Who are the best actors without an Oscar? More importantly, how do you decide among them? Calls for Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender aren’t unwarranted, but Cumberbatch’s best work remains in TV and Fassbender has his best work still ahead of him.
Let’s also keep this to actors still living. Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole both certainly deserved the Oscars they were never awarded. They gave viewers years and years of special performances, but we can no longer root for them at the Academy Awards.
In truth, this is a difficult metric. What do you value most? A career of overlooked and off-kilter roles like Donald Sutherland’s, or a singular performance such as Emile Hirsch’s in “Into the Wild?” Neither quite makes the top 10, but who is more deserving of an Oscar? Let’s balance those two qualifications as best as possible.
Also check out our Best Living Actresses Without an Oscar.
In his heartthrob years fresh off “Titanic,” it became easy to dismiss DiCaprio as missing some sort of true dramatic quality. Yet he has ceaselessly challenged himself since then. He isn’t the kind of chameleon Edward Norton is (Norton also lacks an Oscar, by the way). DiCaprio’s own celebrity shines too bright. The old comparisons to Marlon Brando still have weight. Just as we always knew it was Brando playing a role, we always know we’re watching DiCaprio play a role. No matter how method either one gets, we never entirely forget that we’re still watching an actor. What both do so well is they make that awareness cease to matter. They actually use it in some ways and turn it into a strength. It’s one reason DiCaprio has lost out in his nominations for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “Blood Diamond,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It always feels like the celebrity of DiCaprio is nominated as much as the actual performances. That star quality is valued less today than it used to be.
You might not know Tony Leung. The Hong Kong actor is best known for his martial arts performances, but it’s his dramatic range that truly deserves recognition. A regular collaborator with Kar Wai Wong, he’s played the dramatic lead in “In the Mood for Love” and “2046.” He also starred in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.” Roles in “Hero” and “Infernal Affairs,” which served as the basis for Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” are more familiar to American audiences. Leung delivers complex performances that often rely on body language and subtle facial acting more than on his dialogue. Humphrey Bogart might be an odd comparison, but both men could hold dialogues with the audience without ever needing to say a word.
One of the elder statesmen on this list, his name might be the least familiar. A Swedish actor who got his start in quiet, introspective Ingmar Bergman films, Von Sydow is perhaps most famous for his role as a medieval knight who plays chess with Death in “The Seventh Seal.” Now relegated to playing kindly grandfathers, doctors, or detached villains in English-language material, it seems unlikely that Von Sydow will be recognized again at this point in his career.
He might seem a newer entry on a list like this, but he’s been acting for 20 years. Many were introduced to him as The Operative in “Firefly” movie “Serenity,” the detective opposite Clive Owen’s bank robber in “Inside Man,” or the villain in “Children of Men.” Yet his resume also includes notable performances in “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Kinky Boots,” and “American Gangster.” It’s his astonishing performance in “12 Years a Slave” that gets him on this list, however. It remains one of the best roles never to earn the statuette.
Much has been made of the ups and downs of Depp’s career the last decade, but this pretends as if something has changed. Depp has always been an actor who’s delivered resounding successes and monumental failures. No one remembers “The Brave,” “The Man Who Cried,” “The Astronaut’s Wife,” or “The Ninth Gate” because no one was paying attention back in the ’90s. This seems like a funny argument for how overlooked he is, but the truth is that Depp has a wider range for success and failure because of the risks he takes. Flops like “Mortdecai,” “Transcendence,” and “Dark Shadows” are simply more noticeable now, but so are the characters he creates that no one else can: Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Sweeney Todd in “Sweeney Todd,” and the unbridled motion capture performance he put into “Rango.” He deserves to have an Oscar already, and he’ll probably get one before too much longer.
His performances as Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings” should’ve netted him nomination after nomination. It’s stunning to think McKellen would never have played the role if Sean Connery hadn’t turned it down. Yet his work in Shakespearian films like “Richard III,” indie films like “Gods and Monsters,” and even as Sherlock Holmes in “Mr. Holmes” deserve equal recognition. There are few actors who deserve an Oscar more than McKellen does by this point.
Yeah, Joaquin Phoenix pisses many viewers off by this point, but few actors share his ability to morph into such different roles: sad sack Theodore from “Her,” rage machine Freddie in “The Master,” country legend Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” Few actors share Phoenix’s range, and fewer still share his ability to come back from the intentional disaster that was mockumentary/performance art/celebrity prank “I’m Still Here.” There may not be a better American actor working today.
If acting is about doing something that no one else can do, then Jackie Chan is one of the best around. If we value Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s antics as the foundation that cinema is built upon, then Chan is their successor. If critics valued comedians the way they do dramatic actors, Chan would have won again and again. If there were Oscars for stunt coordinating and stunt acting, Chan would have more wins than Meryl Streep. Yet these things aren’t valued, and the Academy seems to overvalue European foreign language comedy while dismissing almost every Asian foreign language comedy that comes its way. If we’re talking about the most talented actor with zero nominations, let alone wins, we’re talking about Jackie Chan.
Technically, Redford has won a directing Oscar and an honorary Oscar for his combined work as an actor, director, and the creator of Sundance Film Festival. He’s never won as an actor for a specific performance. Unfathomably, he’s only been nominated once in any acting category: for his role in “The Sting” in 1974. This is despite 2013’s compelling “All is Lost,” for which he wasn’t even nominated. His heyday was the ’70s, with stellar lead roles in “All the President’s Men,” “The Candidate,” and “Jeremiah Johnson.” His work at this stage of his career is largely overlooked.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” remains the only film for which Oldman’s been nominated. His work as Commissioner Gordon in “The Dark Knight” trilogy and Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movies is dismissed. His work in “Dracula,” “JFK,” “Sid and Nancy,” and “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” are the true oversights. He is a chameleon’s chameleon, often unrecognizable from one role to the next. While DiCaprio may have too much recognizability for voters to consider him, Oldman doesn’t have anywhere near enough.
10 Honorable Mentions: Antonio Banderas, Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, Clint Eastwood, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Giamatti, Irrfan Khan, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Will Smith.
Which actor would you choose? Did we miss anyone?