
David Thewlis - Naked
Mike Leigh has tasted Oscar acceptance with several nominations and his films have also proved platforms for his cast to impress the Oscar board. His breakout film Naked remains his most edgy, dark and in my opinion, fascinating film. Thewlis excels in the skin of a truly detestable character. Johnny is constantly ailed by physical and mental symptoms. His nihilistic and obsessive behaviour and analytical personality result in a man of mostly self destructive behaviour. Thewlis’ performance is a tour de force, and the largely unscripted film (typical of Leigh) has a unique kind of energy and spark that adds an occasionally dreamlike quality to Leigh’s typical gritty, kitchen sink style. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately rewarding, with possibly one of the most watchable performances you’ll ever see. There’s lots of standout scenes, including Johnny’s discussions with a night security guard he forces his views upon.
By the time Johnny Depp first donned Jack Sparrow's hat and snazzy beard, it was widely felt he was long due some recognition from the academy (which he finally received for playing Sparrow). Depp’s ability to step totally out of his own enigmatic persona, entirely into another has made him one of the most respected character actors in film history, even if his recent output might show signs of becoming a sellout. However it should take nothing away from much of his work, particularly his star making role. Quirky roles are what Depp excels in and he and Burton’s wonderfully different take on Frankenstein’s monster is awesome. Edward’s innocence, sympathetic personality and likeability are played to pitch perfection by Depp. It’s a performance that really is iconic, as much as almost anything else that year. Depp can also feel highly aggrieved to have been overlooked as Ed Wood too, though being slightly overshadowed by Martin Landau’s brilliant performance didn’t help.
John Cazale - Dog Day Afternoon
John Cazale’s film career was short-lived yet he left a memorable impression in the string of masterpieces he appeared. As Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, he was superb but of course the Oscars were dishing out nominations like candy to other cast members (and rightly so) in those films. However his fantastically underplayed counterpoint to Al Pacino’s more show-stopping lead performance in Dog Day Afternoon is criminally ignored. Chris Sarandon with limited screen time received a supporting actor nomination which might have been fair, but over Cazale’s more significant role? Perhaps not. There’s something about the deep seeded imbalance and simple minded naivety of Sal that’s so brilliantly and subtly portrayed by Cazale.
Gene Hackman - The Conversation
This is Francis Ford Coppolla’s low key masterpiece of the 70s, which is often overlooked or forgotten having been sandwiched between the first two Godfather films. However it’s still Coppolla at his inspirational best in his most iconic period. Hackman leads brilliantly as Harry Caul, who finds himself drawn into a world of corruption and finds himself descending into the hell of paranoia. It’s probably Hackman’s best performance but he found himself in a particularly strong year for film. But was it one of the five best performances of that year? It probably was.
Eric Roberts - Star 80
I’m going to shake things up with this curveball suggestion. Some actors have left a few heads scratched when people discover they’ve actually had Oscar nominations. One such might be Eric Roberts, as much known for his descent into B-movies (and odd big screen bit parts as a reliable go-to slime ball), than his promising earlier career. Roberts received a nomination for his role in Runaway Train, a really good performance without necessarily screaming out Oscar material. Perhaps though, it was in part an acknowledgement of his career best performance a few years previously in Star 80. His turn as the slimy, weasely, unstable Paul Snider is great and proves to be ample evidence that the man deserves more respect for his ability.
Jack Lemmon - Glengarry Glen Ross
One of the most brilliantly cast movies ever. It’s wall to wall gravitas. Pacino received a nomination (one of two that year). Alec Baldwin could argue his barnstorming cameo was just enough minutes of brilliance to warrant one. Jack Lemmon’s wonderfully soulful and poignant performance as the salesman a fair way past his glory days is one of his best roles and one of the best performances of not only that year but of the decade. It’s just impeccable. Sadly for Lemmon the year boasted some iconic leading man performances that received nominations.
John Goodman - The Big Lebowski
Eccentricity and showy roles normally do quite well in the supporting actor category. Goodman often excels in such roles. Two standout roles in Coen brothers movies would both be more than worthy of receiving Oscar recognition. Barton Fink's less commercial style provided something brilliant for Goodman and he steals the movie (co-star Michael Lerner stole a march on Goodman for a nomination, despite Goodman owning the film). It’s probably more deserving than his role as Vietnam nut Walter in The Big Lebowski. Walter however has become part of geeky pop culture. There are shirts with his face and quotes. Goodman is fantastic though. Once again, despite an awesome cast, well commanded by the Coens, Goodman steals the show. Walter is a one-off and a work of comical brilliance.
Dennis Hopper - Blue Velvet
One of cinemas most grotesque characters and performed with almost unrivalled relish is Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. Typically bizarre for both director David Lynch and the unpredictable Hopper, this film whether you like it or not will stay in the memory. Hopper is scary in this. He’s so into it it’s frightening. Isabella Rossellini also warranted a nomination for her work in this too.
Jack Nicholson - The Shining
Jack may have had his fair share of Oscar joy but he still warranted recognition for this. As over the top as he may be, it’s with such immersion, conviction and relish that it still stands as one of cinemas most iconic maniacs. Jack Torrence’s ever dwindling sanity is perfectly portrayed by Nicholson with enough energy to power the whole of China, whilst the films creepy atmosphere courtesy of Kubrick’s ominously roaming camera and eerily lit setting adds to the overall tone of the film.
Anthony Perkins - Psycho
Far from conventional in any sense, the ground-breaking Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece featured a villain so complex, so different from the cackling norm that it perhaps took a few years for audiences to fully appreciate how brilliant and ahead of its time Anthony Perkins' portrayal of Norman Bates was. It wasn’t merely Hitchcock breaking boundaries with his style and in killing off his “protagonist” early in the film, but Perkins really brought across a multitude of layers to Bates.
Michael Gambon - The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Peter Greenway's films have never been the most easily accessible/palatable to the wider audience. This perhaps is one of his more easily digestible films, despite still being as art-house, controversial and sometimes disturbing as his films often are. This was never going to be a film the Oscars wanted to have amongst the more acceptable norms of that year. Gambon plays a completely vile character with the most obnoxiously gleeful delight. Gambon is totally submerged into the psyche of Albert Spica. He’s a hurricane of ghastliness, exploding onto screen to gobble the scenery whenever he can. He does it with such gusto and conviction though and it stays long in the memory. The film despite its often difficult ingestion is beautifully shot whilst Helen Mirren, also much deserving of a nomination as Spica’s long suffering wife, is also mesmerising.
This Is England beautifully brings to life a slice of English history. Not a particularly pleasant slice, but completely enthralling nonetheless. Shane Meadows' typically gritty, kitchen sink style of filmmaking gives a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings, and to those characters involved. Stephen Graham’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal. Taking the audience's breath away as the skin head leader filled with bile and a searing rage that’s not purely sourced from his outward racist views. Graham flits between clever orchestrator, influential, conniving leader to uncontrolled beast tearing himself apart with his own anger. The film is hard to watch because of its subject matter and some of the more shocking scenes, but it is also impossible to turn away. The film also features an amazing debut performance from youngster Thomas Turgoose.
Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths (Withnail & I); Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs); Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction); Gary Oldman (Leon); R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket); Tom Noonan (Manhunter); Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind); Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (Heat); Michael Shannon (Take Shelter); Alan Rickman (Die Hard).
Which performances do you think were unfairly overlooked by the Academy? Let us know in the comments below...