There is no appeal process at the Oscars, what is read out on stage is final and etched onto the gold plaque of cinema history forever, unless, of course, we’ve got another Moonlight mix-up saga on our hands. Those envelopes contain the careful consideration of the Academy and they career the weight of hopes, dreams and careers.
Acting, by nature, is not an easy thing to judge. What makes a performance great? It’s a question that’s not easy to answer. Woody Harrelson pondered that very question and the closest utterance he could muster towards an answer was “the level of vulnerability.” Regardless of the indefinable characteristics that make a performance great, you simply know when you’ve seen a standout one, or so you would have thought.
Quite often the Oscars snub a performance that many others consider to be a masterclass. There’s a multitude of possible factors for this, some of which are delved into below. Ultimately, it’s not easy to fully separate a performance from everything else that it is tied to, thus picking the winners for acting, in particular, is an unenviable job. However, with hindsight on our side, we’re setting the record books straight by taking a look at ten brilliant performances, either as a leading lady or in a supporting role, and we’re giving them the retrospective vote.
Here we go.
10 actresses who were robbed at the Oscars:
Best Supporting Actress: Donna Reed for It’s A Wonderful Life (1947)
It’s A Wonderful Life may have picked up awards and nominations aplenty, and rightly so, it’s a timeless classic that has transcended the silver screen and entered society at large. However, one key element of the feature was the humanising touch that Donna Reed brought to the grim alternate universe that George Bailey would’ve left behind.
Not only does she imbue the dark fantasy with realism, but she also imparts a great deal of charm as she does so her. She wasn’t even nominated for this iconic performance which was won by Anne Baxter for The Razor’s Edge. Fortunately, Reed would’ve been picking up cheques every year for her part in the Christmas classic, so I suppose she had the last laugh.
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Ruth Gordon for Harold and Maude (1971)
Judging acting or any artistry for that matter is a very difficult thing. Unlike sports or other typical award-worthy feats, there are no set criteria or statistics to turn to. That being said, one factor that surely can be stacked on the weighing scales is the difficultly of the role. Playing a 79-year-old woman who strikes up a bond with a 20-year-old boy over a mutual obsession over death, is not your bread and butter rom-com stuff for anybody in the acting trade.
Ruth Gordon took up the mantle with the same zeal that you would imagine from a re-energised geriatric. Her exuberance is infectious and, in short, she makes the whole weird thing work. Naturally, the Oscars turned her away owing to those two words that they simply loath: ‘cult classic’ – but you’d be hard pushed to argue that Jane Fonda in Klute was more memorable.
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Mia Farrow for Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The question of ‘why isn’t Rosemary doing anything to stop this prognosticated horror show’ looms large over this Roman Polanski epic, so much so that Deep Purple wrote a song about it. However, owing to a masterful touch of emotional transparency from Mia Farrow, it never strays from relatability. There is always a sense that her glossy-eyed naivety is undercut with an unacknowledged truth.
Ruth Gordon picked up an Academy Award for her supporting actor role, but sadly a nod escaped Farrow.
Best Actress in a Lead Role: Naomi Watts for Mulholland Drive (2001)
Once again, the issue of the Oscars avoiding anything with a hint of ‘cult classic’ about it rears its head. And once again, the worthiness of Naomi Watts’ performance as Betty/Diane comes down to the difficulty of the performance. Centring the mayhem of this film is a task that no actor would envy and the fact that Watts accomplishes it with such aplomb that she manages to retain some structure while fully embracing the weirdness is testimony to her brilliance.
The Academy failed to even nominate this fantastic performance. The sole nomination that the film received was to David Lynch for Best Director. Granted the picture is probably too divisive to argue that it was hard done by but whether it was your cup of tea or not should not affect the unanimous truth that Watts was brilliant in it.
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Judy Garland for The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Admittedly, there is a touch of retrospective justice about this one owing to the horrors that Judy Garland had to go through on set, but even when you park that to one side you are still left with surely one of the most iconic performances in the history of cinema?
Garland was given a special juvenile award to recognise her performance, but given that she had to endure even more strain than her ‘adult’ counterparts, this patronising nod leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. If you think of 1930s cinema, it won’t be long before you arrive at the image of Dorothy Gale surrounded by Toto and her odd bunch of accomplices and that has nothing to do with the happenstance of being fortunate to centre the project and everything to do with acting skill.
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Ingrid Bergman for Casablanca (1942)
Once again, we happen upon a role that wasn’t even nominated and in Ingrid Bergman’s case, that’s a fact that still surprises even the most ardent of cinephiles. She perfectly mirrors the turmoil that her counterpart, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), suffers through – the dreaded reality of the fateful hold that time, place and circumstance can have on our lives.
The film is a near-perfect portrait of American cinema. So many features that have followed have been in homage to what Casablanca achieved. This is in no small part due to Bergman and Bogart elevating each other’s performances with thrilling on-screen chemistry.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Patricia Arquette for True Romance (1993)
There isn’t a performance in True Romance that isn’t worthy of some sort of recognition. The acting from the entire ensemble, which consists of Christian Slater, Brad Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and James Gandolfini to name but a few, is absolutely first rate. The cherry on top, however, is Patricia Arquette’s performance as Alabama.
It’s a full-blooded movie and Arquette provides a turn that is fittingly impassioned. Her portrayal is absorbingly three-dimensional, so much so that you can let the judging panel off under the bylaw that they forgot who they were watching. Arquette is sweet, sexy and powerful in equal measure and what results from that concoction is one of the greatest performances of the ’90s, that for some reason often goes completely unheralded.
Best Actress in a Lead Role: Natalie Portman for Leon (1994)
It wasn’t just Natalie Portman who was snubbed for Leon, but the film as a whole. The always terrific Gary Oldman puts in one of the greatest villain performances of all time and he got less of a peep out of the Oscars than a sleeping log too.
Perhaps this is a case of the Oscars rigid, almost computer-like algorithms for what can be granted an award. There’s probably one too many explosions and Natalie Portman is probably too young, thus both her and the masterpiece film that she magnificently centred were turned away by security at the gate.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Marcia Gay Harden for Miller’s Crossing (1990)
It is the gangster flick that breaks all the noir stereotypes, the epitome of which is the twist on the classic ‘Dame’. Though the original dames of early noir may have been progressive in terms of their empowerment, they were usually characters of necessity and lacked any shades of the complexity that Marcia Gay Harden bestows upon her character, Verna.
She has all the classic lines, “Maybe that’s why I like you, Tom. I’ve never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride,” but she also has a vitalised individualism that makes her an elusive enigma throughout. She even retains this enigmatic quality when the ultimate twist on the usual trait of her character is subtly revealed. All of this is achieved thanks to the titillating restrains that Marcia Gay Harden masterfully measures.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Ellen Burstyn for Requiem for a Dream
There is no getting away from the fact that Requiem for a Dream seems almost gratuitously grim. It surpasses the solemnity of Oscar-baiting and powers straight on through to bone-chilling depths of despair. In order to keep pace with the rapidly wavering narrative without coming across as overdone is a difficult task, and it’s one that Ellen Burstyn got terrifyingly on the money.
An award is an award at the end of the day, even the winners at the ceremony pushing their acting skills to the limit to try and hide a beaming grin to say, ‘this is all just a harmless bit of fun’. However, Burstyn’s performance is the sort of thing that those statues of recognition were devised for. She goes above and beyond, and evidently lays it all on the line as she visibly seems to degenerate before our very eyes. It’s a piece of acting that is disturbingly effective.