Following on from last week’s Top 10 that looked at films that should have won the Best Picture award, for my final Oscar themed list I’ve turned my attentions to some exceptional performances that were robbed of their appropriate gong. The Academy Awards seem to ruffle a lot of feathers – particularly in the big awards such as Best Picture, Best Leading/Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Director and so on – and the ‘political’ or biased nature of the members’ votes can often be felt. This is habitually so within the main foursome of awards, where opinions are strong and campaigning is passionate – both from the studios and the public.
As I keep everything crossed that who and what I want wins at tonight’s ceremony, read on to discover the 10 nominated performances that in my opinion should have received the accolade…
10. LANA TURNER – PEYTON PLACE (1957)
Peyton Place was brought to the screen by classic melodrama producer Jerry Wald (who was also responsible for such classics as Mildred Pierce , An Affair to Remember  and The Best of Everything ) and was based on a steamy novel by Grace Metalious. However, due to the constraints of 1950s censorship, the seamier elements of the novel were left out of the production, making the film far less shocking than it could have been. Lana Turner’s performance as the sexually repressed Constance MacKenzie stands out among the ensemble cast, as she quietly suffers the pains of a prudent attitude towards all things sexual. Turner’s restrained performance beautifully mimics the repressive personality of her character and she is never as convincing in a role as she is here.
The fact that the film was considered as not doing the source novel enough justice may have hindered Turner’s chances of an Oscar win, leading the way for Joanne Woodward to take the statue home for The Three Faces of Eve (1957), for her portrayal of a schizophrenic.
09. JAMES CAGNEY – ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938)
It’s one of the quintessential examples of a gangster film when the genre was at the height of its popularity back in Hollywood’s heyday. With an engaging narrative that pits friends against each other and religion against crime, it packs a moralistic punch and James Cagney gives a stellar performance here as gangster Rocky Sullivan, bringing his usual charm and grit to the screen. He dominates his scenes and its impossible to not become wrapped up in his morally corrupt, but thoroughly likeable character.
Losing out on the Academy Award to Spencer Tracy (for Captains Courageous ) is the true crime however!
08. FRANK SINATRA – THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955)
Frank Sinatra’s angst ridden performance as a drug addict that can’t resist temptation in The Man With The Golden Arm is by far his greatest performance. Displaying a distinct vulnerability, Sinatra generates sympathy for his character whilst an uncompromising and realistic look at addiction weaves throughout the narrative.
Sinatra was defeated at the Oscars by Ernest Borgnine for his performance in Marty (1955). Playing a less than good-looking Italian-American butcher who believes he will never find love, but remains constantly nagged by his family to get married, Borgnine’s performance is touching but not extraordinary: in fact, Rod Steiger’s performance in the original ‘Philco Television Playhouse’ episode trounces that of Borgnine’s in both power and the ability to touch audiences. Similarly, Sinatra’s performance is far superior to Borgnine’s and was much more deserving of the Best Actor gong that year.
07. ELIZABETH TAYLOR – SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)
In a role that is equally as impressive as her Oscar-winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967) just short of a decade later, Elizabeth Taylor originally proved her salt as a highly accomplished dramatic actress here. In the first of her roles that really gave her scope for performing, rather than being a pretty faced supporting player, her characterisation of the traumatised Catherine is disturbingly realistic and convincing. Taylor’s delivery of Catherine’s recollections dives between tender, controlled musings and interludes of erratic, panicked ruminations that leave her hyperventilating.
Taylor lost out to Simone Signoret’s refined but plain performance as Laurence Harvey’s older lover in Room at the Top (1959). Whilst Signoret is probably the most engaging performer within the film, her performance still lacks the lustre and powerful emotion of Taylor’s and in my mind was far less deserving of the Oscar than the latter was. Taylor is also far better here than she is in Butterfield 8 (1960), which won her her first Academy Award – the member’s offering of a sort of consolation prize for missing out here, I’m sure!
06. PAUL NEWMAN – CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)
Another film based on a Tennessee William’s play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a tense social drama that sees a then television typecast Paul Newman take his career in an entirely different direction. With a character that required much greater dramatic range, Newman succeeds in giving a gripping, tortured performance as Brick. The narrative heavily veils notions of Brick’s homosexuality and Newman plays the character full of angst whilst managing to stifle any urges to overact, in a way that perfectly mimics the character’s sexual repression. His chemistry with Taylor is exceptional and he effectively portrays Brick’s underlying love for Maggie as well as his abhorrence at his disinterest in her sexually. With a number of drunken scenes, Newman’s performance remains effective throughout the narrative and these scenes never slip into unintentional comedy.
David Niven’s winning performance as the mysterious Major Pollock in Separate Tables (1958) is not terrible, but appears mechanical when compared to Newman’s.
05. GLORIA SWANSON – SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
Director Billy Wilder’s homage to Hollywood itself is a tragic tale of the fickle nature of fame and the inevitability of retirement from the screen for all actors. Art firmly imitates life here and former silent screen star Gloria Swanson came out of effective retirement to play an extreme parody of herself. Wilder manages to capture Desmond’s slide into lunacy perfectly and this comes predominantly through a series of facial close ups that capture a wide and feral eyed Swanson. The actress certainly chews the scenery in her scenes, but this remains entirely in keeping with the characterisation of Desmond and the over-the-top performance is entirely convincing. Swanson brings her silent screen training to effective use here and it is her strong abilities to produce emotions through a series of facial expressions that makes her performance so engaging.
Whilst she is a thoroughly accomplished dramatic actress and delivers her dialogue very well, it’s the physical nature of her performance that makes her role stand out so prominently. When Judy Holliday’s winning performance as the crass and uncouth Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950) is compared to that of Swanson’s it fails to impress as much on a number of levels. Whilst Holliday is amusing and likeable, her performance is throwaway and completely forgettable. Swanson’s on the other hand will remain with you forever.
04. MERYL STREEP – DOUBT (2008)
Most of the credit for Doubt has been aimed at Philip Seymour Hoffman for his portrayal of the mysterious Father Flynn, but for me, it is Meryl Streep’s haunting performance as Sister Aloysius that really stands out. Streep has garnered the most Academy Award nominations of any actor and her performance here is one of her best in my opinion. The internal struggle that Sister Aloysius faces – does she turn away from God in her quest for the truth? – allows Streep to give a skilfully reserved performance built on intensity. The scenes between Hoffman and Streep buzz with tension and the actress holds her own against the overstated nature of the former’s performance. Streep’s masterful grapple with the narrative finds her performance elevating the film into a wider comment on society.
Her portrayal of Sister Aloysius’s unrelenting, almost obsessive determination to discover the truth is rather frightening as well as riveting. In comparison, Kate Winslet’s winning performance in The Reader (2008) is less accomplished. Whilst the film tackles a strong subject – Winslet’s former Nazi guard, Hanna Schimtz, has fling with teenager who is later a law student involved in her war crimes trial – the actress conveys this less convincingly than Streep does the taboo subject matter of Doubt. If there was ever an Oscar Streep should have won, it’s this one!
03. EDWARD NORTON – AMERICAN HISTORY X (1997)
Edward Norton is an actor that has no problem giving powerhouse performances and his portrayal as Derek Vineyard has him at his contemptible best. As the leader of a Neo-Nazi gang he is despicable and demonstrates an intense violence that only he could convincingly deliver. However, the reformed Derek gives Norton a chance to play the repentant man that audiences can sympathise with and it is the scope of the role that gives the actor the opportunity to show off his full range of talent. Deeply disturbing and utterly convincing, Norton’s performance never fails to send a shiver down my spine.
I’m one of the few people who quite enjoyed Life is Beautiful, but the fact that Roberto Benigni beat Norton to win the Academy Award is plainly ridiculous. Whilst Benigni’s performance is not a bad one, Norton displays a range emotion that is unparalleled and plays both a deplorable and amiable character within the runtime of a single film. I’m not entirely sure what the Academy was thinking there!?
02. FRANK LANGELLA – FROST/NIXON (2008)
I studied American Studies at university and the Watergate Scandal and presidency of Richard Nixon was a major topic of a number of courses. I never got the sense of the man Nixon was through the copious amounts of reading and researching I conducted during my studying. When I watched Frost/Nixon recently I finally felt like the surface of this generally hated politician had been broken. Langella gives a career defining performance here, capturing the essence of Nixon right down to his speech patterns and physical movements.
As well as giving an excellent performance, Langella was able to inject a certain amount of humanity into a figure that has been ridiculed and despised by many factions for decades. Langella’s gripping performance transforms what could have been a stilted, tiresome film into a piece of highly entertaining and engaging cinema and the most successful scenes have to those that pit the actor’s Nixon against co-star Sheen’s roguish Frost. Sean Penn’s winning performance as Harvey Milk in the eponymous Milk (2008) is proficient, but pales in comparison to Langella’s Nixon.
01. BETTE DAVIS – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
I’ve professed my love for this twisted, vulgar tale of sibling rivalry a number of times before and I can’t not place it again at the apex of this week’s Top 10, so apologies for that! But Bette Davis’s performance of the unhinged and violent Baby Jane is one of the best committed to film. She meanders through the narrative with notions of sanity and clear thinking then seamlessly collapsing into sudden rages of insanity. Her abilities as an actress allow Davis to lend an almost poetic air to madness and she generates both distaste and sympathy for her repulsive character. What is ironic about Davis’s loss is that it is probably most likely due to the actions of her co-star and real life rival, Joan Crawford.
The two actresses’ hate for each other developed further during the shooting of the film, both subjecting the other to a thoroughly hateful time on set. The final straw came for Crawford when Davis kicked her in the head during a violent scene, causing her to have stitches. When the nominations for the Academy Awards were released the following year, Crawford felt that she was undeservedly overlooked for Davis’s showier performance and began a vehement campaign for rival Best Actress nominee Anne Bancroft as an act of revenge against her co-star. Bancroft went on to win the award for The Miracle Worker (1962) – for a performance that was solid but had far less dramatic scope than Baby Jane – and the final metaphorical slap in Davis’s face came when Crawford swept on stage to accept it for the unavailable winner!
As with many of my Top 10s, this week’s choices are very personal to me – and particularly my obsession with Hollywood of yesteryear – if you have some of your own choices or disagree with mine I’d love to hear, so please feel free to leave any comments below!