Oscar-Worthy Performances That Didn’t Win

Oscar-worthy performances

As awards season rolls around, fans watch each year to see if their favorite films, directors, actors, and other creatives garner any recognition. In Hollywood, the crème de la crème will always covet the illustrious Academy Award statuette.

When it comes to the Oscars, there will always be worthy performances that do not win and even more that don’t even score a nomination. Sometimes, the winners feel right; other times, not so much. Regardless, so many actors have given spectacular Oscar-worthy performances that deserve some recognition.

1. Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

cast away
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks won the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar in 1993 and 1994 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, respectively. When actors win multiple times, Academy voters may think, “he’s already won,” so they will vote for another performer. That could be why Hanks’ incredible performance in Cast Away just six years later went unrecognized.

That year, the award went to Russell Crowe for Gladiator, a tour de force from an equally exceptional actor. But Hanks proves to be just as brilliant, carrying the entire film with his moving portrayal of a man desperate to return home.

In 2019, Hanks had a better shot. 25 years after his previous win, his performance as beloved children’s television personality Fred Rogers showed grace and charm. He’s so profound and captivating in the role that viewers feel like they’re watching the genuine article. Hanks may have lost to first-time winner Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but his performance remains one of his most astonishing.

2. Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin (1992)

Image Credit: TriStar Pictures.

Given Robert Downey Jr.’s acting prowess, many fans will likely assume he’s won an Oscar already. With only two nominations during his career, his loss for Chaplin feels the most egregious.

Downey Jr. channels the actor, director, and film pioneer so incredibly that some may swear they’re watching Charlie Chaplin reincarnated. This was Downey Jr.’s Oscar to win. Still, the Academy awarded Al Pacino the Best Actor statue for Scent of a Woman. Many call this a legacy win for Pacino, having been nominated several times throughout his career without a single win. Pacino's win left Downey Jr. out in the cold, along with many other Oscar-worthy performances that didn't win.

3. James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

mr. smith goes to washington
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

This classic film star rarely faltered and remains one of the most respected in cinema history. But Stewart’s biggest fans will likely agree that he could have won an Oscar for something other than Best Supporting Actor in The Philadelphia Story. Many even agree that it does not represent his most outstanding work. Two of his most revered performances can be seen in the Frank Capra films It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Portraying George Bailey, Stewart performs sincerely, showing audiences a man's journey to gratitude and self-love. As Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart gives a riveting, authentic performance as a man with his ideals threatened by corrupt leaders. Although Stewart lost to Robert Donat in 1939 and Fredrich March in 1946, he still took home a statuette in 1940 and an honorary Oscar decades later, cementing his legacy.

4. Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line (2005)

walk the line 1
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

When looking back on Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as iconic musician Johnny Cash, many might assume he won Best Actor. After all, he embodies the “Man in Black” remarkably in voice, demeanor, song, and essence. How could he not have won? Though he did win a Golden Globe for the film, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Best Actor Academy Award over Phoenix for his work in Capote. It also makes many fans wish it could’ve been a tie that year, something that’s happened six times in Oscar history.

5. Amy Adams in Enchanted (2007) and Arrival (2016)

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Amy Adams has become the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, nominated for six awards with zero wins. While fans will praise each of those nominations, her Oscar-worthy performances in two unnominated movies stand out. Enchanted and Arrival could not be more different in tone or subject matter but only further demonstrate the depth of her talent.

In Enchanted, Adams' performance of an animated princess cast into the real world embodies sunshine, positivity, and grace without ever feeling artificial. Her effortless comedic skills delight, but she brings a genuine sense of humanity to the role that few could manage. Adams also carries and grounds the sci-fi film Arrival, bringing a poignancy that astounds viewers.

6. Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

all about eve
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

While All About Eve won six Oscars, including some of the most coveted awards – Best Picture, and Best Screenplay, among others – the film’s leads remained shut out. It may seem difficult to understand, considering how Davis brings so much authenticity, vulnerability, and nuance to her role as an aging theater actress.

Truthfully, the 23rd Academy Awards showcased brilliant nominees in each category. Also nominated for Best Actress included Davis’s co-star Anne Baxter, Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, Eleanor Parker from Caged, and winner Judy Holliday from Born Yesterday. Whatever the circumstances, any of these ladies, namely Davis, gave Oscar-worthy performances.

7. Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Finding Neverland (2004)

pirates of the caribbean
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures.

In Johnny Depp’s long, varied career, his most notable decade of Oscar-worthy performances came in the 2000s when he received three Best Actor nominations. All three prove Oscar-worthy, but especially his first two. As Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp creates a unique, unforgettable character. He’s flamboyant, hilarious, and entirely original. No other performer would’ve made his acting choices, and he transforms a typical character into something extraordinary. And while Sean Penn gives a moving and compelling performance in Mystic River, his win also feels safe and conventional.

On the other hand, Depp’s understated performance in Finding Neverland lacks the flashiness of Jack Sparrow but feels no less impressive. As the author of Peter Pan, Depp moves viewers deeply. Though few would deny Jamie Foxx did not deserve his win for Ray, Depp’s performance shines.

8. Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

eternal sunshine 1
Image Credit: Focus Features.

Unsurprisingly, an actress of Kate Winslet’s caliber has multiple Oscar nominations: seven, winning Best Actress for The Reader. But other performances feel award-worthy, too, especially in Titanic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

For a film as successful as Titanic, the acting did not garner much attention at award shows. Still, Winslet’s stunning portrayal of Rose (and palpable chemistry with Leonardo DiCaprio) enriches the movie’s central story, elevating the film beyond mere spectacle. And Winslet effortlessly matches 1998’s Best Actress winner, Helen Hunt.

Clementine in Eternal Sunshine represents one of her bravest, most vulnerable Oscar-worthy performances. She commands attention as the complex woman slowly erasing from her ex-boyfriend’s memory with heartbreaking, raw, funny, and unique passion. In any other year, Winslet may have swept award season. But the 2005 award shows saw Hilary Swank understandably win for her brilliant performance in Million Dollar Baby. This would be another example where a tie would’ve been welcome.

9. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942) and The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

One of cinema’s most esteemed actors, Humphrey Bogart’s single Academy Award came in 1952 for The African Queen. But his other two nominated performances could have brought him Oscars, too. Given Casablanca’s synonymous and iconic status in Bogart’s career, many likely think he won for this film, and for good reason. Bogart gives a layered performance as the man who claims indifference but quietly helps others in a war-torn world. Bogart, especially in Casablanca, has such a robust and natural presence that many will underestimate his acting. There is no slight to Paul Lukas’ performance in Watch on the Rhine, but Bogart made an indelible impact with Casablanca.

In The Caine Mutiny, Bogart astounds viewers as Captain Queeg, a paranoid and quick-tempered man whose mutinous crew challenges him constantly. Bogart’s mesmerizing performance draws viewers in as he commands every moment on screen. From his speech pattern to his physical quirks, this role demonstrates the depth of Bogart’s ability. The legendary actor lost to another icon, Marlon Brando, for On The Waterfront. But both men deserve recognition.

10. Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974)

the godfather part II
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Many cinema and Oscar aficionados agree that Al Pacino won his Oscar for the wrong film. Though Scent of a Woman proves enjoyable, Pacino’s Oscar-worthy performances in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Godfather Part II, especially, better showcase his talent. In the latter, Pacino entrances filmgoers by simultaneously playing both protagonist and villain.

His ruthless behavior, juxtaposed with his humanity, creates one of the most fascinating and complex characters ever, made possible by what only Pacino could bring to the role. A single expression conveys so much, but nothing compares to the kiss he gives his brother that sends chills into the hearts of every viewer.

11. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator (2004) and Titanic (1997)

the aviator
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio finally took home a Best Actor statue for The Revenant after going zero for four. But fans find two other Oscar-worthy performances just as notable. Though Kate Winslet provides the heart of Titanic, DiCaprio provides the soul. His charismatic, funny, and beautiful performance moves viewers beyond measure, helping to make the film a groundbreaking phenomenon. And yet DiCaprio did not receive a nomination.

In The Aviator, DiCaprio performs exceptionally as the extraordinary pilot, filmmaker, and inventor Howard Hughes. Plagued with obsessive-compulsive disorder and undiagnosed bipolar disorder, combined with a massive ego, Hughes struggled amidst his achievements. And DiCaprio soared in a role that some call the best of his career.

12. Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

shadow of a doubt
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Oscar-worthy performances in Alfred Hitchcock films seldom get recognition. Out of all the director’s films, only eight actors received nominations. One that did not but deserves praise would be Joseph Cotten’s spine-tingling portrayal in Shadow of a Doubt. Cotten plays a murderer who preys on unsuspecting women. When he returns home to visit his family, his niece slowly suspects him of something sinister. His cold demeanor steadily plants seeds of doubt in her mind thanks to Cotten’s chilling performance.

13. Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

talented mr. ripley
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Another example of a film that garnered praise for everything but the acting (with one exception) would be The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film received five nominations at the 72nd Academy Awards. And while Jude Law did get into the Best Supporting Actor category (and rightly so), voters did not nominate Matt Damon for Actor in a Leading Role.

The baffling omission inspires pure incredulity. Damon carries the film as the sociopath Tom Ripley, giving a performance that sends shivers down viewers’ spines with a tinge of sympathy. He brilliantly demonstrates self-loathing, restraint, and mania with incredible precision and nuance. He could have won Best Actor that year, so why did he not even earn a nomination?

14. Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables (2012)

les miserables
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Hugh Jackman would have won every lead actor award in any other year. His career-best role in the poignant musical Les Misérables elicits such profound emotions that many cannot even articulate how deeply his performance affects them. As Jean Valjean, a man who suffers a lifetime of punishment, Jackman commands the screen as much as his co-star, Best Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway.

He sings with enthusiasm and vigor and breaks the hearts of every single viewer. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever cried more watching a film than in Valjean’s final moments. Therefore, someone unaware of Oscar history may wonder how such a performance could have lost until they see who won: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. Still, it feels like a travesty that Jackman left empty-handed.

15. Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man (2005) and Sideways (2004)

Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

‘underrated actor Paul Giamatti rarely gets the notoriety and recognition he deserves for his Oscar-worthy performances. In Sideways, he gives the sardonic and depressing wine connoisseur a vulnerability and softness not many actors could achieve. Arguably the best part of the film, the Academy did not nominate the actor despite four other nominations for the film, including his co-stars Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen.

In Cinderella Man, Giamatti provides steadfast heart and warmth as the manager of boxer James Braddock during the Great Depression. The understated but authentic performance lacks the intensity of George Clooney’s winning role in Syriana—however, portrayals as natural and poignant as Giamatti’s deserve just as much praise.

16. William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

sunset blvd
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures and mptvimages.com.

William Holden and Gloria Swanson could easily have won for their brilliant turns in the noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Holden plays a struggling screenwriter who becomes entranced in the world of former film star Norma Desmond (Swanson). Their odd but fascinating relationship captivates viewers due to both of their performances.

Holden and Swanson showcase the suffocating nature of obsession and the sad disillusionment that permeates the film industry. While Swanson lost to the exceptional Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and Holden lost to José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, both demonstrate how superb Oscar-worthy performances do not always win.

17. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)

double indemnity
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Another underrated classic actress, Barbara Stanwyck, received four Oscar nominations during her career. Her best chance at the gold came with Double Indemnity. Portraying a cold femme fatale who persuades an insurance man to help murder her husband, Stanwyck awes viewers and sends icy chills into their veins.

Unfortunately for Stanwyck, viewers saw one of her finest roles in the same year as an incredible lineup of powerhouse Oscar-worthy performances in the Best Actress category: Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away, Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington, Greer Garson in Mrs. Parkington, and winner Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.

18. Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place (2018)

a quiet place
Image Credit: Jonny Cournoyer and Paramount Pictures.

A film with very little dialogue and most storytelling done through body language requires actors of the highest degree. More than up to the challenge, Emily Blunt is a tour de force in A Quiet Place, and captures what a mother in her position would feel. She elicits a profound sense of empathy rarely felt in movies, especially in the horror genre. Astonishingly enough, Blunt did not receive a nomination for her role, with the film earning only one for Sound Editing. In fact, Blunt has never received an Academy Award nomination.

19. Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)

pulp fiction 1
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

Many speculate and discuss how much winning an Oscar depends on campaigns from studios, word of mouth, and other aspects of Hollywood politics. Many filmgoers believe these factors led to Samuel L. Jackson’s Academy Awards loss for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. One of the most seminal films and characters of the 1990s, Jackson arguably gives the best performance in the film and in that year.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Martin Landau’s role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood awed viewers in a completely different way. Landau’s win may be worthy, but Jackson's performance was just as astonishing.

20. Ian McKellen and Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

lord of the rings
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

One of the winningest and most-nominated franchises in film history, the Academy only recognized one actor in the trilogy's nearly 30 nominations: Ian McKellen in The Fellowship of the Ring. McKellen did not win, and still, disappointment looms in the hearts of fans worldwide. McKellen anchors the first film, providing a window into a vast world. And he makes a larger-than-life figure feel human and fallible.

In the third film, Sean Astin gives his all and captures the hearts of moviegoers with his rich and moving portrayal of the loyal hobbit Sam. That year’s Supporting Actor statue went to Tim Robbins in Mystic River, so Astin would’ve had tough competition. But leaving Astin out feels unjust.

21. Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Man on the Moon (1999)

the truman show
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Another actor who sadly has never received an Oscar nomination, Jim Carrey, probably does not lose any sleep over it. Still, his fans feel like numerous films could have earned him a coveted spot in the Best Actor category, namely The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Man on the Moon.

Portraying Truman Burbank, Joel Barrish, and Andy Kaufman, respectively, Carrey abandons his typical over-the-top schtick for these three very different roles. Each showcases the strength of his skills and elicits feelings of empathy, profound sadness, and hope. His brilliant work deserves more than he’s received.

22. Cary Grant in Penny Serenade (1941)

penny serenade
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Despite Cary Grant’s iconic status in Hollywood history, he rarely received award recognition. With only two Oscar nominations to his name, he gives his most tender and heart-wrenching performance in Penny Serenade. Those who doubt his acting chops need to look no further than the film about a couple’s sad parental journey.

As luck would have it, Grant gives one of his finest performances in a year where the entire Best Actor Category astonishes. The other nominees included Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Robert Montgomery in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Walter Huston in All That Money Can Buy, and winner Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. To the Academy’s credit, they rectified Grant’s lack of recognition with an Honorary Award in 1970.

23. Gary Oldman in Air Force One (1997)

air force one
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Moviegoers will describe a handful of actors as chameleons who can disappear into their various roles. Without a doubt, Gary Oldman falls into that category. His portfolio varies so much that viewers often do not even realize they’re watching the British actor.

Besides his Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Oldman gives another Oscar-worthy performance in Air Force One. Despite Oldman playing a ruthless villain (which Academy voters tend to love), his performance did not earn a nomination. Over his career, Oldman has received three nominations. But admirers of his role in the political thriller think he should have four.

24. Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

leave it to heaven
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

While many classic film lovers remember Gene Tierney for her radiant beauty, her acting deserves praise. Specifically, her lone Oscar nomination in Leave Her to Heaven demonstrates her ability to illuminate the screen.

In the film, Tierney portrays an obsessive woman whose love for her husband goes beyond devotion. Her entire performance astonishes viewers, but one scene stands out as one of the most chilling in cinema history. She creates tension with such simplicity, showcasing her innate talent. Without that year’s winner (Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce), Tierney may have taken home the award.

25. Harrison Ford in The Fugitive (1993) and Witness (1985)

the fugitive
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

It feels impossible that Harrison Ford only has one Oscar nomination in his entire career for Witness. His performance rivals that of the Best Actor winner, William Hurt. His quiet strength and layered portrayal anchor the drama.

Fans of The Fugitive love that Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor at the 1994 Oscars, but it seems wholly wrong that Ford received no such recognition for his lead role. Ford’s engaging performance grounds and drives the film’s narrative. That year’s Best Actor category proved exceptional, especially the winner, Tom Hanks. But Ford, at the very least, deserved to be in the race.

26. Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987)

fatal attraction
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

No actress struck fear in the hearts of married men everywhere like Glenn Close did in Fatal Attraction. She portrays a woman whose descent into madness stems from, initially, a place of understanding, wrong as her behavior may be. She goes beyond unsettling to terrifying but never becomes a caricature that could be in some Lifetime original movie.

With eight Oscar nominations in total, it feels inherently wrong that one of the greatest actresses of her generation has yet to take home the Oscar.

Author: Marianne Paluso

Title: Writer

Expertise: Entertainment, Travel, Books


Marianne Paluso is a freelance writer and artist and holds a Masters Degree in English and Children’s Literature from San Diego State University. Inspired by her favorite films, television, theme parks and all things pop culture and geek related, she especially loves Disney, classic films, fairy tales, period dramas, musicals, adventures, mysteries, and a good rom-com. She joined Wealth of Geeks in 2021, and has also contributed to The Nerd Machine, Catholic News Agency, Christianity Today, and The La Jolla Light. She writes on her own website TheGirlyNerd.com, creates art that is sold on Redbubble and Etsy, and also partakes in the occasional Disney bound, cosplay, and YouTube video. She resides in San Diego, California.