In anticipation of the Oscar telecast coming on Sunday, we perform a public service to the losers by turning the spotlight on a dozen great performances from actors who failed to even get nominated. That’s right. No nomination. Nada. Nothing. Jeez, Academy, you really look stupid now. By Peter Travers
Yes, Bridges won an Oscar for 2009’s Crazy Heart. But for playing the immortal Dude for the Coen Brothers in 1998’s iconic The Big Lebowski, Bridges got snubbed for one of the great comic performances in cinema history. Whaaaat! All together now: “Are you effing kidding me?” Close your eyes and you can see and hear Bridges: “I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.” More shame: This was the same year that Roberto Benigni won the gold for hamming it up in Life Is Beautiful. Oscar, you’re not living this down.
In one of the great movies ignored by Oscar, Norton gives what still ranks (for me) as his best performance. Director David Fincher makes brilliant use of film language to take us inside the head of Norton’s narrator Jack, a yuppie drone whose mind is on fire with revolutionary ideas provided by Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, a firebrand who turns fight clubs into militias. Norton catches lightning in a revelatory performance that reaches its peak as Jack beats himself bloody in front of his employer.
I don’t begrudge Witherspoon the Oscar she won for playing June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line, but come on, people! You won’t know what Witherspoon can do till you see her as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s bitingly funny look at politics from the perspective of candidates running for class president at Omaha’s George Washington Carver High. Tracy is an overachieving suck-up who’ll do anything to win. And Witherspoon, her jaw set like a rabid puppy, makes Tracy a hilarious hellcat ready to clean up everyone's ethical ills but her own. There’s not an ounce of vanity in Witherspoon’s withering portrayal of young democracy on the march. She makes Tracy the stuff of both laughs and lasting nightmares.
It’s possible that the Academy didn’t yet know what Wahlberg had in him in 1997 when he played 1970’s porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. But why be forgiving in the face of the actor's breakthrough performance as a kid who rises to X-rated fame on the size of his dick. Moving from naive teen to cynical burnout, Wahlberg is on fire as Dirk, fueled by drugs and arrogance, lashes out at anyone who tries to control him: “You’re not the King of me!” It’s a blazing performance that's mercilessly honest and mercifully humane at the same time.
How Oscar voters snubbed Murray’s tour de force in Wes Anderson’s 1998 landmark still astonishes me. Murray drops the smirk that has always been his comic armor and replaces it with sly humor, subtle feeling and surprising gravity. As Herman Blume, a steel tycoon with a cheating wife and teenage twin sons he hates almost as much as he hates himself, Murray artfully digs for signs of life in a character who thinks his soul is dead. The actor crowds a lifetime into one small scene: As Herman distractedly throws golf balls in the pool, he notices his wife at another table, flirting with the tennis pro. Cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, Herman heaves his way to the diving board, casts a look of disdain at his family and jumps, the camera noting his sad isolation at the bottom of the pool. Time-capsule stuff.
David Lynch’s creepy 2001 masterwork casts Watts as Betty Elms, a perky blonde from Deep River, Ontario, out to make it as an actress in Hollywood. A feeling of dread infects everything and everyone except Betty, who keeps smiling even when she settles into her aunt's bungalow and finds an amnesiac brunette (Laura Elena Harring) in her shower. Watts nails every subversive impulse under Betty's sunny exterior. Watch her in the audition scene — as perversely brilliant as anything Lynch has ever directed — when Betty reads lines with an older actor (Chad Everett). Earlier, Betty had rehearsed the role of a good girl who is being sexually abused by her father's business partner. But now Betty assertively takes charge, breathing in his ear, biting his lip, reading her dialogue — "Get out of here before I kill you" — like a carnal invitation. Wowsa!
As Borat Sagdiyev, a visitor from Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen proves himself a balls-out comic revolutionary—right up there with Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Dr. Strangelove, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Cartman at exposing the ignorant, racist, misogynist, gay-bashing, Jew-hating, gun-loving, warmongering heart of America. During the time it took Baron Cohen to put Borat's journey on film in 2006 with director Larry Charles, people believed that the British satirist really was the smiling, shamelessly offensive TV reporter who takes pride that his sister is "the number-four prostitute in all of country." They lined up to be interviewed, signed releases and bought the scam that Borat, with his pubic patch of a mustache, his unwashed gray suit, his butchered English and his blatant bigotry, really was a roving Kazakh citizen doing a documentary on American culture. At a rodeo in Virginia, Borat is greeted with cheers when he tells the crowd, "We support your war of terror," and then hypes them up more by longing for the day that "Premier George W. Bush will drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq." Baron Cohen makes you laugh till it hurts. It hurt so much the Academy turned the other way.
Portman, 30 when she won the Oscar for Black Swan, was just 12-years old when she made her film debut in French writer-director Luc Besson’s kinky twist on Little Orphan Annie. Portman’s talent was just as evident back in 1994. The professional is Leon (Jean Reno), an immigrant hitman in Manhattan who takes in young Mathilda (Portman) after a crooked drug cop (Gary Oldman) massacres her family. Leon isn't used to people, his closest companion is a plant, but Mathilda holds him in thrall. For good reason: Portman is a beauty. And Besson flirts disturbingly with her budding sexuality as Mathilda dresses as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to amuse Leon. It helps that Reno, a skilled actor of surprising sweetness, keeps Leon's feelings paternal and the film outside the realm of child porn. And Portman, even in the scene when Leon takes her to the rooftop with a gun to learn his trade, keeps us in touch with the child Leon is so eager to protect. It's a stunning introduction.
Everyone hated the book, especially those who never read it. Back in 1991, the Bret Easton Ellis novel about Patrick Bateman — a Wall Street stud into designer labels and the aprés-sex mutilation — hardly seemed movie material. Then, in 2000, director Mary Harron decided the key was to emphasize the book’s satiric elements. Her real inspiration, however, was casting Bale as Bateman. His hot-bod, cold-eyed performance came laced with spiky wit. Let a friend stand out with something as simple as a better business card and Bateman goes nuts. Home for this psycho is a place to work out while using perky pop songs, such as "Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News, as mood music for murder. "I simply am not there," says Bateman, who may be just imagining the murders. A cop-out? Maybe. But Bale, brilliantly skewering a soulless corporate America, strikes a raw nerve.
No way am I demeaning the two Oscars that Penn won for his heavy dramatic lifting in Mystic River and Milk. But for inspired laughs that last a lifetime, you can’t beat Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Amy Heckerling’s 1982 Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Stoned since third grade, as we learn from Cameron Crowe’s killer script, Spicoli, in Penn’s hands, is a masterful comic creation. Whether he’s ordering pizza to be delivered to his history class (Ray Walston’s expression as his teacher Mr. Hand is classic) or dreaming of finding the perfect wave, Penn is a howl. Ben Kingsley won the Oscar that year for playing Gandhi. Oscar sucks! I’m with Spicoli.
Just say the title of Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 1971 film of Anthony Burgess’s futuristic novel and you see McDowell’s painted face as Alex, the young hood who leads his droogs on a spree of ultraviolence. Academy prudes were no doubt put off by the scene in which Alex attacks a woman for “a bit of the old in-out” to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain.” They don’t see beneath the surface. McDowell does, especially after Alex is captured and brainwashed into reforming. Is the cure worse than the disease? That’s the question that burns inside McDowell’s haunting portrayal.
When I tell you that Perkins wasn’t nominated for playing Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, you probably think I’m making it up. Not even Academy voters could be that clueless, right? Yes they can, movie lovers, yes they can. Norman, the peeping Tom with the demanding mother at the Bates Motel, is the role of Perkins’ career. Never mind the scary shower scene or Norman in the swamp or the fruit cellar. Or with his stuffed birds. How about the vulnerability Perkins brings to Norman in battle with his mother, a woman who thinks he “can’t hurt a fly.” Oscar, you deserve a swat.