Oscar's 20 Most Unbelievable Acting Snubs

The Oscars can’t be expected to get it right every time, but when it comes to the acting categories it’s particularly obtuse. (Joel Grey in Cabaret over Al Pacino in The Godfather? Art Carney in Harry & Tonto over Pacino in The Godfather, Part II? Pacino in Scent of a Woman over Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven? ) Often, great performances don’t even land a nomination. Here’s a list of 20 of the most unbelievable acting Oscar snubs.

1. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa in Casablanca (1942)

It’s hard to believe, but the future winner of three Academy Awards had just started working in Hollywood and wasn’t nominated for her most immortal performance, the one that defined screen glamor.


2. James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949)

One of the original crazily entertaining anti-heroes, Cagney was incendiary as a ruthless desperado with a mommy fixation.

3. Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Lancaster’s silky voice and controlled movements were like a cookie loaded with arsenic when he played the cruel gossip columnist modeled on Walter Winchell in one of the best and edgiest Hollywood films of the 1950s.

4. Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Another film that cut against the grain of the prevailing costume epics of the time, this nasty satire of, in part, populists like Will Rogers showed off the wicked appeal of Griffith as a folk singer turned TV star who leaves a trail of destruction in his wake.

5. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960)

The little brother everyone would love to have in their family, Perkins was sweetly harmless as a nice young man with an endearing love of taxidermy and a touching devotion to his ailing mother.

6. Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Making his twisted character madly appealing and even hilarious couldn’t have been easy. To this day, McDowell has still never been nominated for an Oscar. 

7. Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974)

The standard for restrained, interior acting, Hackman’s performance as a surveillance expert who stumbles into a murder plot drove one of the strongest films from Hollywood’s paranoid 70s.

8. Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws (1975)

Even without his memorable monologue about the shark attack that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II, Shaw should have won for being a crafty old sea salt so tough he made for a plausible opponent to a shark.

9. John Cazale as Sal in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

In his short life, Cazale appeared in five Best Picture-nominated films but never scored a nomination himself. His woebegone, low I.Q. bank robber was his most heartbreaking performance. 

10. and 11. Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979)

There were a lot of strong performances that year -- Apocalype’s Robert Duvall was nominated for playing Col. Kilgore -- but Sheen’s determination and Brando’s dead-eyed imperiousness should have been recognized also.  

12. R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (1987)

An ex-drill instructor originally hired as a technical instructor, Ermey was so hilariously gung-ho that Stanley Kubrick fired the actor he had originally cast and replaced him with Ermey on the spot. 

13. Johnny Depp as Edward in Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Then known primarily as a teen idol and hunky star of the cop TV show 21 Jump Street, Depp was tender and tragic as the lost boy with the Freddy Krueger fingers in a magical fairy tale that marked the first of his eight nutty collaborations with director Tim Burton. 

14. Sean Penn as Kleinfeld in Carlito’s Way (1993)

Penn took his game to another level while playing a squirrely cokehead lawyer to a Puerto Rican ex-con trying to stay straight in this intense 1970s drama, one of Brian De Palma’s best films.

15. Bill Murray as Herman Blume in Rushmore (1998)

Having faded as a comedy star, Murray relaunched a second career as a curmudgeonly millionaire who develops a strange friendship with an obnoxious prep school student in this spiky comedy.

16. Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Election (1999)

Cute, smug, ambitious and entirely devious, Witherspoon gave no quarter in Alexander Payne’s most perfect satire.

17. Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s dreamy and operatic L.A. noir was his best film since Blue Velvet, and it turned largely on the dual performance of the then-unknown Watts as both a troubled siren and as a Doris Day-style naif.

18. Bill Nighy as Billy Mack in Love Actually (2002)

Nighy’s loopy, aging rocker gave the film its most hilarious and irresistible character, who grew more charming with every wobble and off-kilter line reading.  

19. Matthew McConaughey as Dallas in Magic Mike (2012)

For years, McConaughey was a joke, a guy whose Texas twang and laid-back laziness had long since turned into self parody. His strip club owner, though, showed a steely and sinister core that re-established him as an actor with demons and dimensions.

20. Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Her (2013)

Name another actress whose voice is so sexy that she doesn’t even need to be seen in the film to be the kind of girl who (in the worlds of Raymond Chandler) could “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”