The 83rd Annual Academy Awards are finally taking place this weekend and I have no doubt that the Internet is currently flooded with thousands of Oscar-related columns about great performances that have been snubbed by the Academy over the years. Of course, I have to throw my own two cents into the mix, but since the subject is so broad, I thought I’d narrow the field down to great performances that took place in the films that I’ve featured in my “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column. Just recently, I was counting the number of these columns that I’ve written and was quite surprised to discover that I’ve done nearly 60 of them in the past seven months! That gives me a wide variety to choose from and, believe it or not, I still had trouble narrowing my selections down to just ten. Some of these “Underrated Gems” contain performances that are just as good, if not better than, many of the performances that taken home the gold statuette. However, for various reasons, these performances did not get any recognition at Oscar time. And to be frank, many of them never have had a snowball’s chance in hell of garnering an Oscar nomination, but that doesn’t make these performances any less great. I shall even pick a nominee from each particular year that was less deserving of their nomination than my selection.
So, without any further ado… the nominees for “Best Performance in Robin’s Underrated Gems” are:
Roberts Blossom as Ezra Cobb in Deranged (1974):
Well, this is definitely my best example of a performance that never had a snowball’s chance in hell of being nominated. Not only would the Academy never give a film like Deranged the time of day, but I doubt they were even aware that this film existed. However, just because the performance was delivered in a sleazy, low-budget grindhouse horror flick doesn’t mean it’s not terrific. Roberts Blossom is a long-time character actor who is best known for playing the scary old neighbour in Home Alone, but this is undoubtedly one of the greatest performances in horror movie history. Deranged makes the audacious decision to tell its entire story from the point-of-view of Ezra Cobb, an insane psychopath who likes to carry on conversations with his mother’s mummified corpse and is greatly inspired on the notorious serial killer, Ed Gein. Blossom plays Ezra as an eccentric, but seemingly harmless childlike innocent, the personification of a psycho that nobody would have ever suspected. What’s amazing is how genuinely likable Ezra is throughout most of the film because even though he’s clearly insane, Blossom somehow manages to make the character endearing in a very demented sort of way. But of course, when the scene calls for it, Blossom also manages to show off Ezra’s incredibly creepy side and succeed at scaring the crap out of you. This is definitely a case where if the lead actor didn’t deliver a home run performance, the entire film wouldn’t work, and not many actors could have pulled off what Roberts Blossom does in Deranged. If I had to pick one performance from grindhouse cinema that deserved Academy Award recognition, this would be it.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: There was a lot of great competition in the “Best Actor” category in 1974, but many people have said that Art Carney’s win for Harry and Tonto is one of the more undeserving Oscars of all time. Sorry, Art, you didn’t have to act out any scenes with corpses, so you’re out.
Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1983):
Well, you can’t ever accuse the Academy for neglecting to recognize the work of Robert De Niro, but in this case, he may have been snubbed because his performance was TOO good. De Niro’s intent was to turn the character of failed stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin into the most self-absorbed, obnoxious and annoying individual you could ever imagine and he certainly succeeded. As a result, many people didn’t know what to make of The King of Comedy when it was originally released and thought it was a major step down in quality for Martin Scorsese. However, as the years have gone by, it’s amazing to see how ahead of its time the film really was. This is undoubtedly the most underappreciated performance of Robert De Niro’s career and whether or not you like the character of Rubert Pupkin, you can’t deny that you’ve all encountered someone just like him at some point in your life. In many ways, Rupert resembles the worst Asperger Syndome case you could imagine, as he’s an incredibly delusional individual who can’t take hints, won’t pick up obvious social signals, and only hears what he wants to hear. It’s a really delicate balance to create a character that’s incredibly annoying, yet still very compelling to watch at the same time, but De Niro nails it perfectly. It is hard not to identify with the many awkward and painful social situations that are presented in the film.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: Well, I honestly haven’t seen any of the nominees from the “Best Actor” category that year, but my gut instinct tells me that Tom Conti’s performance in Reuben, Reuben probably isn’t better than De Niro’s turn as Rupert Pupkin.
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu as Raymond Lemorne in The Vanishing (1988):
I’m not sure if this performance would have been even been eligible for an award since The Vanishing was filmed in 1988, but did not receive a theatrical release in North America until 1991. Believe it or not, The Vanishing actually was the Dutch submission for “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars in 1988, but it was disqualified when the Academy decided that there was too much French dialogue in the film for it to qualify as being “Dutch”. Whatever the circumstances, the chilling performance from French actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu in this film is most definitely Oscar-worthy. On our Shouts From the Back Row podcast about “The Villains We Love”, I named the character of Raymond Lemorne as my #2 choice for my favourite villain of all time. Donnadieu’s performance is the personification of pure evil as Raymond is a seemingly normal family man who decides to commit an act of evil simply because he wants to see if he’s capable of it and believes there’s nothing to prevent him from doing so. Donnadieu resists the temptation to camp it up and go over-the-top, and the reason the character is so damn frightening is because the actor keeps him so ordinary and down-to-earth, which is how most psychopaths in the real world usually present themselves anyway. While Donnadieu has always been a successful actor in Europe, it would have been nice to see him follow the route of Christoph Waltz and achieve crossover success in Hollywood after receiving Academy Award recognition. On a sadder note, I should also mention that I discovered Mr. Donnadieu just passed away from cancer on December 27, 2010. R.I.P. You will be missed.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: Okay, since The Vanishing was originally submitted to the Academy in 1988, I’ll assume Donnadieu was eligible that year. And I’ll give him the “Best Actor” slot that was originally held by Tom Hanks for Big. Sorry, Tom, but you definitely won’t be strapped for Oscar nominations in the years to come.
Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction (1994):
For my other selections on this list, it’s debatable whether any of them would have actually had a chance toy win an Oscar, but in this case, the actress probably could have annihilated her competition for the award. This is one snub where you can blame the distributors of the film instead of the Academy, as they originally gave The Last Seduction a straight-to-cable release and only decided to give it a theatrical run once it started garnering immense critical acclaim. However, because the film played on cable before it played theatrically, it was ineligible for Academy Award consideration. It’s a real shame since the general consensus is that Linda Fiorentino would have been a shoo-in since her character of Bridget Gregory is probably the most entertaining screen villainess of the past twenty years. Bridget is the ultimate film noir femme fatale, an evil cold-hearted bitch who’s somehow impossible to hate since she’s so much damn fun to watch. Surprisingly, the viewer winds up rooting for her to outwit all the dim-witted male characters in the movie, and she’s such a great villainess that you really hope the story won’t cop out and have her develop a conscience or find redemption. It’s a very tricky and daring narrative decision to pull off, but Fiorentino makes it work beautifully and given the Academy’s history for rewarding actors and actresses who play memorable villains, it’s no exaggeration to say she was robbed.
Would Have a Better Choice Than: It was a pretty weak field that year in the “Best Actress” category (does ANYONE remember Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning performance in Blue Sky?), so any of the other nominees are replaceable. However, Susan Sarandon’s nomination for The Client seems like an especially ridiculous choice, so she’s out.
Boris Karloff as Byron Orlok in Targets (1968):
In the long, storied career of Boris Karloff, it’s amazing to think that he was never nominated for an Academy Award. However, given the Academy’s propensity for ignoring horror films, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee… none of those guys have Oscar nominations on their resumes! The horror icons of yesteryear are so associated with the characters they played that are often not given the credit they deserve for being great actors. Targets represents a very unique capper to Karloff’s career as he’s almost playing a very exaggerated version of himself: a renowned horror film actor who’s disillusioned that his brand of horror has become obsolete and can’t compete with the horrors of the real world. Like his character of Byron Orlok, Karloff was relegated to appearing in a lot of low-budget junk near the end of his career and was often looked at as an ancient relic. Karloff would pass away only a year after Targets came out, but I’m sure he appreciated being given such a juicy, self-referential role to close out his life. He’s simply wonderful as Byron, delivering just the right mixture of humour, sadness and pathos for the character. The Academy is known for handing out (sometimes undeserved) nominations to elderly actors in the twilight of their career, but it’s not hard to see why they neglected Karloff here. Targets was a very low-budget production and while it was the official directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, who would garner a plethora of nominations for The Last Picture Show three years later, the man who financed the production was Roger Corman. That should pretty much say it all.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: I liked Ron Moody’s performance in Oliver!, but he was nominated in the wrong category. Seeing as how he doesn’t even show up on screen until 35-40 minutes into the movie, he really needs to be bumped down into the “Best Supporting Actor” category to make room for Karloff.
Will Patton as Scott Pritchard in No Way Out (1987):
Will Patton has been an incredibly solid and reliable character actor in Hollywood for over 25 years who manages to steal many of the films that he’s in, but full-blown stardom has always eluded him, which is why he currently has a spot on Robin’s “That Guys” list. His breakthrough performance was in the political thriller, No Way Out, as Scott Pritchard, an incredibly loyal and devoted assistant to Gene Hackman’s evil Secretary of Defense. Even though Hackman’s character is the real villain of the story, Patton totally steals the film away from him. Believe it or not, one could almost say that Pritchard is a demented version of Waylon Smithers as he’s got immense devotion and loyalty and a secret homosexual crush on an older man who usually treats him like crap and doesn’t deserve such obedience. Patton brings a great deal of intensity to the role and prevents Pritchard from being just another one-dimensional villain. Even though he does bad things, it’s hard not to admire the guy for his fierce loyalty. You actually kind of pity him for devoting all that loyalty to such an unworthy subject, especially during Pritchard’s final scene when he finds out that his boss is going to sell him down the river. I should also mention that Will Patton has one of my all-time favourite voices of any actor and that he probably deserves an Oscar just for his South Carolinian accent alone.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: The “Best Supporting Actor” category was a pretty strong field in 1987, as Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington would both garner their first nominations that year. However, I would have to replace Vincent Gardenia’s nomination for Moonstruck since I’ve always found that film to be overrated anyway.
Richard Pryor as Zeke Brown in Blue Collar (1978):
In 1979, the film, Norma Rae, would tell an inspirational underdog story about labour unions and fighting workplace corruption and it wound up garnering multiple Oscar nominations, including a “Best Actress” award for Sally Field. The year before, Blue Collar also told a less-than-inspirational story about labour unions and fighting workplace corruption which gave off the message that life sucks and that you can’t fight the system, so it was completely shut out at Oscar time. It’s a real shame because Blue Collar was the only real shot Richard Pryor ever had at garnering Academy Award recognition and perhaps embarking on a career as a serious actor. In most of the movies he made, Pryor was usually only asked to play, more or less, a version of himself. While elements of his wisecracking comedic personality are on display in Blue Collar, he also showcases some surprising dramatic range as an actor. His character of Zeke Brown is the personification of a frustrated working man who’s fed up with the system, but also refuses to take responsibility for his own mistakes. If there’s one man who might have felt validation about Pryor not getting an Oscar nomination, it’s director Paul Schrader, since Pryor made his life a living hell during filming and even pulled a gun on Schrader at one point in order to proclaim that he was never going to do more than three takes of a scene. However, the end result of all this chaos was still a terrific, but hugely underrated performance. In scenes like this, Pryor finds the perfect mixture of humour and pathos, as he manages to both make the viewer laugh and feel genuinely sad for Zeke at the same time.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: I’m not sure if Pryor would have been nominated for the “Best Actor” or “Best Supporting Actor” category, but either way, I’d say he would have been a much more deserving choice than Warren Beatty or Jack Warden for their nominations in Heaven Can Wait.
Michael Rooker as Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986):
I’m not even if this performance could have even qualified for an Oscar nomination, given Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s complicated release history. It was completed in 1986, but ran into numerous problems with the MPAA and while it played at various midnight screenings over the next few years, it never really got an official theatrical release until 1990. If this film had gotten its full theatrical release in 1986 and received all the same critical acclaim it eventually got in 1990, Michael Rooker probably would have been eligible for an Oscar nomination that year. However, given the extremely dark and disturbing nature of the film, I’m not sure they would have even considered it, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rooker’s portrayal of Henry (clearly modelled after real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas) is one of the most chilling performances in cinema history. Like Deranged, this film makes the daring decision to tell its entire story from the point-of-view of a psychopath, and Rooker does a tremendous job at turning him into a three-dimensional character and showcasing both his evil and sympathetic side. An “honourable mention” Oscar nomination should probably be given to Tom Towles for his excellent performance as Henry’s friend, Otis, who turns out to be such a vile individual that the viewer almost winds up rooting for Henry simply because he’s the lesser of two evils! It’s a difficult challenge to start off a film by showing a character do some incredibly evil things, yet still provide him with enough depth for the viewer to care about what happens to him.
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: This one’s complicated since I’m not sure what year the performance would be eligible. Let’s just assume it got nominated after its theatrical release in 1990. And I’m more than happy to replace Kevin Costner’s acting nomination for Dances With Wolves with Rooker. Yes, it is one of Costner’s better performances, but I think it should be negated by the fact that Costner has received SEVEN “Worst Actor” Razzie nominations since then! He did win “Best Picture” and “Best Director” that year anyway, so he can live with it.
Terence Stamp as Wilson in The Limey (1999):
After nearly fifty years in the acting business, the only Oscar nomination Terence Stamp has ever received was for his debut performance in Billy Budd way back in 1962. Hell, if I had my way, he would have received Academy Award recognition for his work as General Zod in Superman II. However, his biggest snub came in 1999 where, despite receiving numerous other award nominations for the role, he failed to garner an Oscar nod for his dynamic performance as career criminal Wilson in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. I guess Stamp’s performance just came one year too early since the Academy was handing out awards like pamphlets to Soderbergh’s films in 2000 after he directed Erin Brockovich and Traffic. The story of The Limey is a relatively simple revenge tale, but Stamp elevates the material to another level with his performance. Speaking in a very thick, over-the-top Cockney accent, Stamp acts all of his scenes with tremendous energy and intensity, and somehow prevents the character from devolving into a cartoon. However, he also does a superb job of bringing some genuine pathos to the role and delivers some brilliant moments of understated acting at critical moments in the film. Given The Limey’s non-linear editing structure, it may take a second viewing to pick up on all the subtleties and nuances of Stamp’s performance, and it’s possible that all the Academy saw on their initial viewing was his bravura, over-the-top theatrics and didn’t give him the credit he deserved. Still, if this scene doesn’t scream “badass” to you, I don’t know what does!
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown. Nobody really remembers that film much anyway and he’d wind up winning two Oscars within the next decade anyway, so even his fragile ego could probably handle it.
Treat Williams as Daniel Ciello in Prince of the City (1981):
This is one performance that I honestly cannot believe the Academy neglected. Prince of the City is a hugely underrated Sidney Lumet film (based on a true story) about N.Y.P.D. Detective Daniel Ciello, a corrupt cop who suddenly develops a conscience and decides to blow the whistle on all the police corruption that’s taking place throughout the city. Since Treat Williams was a relatively unknown actor at the time, Prince of the City probably didn’t wind up getting the attention it deserved, which was a real shame since he’s just tremendous in the lead role. Even though the film is nearly three hours long, Williams is required to be in almost every single scene and has to be completely on the edge during many of them. This is a masterful portrayal of a character who has become complete emotional wreck and is placed in one stressful situation after another that could cause him to come completely unhinged at any second. It’s an incredibly demanding and draining role, but Williams is more than up to it and showcases more intensity in this one role than many actors are required to show during their entire career. While Williams has forged himself a solid acting career, he has never gotten a role near this good again. Sadly, today’s generation knows him best for his role on Everwood and while that may please people like my mother, Prince of the City fans will only think about what might have been .
Would Have Been a Better Choice Than: Paul Newman’s performance in Absence of Malice was good, but not really Oscar-worthy, and probably only got a nomination that year because he’d yet to win at that point. Sorry, Paul, but you’ve already got nine other nominations on your resume and poor Treat Williams has none, so you’d got to go.
Oh, and just to show that I’m not always fighting for the unfairly oppressed, here’s a list of actors who DID manage to garner an Oscar nomination for their performance in a film that was featured in “Robin’s Underrated Gems”:
-Laurence Olivier, The Boys From Brazil
-George C. Scott, The Hospital
-Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail
-Randy Quaid, The Last Detail (yes, Randy Quaid!)
-Jon Voight, Runaway Train
-Eric Roberts, Runaway Train (yes, Eric Roberts!)