The Oscars don’t typically award bad acting performances. The worst of cinematic crime scenes feature talented stars trying to salvage what they can, from Viola Davis making the most out of The Help, to Colin Firth acting his royal socks off in The King’s Speech.
In truth, the Oscars tend to be more confusing than they are outright offensive. Many actors seem to win for the wrong performances (does anyone think Still Alice is Julianne Moore’s best work?), while interesting performances in provocative movies tend to be overlooked in favour of awarding more traditional Oscar bait.
It means that it’s far easier to curate a list of the most “what the hell?” wins than it is the truly bad ones. These are times when the victor seemed much less deserving than their fellow nominees, or when a juicy Oscar narrative overpowered the performance itself: Who hadn’t won in a while? Who’d been snubbed too many times? Who risked their health the most through all that weight loss/weight gain/potential hypothermia, and so forth?
Ahead of this year’s Oscars, which fall on 12 March, we’ve gone through more than 30 years of ceremonies to find 13 of the most frustrating Academy Award screw-ups in the acting categories.
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
To say anything negative about Daniel Day-Lewis is tantamount to sacrilege – so I won’t. But Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln biopic is also among the actor’s most unexciting work. His performance as one of America’s greatest presidents is driven by stoicism and reserve – qualities that are basically the Oscars’ kryptonite. With that in mind, it’s admirable that he triumphed in 2013. Yet you wish Oscar had ventured elsewhere that year based on Day-Lewis’s fellow nominees. Compared to an electric Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, or Joaquin Phoenix’s strange and beguiling work in The Master, Day-Lewis felt (dare I say it?) a bit pedestrian.
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep is the queen of technicality. She’s never been an especially naturalistic performer, but it’s still thrilling to watch her move and gesture and project. But in something like The Iron Lady, where she played Margaret Thatcher, it’s almost unbearable. Try as she might, she never seems to have a handle on the character, possibly because The Iron Lady isn’t a very good movie, but it’s incredibly distracting. This Oscar year (2012) was also a great one for performances by women, most of whom didn’t even get nominations – Charlize Theron in Young Adult, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Streep sweeping the various Best Actress races, despite all of that strong competition, was particularly egregious.
Julianne Moore in Still Alice
This was an “it’s time” Oscar. Still Alice marked Julianne Moore’s fifth Academy Award nomination, with the Academy deciding she finally deserved a spot at the podium. While she’s very good as a woman experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s, the film itself is forgettable. An easy fix would have been to give Moore her much-deserved Oscar back in 1998, for her gorgeous work in Boogie Nights. Or in 2003 for Far from Heaven, where she embodied heartbreaking fragility as a tortured Fifties housewife. With such an “it’s time” narrative therefore unnecessary in 2015, that year’s Best Actress Oscar could have gone to a terrifying Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl instead.
Martin Landau in Ed Wood
Everyone loves Martin Landau, so it’s difficult to begrudge this win too much. His work as Bela Lugosi in this underrated Tim Burton drama is also magnetic and poignant. But he was also up against Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. A true cinema-shaking, star-making performance if there ever was one, Jackson’s work in the Quentin Tarantino classic is funny, frightening and endlessly quotable. It seems bizarre that it wasn’t an awards shoo-in at the time.
Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained
Or the second time Samuel L Jackson missed out on his Oscar. While you could excuse Landau’s win based on the quality of his performance in Ed Wood, it remains mystifying that the Academy Awards determined Waltz to be the standout of the Django Unchained ensemble – particularly when he had won for another Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds, just three years earlier. Neither of Waltz’s Django co-stars – Jackson and a similarly terrifying Leonardo DiCaprio – earned Supporting Actor nominations, and he ultimately triumphed over The Master’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what marked Hoffman’s last great performance before his tragic death.
Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby
For someone who has won two Best Actress Oscars, Hilary Swank has had an odd career. Last seen as a psychotic policewoman in the lurid thriller Fatale, Swank probably didn’t need a second Academy Award, for the maudlin Clint Eastwood weepie Million Dollar Baby. Awarding that year’s Best Actress Oscar to Kate Winslet instead – for her show-stopping performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – would have also freed her from an “it’s time” narrative four years later (when she won for her role in the stuffy courtroom drama The Reader). Oh, what could have been.
Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules
This is the epitome of a Harvey Weinstein Oscar, in that it happened courtesy of a treacly period drama he aggressively backed and then was quickly forgotten about. It was also a weird triumph – Michael Caine had won before, for 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, so he didn’t have a particularly strong “it’s time” narrative around him, and he was also up against a quartet of genuinely brilliant and still talked-about performances (Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Jude Law in The Talented Mr Ripley).
Jim Broadbent in Iris
This was another win from the Harvey Weinstein factory. An Iris Murdoch biopic distributed by Weinstein’s Miramax Films and starring both Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the late journalist, it was practically made for Oscars. Broadbent is fine as Murdoch’s caring husband, but nowhere near as memorable as his Supporting Actor competition that year, which included Ben Kingsley’s hilariously volatile work in Sexy Beast, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf.
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
In this bungled Freddie Mercury biopic, Rami Malek gives less of a performance than a bizarre jumble of false teeth, bad wigs and strange vocal delivery. In fairness, most of Malek’s immediate competition in the Best Actor category in 2019 – which included Viggo Mortensen in Green Book and Christian Bale in Vice – were different shades of awful, but how Malek swept the awards season that year remains one of Hollywood’s biggest modern mysteries. Bradley Cooper’s gruff and heartbreaking work in A Star Is Born was right there!
Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy
This is such a famous Oscar-winning performance that it’s easy to forget it almost didn’t happen. In the run-up to the 1990 Academy Awards, Michelle Pfeiffer had won all the major precursors for The Fabulous Baker Boys – with her Oscar loss becoming one of the night’s big surprises. It would have been a great win, though. Her role as a working-class lounge singer features one of cinema’s most memorable moments – as she slides across a piano top to sing “Making Whoopee” – and Pfeiffer, as of 2021, still hasn’t won an Oscar despite so many awards-worthy performances. Plus, with all due respect to Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy has aged like milk.
Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Speaking of “aged like milk”: The Danish Girl! This aggressive misfire about a pioneering trans woman, played with almost surreal levels of badness by Eddie Redmayne, won its sole Oscar via Alicia Vikander’s performance as Redmayne’s on-screen wife. It’s a classic “Best Supporting Actress” win, with Vikander cast as a long-suffering spouse who gets at least one juicy scene of abject rage. But what a snooze! Especially in comparison to her fellow nominees, which included Rooney Mara in Carol and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight – talk about a deserved “it’s time” Oscar. Alas.
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
This is a true case of impressive prosthetic makeup winning an actor an Oscar. Gary Oldman had deserved an Academy Award for decades by this point, but probably for something a bit more intriguing than a drab Winston Churchill biopic. That Oldman was up against a trio of incredible performances (Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, Timothee Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out) only helped in making his work seem so uninspired in comparison. Even Denzel Washington’s wacky performance in the little-seen Roman J Israel, Esq would have been less baffling a win.
Mahershala Ali in Green Book
Mahershala Ali is a phenomenal actor, but there is something undeniably bleak about this win. Green Book was pummelled by critics who argued that it perpetuated white saviour tropes and bent the truth of Ali’s character – the real-life musician Don Shirley. Such an unwieldy and ill-judged venture tainted what should have been something worth celebrating. Mahershala Ali is great! It was his second Oscar in three years! But Green Book, unlike the haunting and beautiful Moonlight, really stunk! Even worse, it meant snubbing Richard E Grant’s wonderful work in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which should have been a much bigger awards player than it was.