Welcome to Part Two of my series on undeserving Academy Award winners. In the first installment, we looked at the Best Supporting Actresses that didn’t deserve the award. Today, let’s talk about the Best Supporting Actor trophies that should have gone to someone else. Here we go…
6. Melvyn Douglas, Being There (1979)
In 1979, Melvyn Douglas, already an Oscar winner for the 1963 movie Hud, portrayed a billionaire with political ambitions in Being There, the film version of the popular novel about a dimwitted gardener who winds up becoming president of the United States. (Come to think of it, after this past election, it doesn’t seem like such a fantastic conceit after all.) It was a role that Laurence Olivier turned down, so we might say that Douglas had been warned.
Douglas certainly stole his scenes, but the film is largely forgettable—and clearly the studio didn’t think much of him because he barely appears in the trailer. Yet, somehow, when the Academy Award nominations rolled around, his name wound up on the list. Douglas pouted when he found out that one of his competitors was eight-year-old Justin Henry from Kramer vs. Kramer, and he refused to attend the Oscar ceremony. But he won.
Who should’ve won? Competition was fierce that year, with Frederic Forrest’s solid work in The Rose and Mickey Rooney’s triumphant comeback in The Black Stallion in the mix, but the most astonishing, searing performance—and the Oscar—belonged to Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.
5. Jason Robards, Julia (1977)
The Academy loves to give awards to actors and actresses who star in biographical roles. Jason Robards had won Best Supporting Actor in 1976 for starring as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men, and the following year he played writer Dashiell Hammett in Julia.
Nobody had to stretch much in Julia: Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave played left-wing writer Lillian Hellman and her friend Julia, respectively, and the curmudgeonly Robards portrayed the cranky Hammett. Robards tosses off nearly every line as though he just wants Fonda and Redgrave to get off his lawn and turn down their crazy music. Yet the Academy saw fit to nominate him, and he became part of that rare club of Oscar winners in consecutive years.
Who should’ve won? Robards’ co-star Maximilian Schell was better in Julia, and Peter Firth was the discovery of the year in Equus, but Alec Guinness’ gentle, wise turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars was by far the best supporting role that year.
4. Martin Landau, Ed Wood (1994)
Another actor who won for bringing a real-life character from the past to the screen was Martin Landau, who played Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. The film was a double example of irresistible Oscar bait: a movie about show business that was filmed in black and white during the color era.
Watch in this scene how Landau chews the scenery (language warning):
Landau is quite good, but the character and accent are obviously so showy and campy that it’s tough to take him seriously, even in a comic role. In light of Landau’s competition that year, his win is even more puzzling.
Who should’ve won? Two of Landau’s competitors gave career-defining performances in 1994. Samuel L. Jackson was electrifying in Pulp Fiction, and Gary Sinise was the only truly good thing about Forrest Gump. I would love to have seen either one of them take home the Oscar.
3. Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine was one of those quirky little indie films that gets far more attention than its cult following warrants. Every character in the film is too preciously dysfunctional to be relatable, and Alan Arkin’s profane heroin addict grandfather is just one example.
The film does have its sweet moments, but the film is so full of too-cute-for-its-own-good eccentricity that it can’t be taken seriously. However, the Academy nominated Arkin, and he won in one of those patented moments where a competitive Oscar serves as a lifetime achievement award.
Who should’ve won? I suppose it’s a cop-out to say that anybody else should have won because Arkin deserved his awards years ago, so I’ll note that Mark Wahlberg shone in The Departed, and Eddie Murphy gave the dazzling performance of a lifetime in Dreamgirls. Oscar would not have gone wrong with either of those two.
2. Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules (1999)
Let me start by saying that I think Michael Caine is a treasure. He’s a gifted actor and an even more entertaining interview. Caine has given us many incredible performances over the years, from his early work in The Ipcress File to his first Oscar-winning role in Hannah and Her Sisters to the smarmy talent agent Ray Say in Little Voice (my personal favorite of his portrayals).
In 1999, Caine played Dr. Larch, an obstetrician who runs an orphanage and is a secret ether addict and abortionist, in The Cider House Rules.
Here’s another one of those Oscar wins that doesn’t quite make sense. Caine does a fine job in the film, I suppose, but he was up against a bevy of complicated, nuanced performances by his competition—heck, even Tom Cruise deserved an award that year for Magnolia. But Caine walked away with the Oscar instead. Maybe the Academy realized they had made a mistake not nominating him the year before for Little Voice and thought this was their way of making it up to him.
Who should’ve won? Two breakthrough performances lit up the screen in 1999. Haley Joel Osment was a true revelation in The Sixth Sense (who knows if his career might have taken a different path as an Academy Award winner), while Michael Clarke Duncan stunned everybody with his sensitive role in The Green Mile. Either actor deserved the award far more than Caine.
1. Joel Grey, Cabaret (1972)
I remember having to watch Cabaret in a high school history class and thinking that I’d rather have done classwork. It was two hours of my life I couldn’t get back. The depiction of decadence and tackiness in Berlin in the early 1930s wasn’t interesting at all, and the songs are terrible. (And this is coming from a guy who normally enjoys musicals.)
Joel Grey’s performance as the Master of Ceremonies is part of the problem. He’s creepy and downright disgusting in this film, and it’s hard to view him as a character worth watching.
As the 1972 Academy Awards rolled around, the main competition boiled down to Cabaret vs. The Godfather. Looking back, it’s astonishing that great films like Sounder and Deliverance were also-rans that year. On the big night, it looked like a veritable Cabaret sweep, with the musical taking eight Oscars to The Godfather‘s three. Joel Grey was one of the winners, and for the life of me, I’ll never understand why.
Who should’ve won? With three nominees from The Godfather: James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino, it’s a no-brainer that one of the three should have walked away with an Oscar for their work in such an iconic film. Al Pacino’s slow transformation from the son who wanted to stay out of the family business to the head of the Corleone crime family absolutely deserved the award head and shoulders above any of the rest.
Well, there you have it! Let us know your picks below, and stay tuned for Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture lists.