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Five Breathtaking Performances That Didn't Win Best Actor

Updated on July 4, 2014

And the Oscar doesn't go to...

The Academy Award for Best Actor is one of the most coveted prizes in the American film industry and has been since it was first awarded to Emil Jannings in 1929. Next to Best Picture it is one of the most important Oscars that a person can win and is usually one of the last awards given out at the ceremony. The award (as of 2013) has managed to elude some of Hollywood's current big stars such as Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Many of the greatest performances ever captured on film have won the award and many other great actors have been nominated. But just because an actor delivers a powerful, awe-inspiring performance doesn't mean they are guaranteed a win. You'd be surprise how many timeless performances have been denied the award for many different reasons. Now let's take a look at some performances you would think would be more than good enough for an Oscar, but just didn't get enough votes.

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Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Brando first played the role of Stanley Kowalski from the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage. When the play was adapted into a film by director Elia Kazan, Brando took the powerful work he gave onstage and put it in front of the camera resulting in one of the boldest things America had ever seen in a movie at the time. Brando's character is a brutish, primal man who is a heavy drinker and has a violent temper. He physically abuses his wife, Stella, and taunts her sister Blanche when she comes to stay with them. Brando's animal-like power and raw emotion shocked many Americans at the time and the film launched Brando's movie career.

Brando's performance was nominated for Best Actor and many credit it as one of the first examples of method acting in American film. His loss of the award may be the result of two major factors. First of all, he lost to film legend Humphrey Bogart who won his first and only Oscar that year for The African Queen. Many believe that Bogart won because he was a more senior actor who had never won the award before while Brando was a fresh face with his first Oscar nomination. The other factor may be the fact that many Academy voters were scared by the sheer force of Brando's work and it was simply too much for the older voters at the time.

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Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Peter Sellers' performances in Dr. Strangelove are a crowning achievement in American film. In this dark comedy about the politics of possible nuclear war, Sellers plays three crucial characters. First he plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer who tries to stop a manic General from setting forth all out war. He then plays Merkin Muffley, the President of the Untied States who remains calm and decisive under the threat of nuclear war. He also plays title character Dr. Strangelove, an ex-NAZI scientist who now works for America and is clearly unstable. Stangelove has wild hair, wears a single black glove (which is a nod to a character from the 1927 German film Metropolis), and is a archetypal mad scientist who is not completely under the control of his political handlers. Sellers' diverse roles and versatility in this movie was a rare and uncommon sight in American film and for it Sellers was awarded with a Best Actor nomination but not a win. His loss may be due to audiences being somewhat confused by his multiple roles.

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Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II

Marlon Brando brought The Godfather alive in 1972 when he played the iconic role of Vito Corleone which one won him his second Oscar for Best Actor. In that film Pacino played Vito's son Michael Corleone and was arguably in far more scenes than Brando. In 1974, Pacino reprised his role of Michael in The Godfather Part II in which he delivered a much darker portrayal of the soldier-turned-mafia leader. In this sequel film, Michael Corleone becomes a far more sadistic character whose power and leadership begins to destroy the very family he came to lead. Michael alienates his wife and imposes his wrath on his own brother to show just how manipulative and dangerous he had become. All the while Pacino plays the role with an eerily calm approach along with unbridled rage when it becomes necessary. This may be Pacino's best role and he was nominated for Best Actor but his lost is probably the result of being overshadowed by Robert De Niro's performance in the same film as a young Vito Corleone which resulted in De Niro's first Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor.

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Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro was one of the finest actors working in America during the 1970s and his role in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is one of the most iconic roles in film history. In this film De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a disturbed veteran who begins driving taxis at night because of his inability to sleep. Throughout the film, Travis slowly slips into mental derailment as he becomes sicker and sicker of the current state of his environment. The crime and human indecency of 1970s New York City begins to eats away at his stability and he soon becomes obsessed with an idea to assassinate a presidential candidate in order to impress a girl who jilted him. He eventually befriends a young prostitute and vows to free her from her horrible life.

De Niro's method actor approach results in a mentally disturbing performance that shocked audiences and impressed critics. He was nominated for Best Actor but his loss was due simply to the fact that there was a more powerful performance nominated that year. Peter Finch, who tragically died before that year's Academy Awards, posthumously won Best Actor for his role as a news anchor who begins getting prophetic delusions in Network. Finch definitely deserved the Oscar that year but if ever there was a year for a tie for Best Actor, 1976 was it.

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Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington developed into one of the top actors in Hollywood in the 1990s. Probably his most powerful role that decade was his portrayal of civil rights leader Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 biography film on the legend. Washington had previously played the role on stage and his onscreen take on the role was just as brilliant and powerful. Washington shows an early Malcolm X, before his conversion to Islam, as a common criminal who struggled with his identity along with the perils of being black in Pre-Civil Rights Movement America. Washington shows Malcolm's transformation into a public speaker after a stint in jail, his development into a political icon in the 1960s, and his re-assessment of his beliefs on religion and other races which leads to the betrayal done to him by the Nation of Islam.

Washington's accuracy at playing the role was both stark and moving and it resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Washington lost the Oscar to Al Pacino who won for playing a blind cop in Scent of a Woman. Many in Hollywood were shocked by Washington's Oscar loss and most felt that Pacino received the award simply because he had never won an Oscar before, Pacino was denied the award for classic films such as The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon.

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    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 3 years ago from Orange, Texas

      I stopped watching the academy awards when Billy Chrystal stopped hosting them. I think I watched one with Whoopie Goldberg, but it just wasn't the same. I also got mad the year Russell Crowe didn't win for "A Beautiful Mind," another great performance that wasn't rewarded. He had just won the year before for "Gladiator," which, in my mind he did deserve. I think the academy didn't award it to him for "A Beautiful Mind" because he'd gotten into some kind of squabble at a bar in London. Really??

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 3 years ago from Washington, DC

      Good hub article, Cory. I was so glad to see you added Denzel's portrayal of Malcom X to your list. Every time I watch that movie, I re-live the disappointment I felt when he lost to Al Pacino. It was a flawless and moving portrayal, as you stated. I believe he channeled Malcom X. Being nominated for an Oscar for the best performance of your life is not a moment that can be repeated. Voted up and interesting.

    • jmartin1344 profile image

      jmartin1344 3 years ago from Royal Oak, Michigan

      These are all fantastic examples and all cases of complete and utter daylight robbery - for me the worst case was Pacino. How can the leading actor in arguably the best movie ever made put forth a performance that good and not be a shoe in....

      Art Carney... come on? Jack Nicholson would have won it before him in my book.

      Great hub!

    • Thief12 profile image

      Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Agree about most. Pacino's performance in The Godfather is one of my favorite performances. and Brando in Streetcar was amazing.

      Voted Up, Interesting.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      An absolute masterpiece.

      I voted up and all of the choices. And I agree with most of your choices and I love these actors for their now-versatility and flexibility.

      You did a wonderful job.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      This is a great article. I don't watch the Academy Awards regularly, but do keep in mind the winners. However, this article reminded me of some very excellent movies which, as you say, the lead actors deserved academy awards for. Especially, Taxi Driver. I plan to look for A Streetcar Named Desire now that I've gone through this list. Great hub.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      The Academy is a fickle organization. This is a wonderful hub. There are many performances that they never consider.

    • belleart profile image

      belleart 2 years ago from Ireland

      Brando in a streetcar..by far the best performance ever! I mean literally had goose pimples watching it.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Ditto.

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