25 Famous Performances You Didn’t Know Were Nominated for an Oscar

In the early morning hours of January 24th, the nominations for the 84th Annual Academy Awards are going to be announced, so of course, I think an Oscar nomination-themed column at The Back Row is in order. Last year, I published a list of my “Top 10 Most Baffling Oscar Nominations of All Time” and this year, I will be covering a similar theme. I have selected 25 Oscar-nominated performances that are not so much baffling, but will probably be surprising to many people. I was recently scanning through the entire history of Academy Award nominations and even though I consider myself quite knowledgeable about the subject, I would often see a performance listed that made me say: “Wow, I never knew THAT was nominated!”. Popularity doesn’t always translate to recognition at the Academy Awards, but most of the performances listed here are from very popular films. Hell, some of these performances can even be classified as “iconic”, but on the surface, they just wouldn’t seem to fit the criteria of a role that garners votes at Oscar time. In other words, most of these aren’t roles where the actor or actress played a real-life historical figure, a homosexual, or a person with a disability, nor did they gain or lose a ton of weight, or cover themselves in makeup in order to look unrecognizable/ugly. Some of these performances were deserving of their nomination and some weren’t, but I’m sure the majority of them will come as a complete surprise to you.

So, the nominees in the category of “25 Famous Performances You Didn’t Know Were Nominated for an Oscar” are…

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986):

Case in point: we can all agree that Ellen Ripley is one of the greatest action heroines of all time, but did you ever picture her getting recognition at Oscar time? Because it was an action-packed summer blockbuster, you’d assume that the Academy would never even think about looking at a film like Aliens for great acting. However, they were able to recognize the strength and depth that Sigourney Weaver brought to the role of Ripley, whose traumatic experience in the original Alien caused her to evolve from a fairly strong heroine into one of the most kickass female characters in cinema history. Of course, when your fellow nominees that year include Marlee Matlin, a deaf person playing a deaf person, even Ellen Ripley doesn’t stand a chance of winning.

Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (1974):

Blazing Saddles got recognition at the Academy Awards?! Yep, it happened! When Hedley Lamarr says to his henchmen, “You men are risking your lives while I am risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor”, there would actually be a ring of truth to that since a nomination wound up going to Madeline Kahn for her performance as the “Teutonic Titwillow”, Lili von Shtupp. Needless to say, the Academy rarely ever gives the time of day to goofy satirical comedies like Blazing Saddles, but since Madeline Kahn had earned an Oscar nomination the previous year for her role in Paper Moon, maybe they just had a thing for her around this time.

Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story (1978):

Okay, this one probably shouldn’t seem all that surprising in theory since we know the Academy has a thing for biopics. The Gary Busey of 1978 wasn’t the wacky, batshit insane Gary Busey we all know and love today, and he does give a genuinely good performance as Buddy Holly. He even went so far as to peform and sing all of Holly’s songs in the film! But it still comes as a complete shock to people when they find out that Gary friggin’ Busey was once nominated for an Oscar! After all, this is the type of thing everyone visualizes when they put “Gary Busey” and “Oscars” together in the same sentence:


Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear (1991):

Opinions about Robert De Niro’s performance as the psychotic Max Cady in Cape Fear have been divided over the years: some consider him to be one of the most frightening villains in screen history while others think that De Niro is way too campy and over-the-top in the role. Personally, I lean towards the latter, especially when you compare De Niro’s work with Robert Mitchum’s performance in the original Cape Fear. However, it was a Robert De Niro performance in a Martin Scorsese movie, so I guess the Academy just couldn’t resist, and to date, this marks De Niro’s last career Oscar nomination. But, of course, I just can’t watch Cape Fear these days without expecting De Niro to do this…


Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden in Cape Fear (1991):

Speaking of which… people are not just divided on De Niro’s work in Cape Fear, but have also debated Juliette Lewis’ performance in the film as Danielle Bowden. Is she very natural and believable as an incredibly naive teenager or is she just plain annoying? People have pretty much always been divided on their opinions about Juliette Lewis’ acting skills in general, so it does come as a surprise to them when they find out she once received an Oscar nomination. And while most people do not consider Cape Fear to be one of Martin Scorsese’s best films, one has to wonder if a film like that would have even been recognized by the Academy if he hadn’t directed it.

Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Carrie (1976):


I’m sure fans of the genre are well aware that horror films are never a top priority for recognition at Oscar time. However, one of their rare exceptions came when they made the surprising decision to recognize the very popular screen adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller, Carrie. Sissy Spacek garnered a “Best Actress” nomination for her performance in the title role, and she is always cited as the main reason Carrie works so well. She’s so convincing as a shy teenage girl that it always takes people by surprise when they discover she was actually 26 years old when the film was made. The Academy obviously recognized that Spacek had a gift for playing characters of any age since they gave her an Oscar four years later for convincingly portraying country singer Loretta Lynn from the age of 13 until her mid-thirties in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Carrie (1976):

As if Sissy Spacek’s nomination wasn’t surprising enough, the Academy went the extra mile when they also nominated Piper Laurie for her portrayal of Carrie’s religious fanatic mother, Margaret White. Mrs. White is one of the all-time great horror movie villains whom you just to love to hate, though with the exception of Hannibal Lecter, horror movie villains rarely get their just due at Oscar time. Unfortunately, this did not start a permanent trend of the Academy recognizing horror films, and since this was the same year when Beatrice Straight won “Best Supporting Actress” for a five-minute role in Network, the cynic in me wonders if Laurie was nominated simply because there wasn’t much competition.

Oprah Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple (1985):

Like Gary Busey’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Buddy Holly Story, this probably didn’t seem unusual at the time. The Color Purple earned eleven nominations that year (though it garnered zero wins, tying a record for the largest goose egg in Oscar history) and Oprah Winfrey received a lot of acclaim for her performance as the hot-tempered Sofia. However, given the larger-than-life figure that she would become and the fact acting did not turn out to be her full-time profession, it takes a lot of people by surprise when they find out that Oprah is a former Academy Award nominee! By the way, the preceding clip shows Oprah telling off a character named Harpo. Guess what Harpo is spelled backwards.

Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy (1990):

Like many others in my age demographic, my first exposure to Al Pacino was his role as the villainous Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy. At the time, I knew nothing about Pacino’s previous work and given that I was at an age when I just could not understand why Jack Nicholson didn’t win an Oscar for his portrayal of The Joker, I saw nothing unusual about Pacino getting a nomination for this performance. While Pacino is terrific in the role, I have to wonder if he got the nomination simply because he was Al friggin’ Pacino, as Dick Tracy marked his sixth career nomination and it would be two more years before he finally won his long-awaited Oscar for Scent of a Woman.

John Cassavetes as Victor Franco in The Dirty Dozen (1967):

The Dirty Dozen was a monster success when it opened in 1967 and remains one of the most popular pieces of popcorn entertainment ever made, but did anyone expect it to receive recognition at the Academy Awards? Well, it turns out the Academy was enamored with John Cassavetes’ performance as the rebellious Victor Franco and awarded him a nomination. What’s ironic is that Cassavetes was never too fond of the mainstream Hollywood films he acted in, and only took the roles to earn money which he could use to finance the decidedly non-mainstream cinema verite films he directed. Yet those films only ever garnered him one Oscar nomination (a “Best Director” nod for A Woman Under the Influence), the same amount that he received for The Dirty Dozen.

Peter Sellers as Captain Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove (1964):

Yes, Dr. Strangelove is universally regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time and Peter Sellers’ performance in the film is considered a tour-de-force of comic acting, but it’s a sad fact of life that the Academy often fails to recognize great comedic performances. Sellers played a total of three roles, two of them (Captain Mandrake and Merkin Muffley) being the level-headed “straight men” and the other (Dr. Strangelove) being the most broad, over-the-top character in the film. It would have been easy for these roles to all cancel each other out, but thankfully, the Academy seemed to realize the immense talent that was involved in playing such distinctly different characters and gave Sellers his just due.

Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist (1973):

While the Academy often doesn’t recognize horror films, The Exorcist was an enormous sensation upon its original release and became the highest-grossing film of all time at that point, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it garnered ten nominations, including “Best Picture” and acting nods for Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller. However, it does come as a bit of a surprise that Linda Blair garnered an Oscar nomination as well, given that her performance as the demonically possessed, puke-spewing, profanity-spouting Regan MacNeil has become such an iconic role that it has pretty much crossed the line into self-parody. Not to mention that one of the most famous aspects of her role – her evil demonic voice – was provided by Mercedes McCambridge. However, given the physical and mental toll the performance took on the 13-year old actress, the nomination was probably well-deserved, though Linda Blair’s post-Oscar filmography would even make Cuba Gooding Jr. cringe. Hmmm, I have no idea why she never earned another Oscar nomination with films like this…

Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentageli in The Godfather Part II (1974):


The first two Godfather films seemed to have a monopoly on the Academy Awards’ acting categories during the years they were released. Vito Corleone is the only character who has ever had two different actors (Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro) win Oscars by playing him in separate movies, and acting legends such as Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall garnered nominations for their performances. However, the one acting nomination from the Godfather series that people forget is character actor Michael V. Gazzo’s turn as mobster Frank Pentangeli in Godfather Part II. Ironically, his role was originally written as the returning character of Peter Clemenza, but when actor Richard Castellano was asked to reprise the role, he became a major pain in the ass to work with, so Francis Ford Coppola simply decided to have Clemenza die of a heart attack between films and wrote an all-new character named Frank Pentangeli. Michael V. Gazzo took the role and earned himself an Oscar nomination, though sadly, people don’t seem to remember it.

Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984):


Is there a more famous mentor in the history of cinema than Mr. Miyagi? The character has become such a pop culture icon that you might tend to forget that Pat Morita’s performance in the original Karate Kid was deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination. The Karate Kid is a traditional formula underdog story at heart and Mr. Miyagi could easily have been a forgettable cliche, but it takes a great actor like Pat Morita to breathe life into the role and turn him into a truly memorable character. Sadly, he did not win, as I would have loved to have seen Morita walk up to the podium to the tune of Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” and try to catch a fly with chopsticks while accepting his award.

Jack Wild as The Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1968):

One of the most interesting things about looking through old Academy Award nominees is discovering long-forgotten child actors who were once nominated for an Oscar. While Oliver! took home “Best Picture” in 1968 and garnered a total of eleven nominations (including a “Best Actor” nod for Ron Moody’s performance as Fagin), it was still surprising to see that 15-year old Jack Wild got a “Best Supporting Actor” nomination for his turn as the Artful Dodger. Wild was a pretty successful child actor in Britain throughout the sixties and seventies, but eventually had his career derailed by alcoholism. However, he did recover and returned to make sporadic acting appearances in the 1990s before passing away of mouth cancer in 2006.

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003):

I almost hesitate to use the phrase “you didn’t know were nominated for an Oscar” for a film that was released less than a decade ago, yet three sequels and jillions of dollars later, many people have forgotten that Johnny Depp’s original turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl earned him an Academy Award nomination. This is yet another example of a character becoming such a pop culture icon that it’s easy to forget what a new and original creation they were at the time the film was released. Pirates probably never would have become the hugely successful franchise it is if Depp hadn’t completely shattered the traditional image of a pirate with his flamboyant portrayal of Captain Jack, which is probably why he merited Oscar consideration.

Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen in The Poseidon Adventure (1972):

Okay, I love The Poseidon Adventure and the cheesy disaster movies of the 1970s, but when I think of Oscar-worthy roles, I generally don’t think “elderly overweight Jewish lady who heroically saves everyone from disaster by pulling a Michael Phelps before abruptly dying of a heart attack”. Actually, the more I think about it, that’s EXACTLY the type of role the Academy would nominate! Anyway, this nomination was probably meant as a tribute to Shelley Winters more than anything since she had already won two Oscars up to this point and they were probably just impressed that a woman of her age was able to hold her breath underwater for so long.

Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman (1990):


If ever there was a role that turned someone into a megastar overnight, it was Julia Roberts’ turn as hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman. Pretty Woman was originally conceived as a dark drama about prostitution until it was eventually developed into a fluffy fairy tale-esque romantic comedy that became a monster success at the box office. Many people think that the Academy was clouded by the film’s success and that Roberts didn’t deserve the nomination, and over twenty years later, I guess it does seem a bit out-of-place. Whatever your opinion about it, this nomination still doesn’t bother me as much as when Roberts eventually won her first Oscar for Erin Brockovich by beating out Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Requiem for a Dream! BOO!

Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom in The Producers (1968):


Given the hugely successful hit The Producers became as a musical on Broadway, people tend to forget that Mel Brooks’ original 1968 film was met with mixed reviews on its original release and was initially not a box office success. While you would not think of Mel Brooks as a filmmaker who garners recognition at the Academy Awards, he did manage to take home an Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay” and Gene Wilder received a “Best Supporting Actor” nod for his breakthrough performance as manic account Leo Bloom. Comedic performers like Gene Wilder often never get the credit they deserve for being good actors, but the Academy at least gave him his just due this time around. Of course, I think it’s an absolute travesty that “Springtime for Hitler” didn’t earn a nomination for “Best Song”!

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho (1960):

Of course, we all know that the shower sequence in Psycho is one of the famous movie scenes of all time, and this represented the first time a protagonist who had been presented to the audience as the main character was suddenly killed off at the film’s midway point. But did you know that Janet Leigh actually got an Oscar nomination for this role? Didn’t think so. In retrospect, this must have been pretty baffling for those who didn’t see Psycho before the Oscars, as I’m sure they were wondering why the main character had been nominated in the “Best Supporting Actress” category.

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky (1976):

This is yet another one of those nominations that probably didn’t seem unusual at the time. Rocky took the nation by storm in 1976, winning the Academy Award for “Best Picture” and garnering ten nominations. And since Sylvester Stallone was genuinely good in the title role, why WOULDN’T he earn a nomination for “Best Actor”? Well… because he’s Sylvester friggin’ Stallone, that’s why! No matter how a big star he became, it just takes people by surprise when they realize that the same guy who holds a seemingly unbreakable record of 31 (yes, 31!) Razzie nominations in his career can also officially be classified as an Academy Award-nominated actor.

Jeff Bridges as The Starman in Starman (1984):

Jeff Bridges’ “Best Actor” Oscar for Crazy Heart in 2009 was a long time coming for fans, but even though he has a very extensive resume of great films, many of his previous nominations actually came from pretty unlikely sources. I was surprised to discover he had received a nomination for his work in the underrated Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but I think his most surprising nomination was for playing the title role in John Carpenter’s Starman. Unfortunately, this marks the only time that ANYTHING John Carpenter-related has ever received recognition from the Academy, but I guess they couldn’t ignore how well Bridges played the tricky role of an alien being who inhabits a human body.

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977):

Yes, even the most devout Star Wars fans are taken by surprise when they found out about this one. Even though Star Wars managed to earn ten Oscar nominations upon its initial release, including “Best Picture”, you would never expect any of the films in the series to receive nominations for the acting. After all, the prequels are a case study in how to turn terrific Academy Award-worthy actors into boring stiffs. However, Alec Guinness’ nomination for Star Wars was probably due more to his sterling reputation than anything else, and I’m willing to bet that even Guinness himself wasn’t thrilled by it. In spite of all the other memorable performances he had delivered throughout his long and storied career, he was destined to be remembered as Obi-Wan Kenobi and hounded by fanboys for the rest of his life.

Anne Ramsey as Momma Lift in Throw Momma from the Train (1987):

I always find it fascinating when a flawed, mediocre film that would otherwise never receive acknowledgement from the Academy still features a performance that’s good enough to merit an Oscar nomination. Until her untimely death in 1988, nobody was better at playing miserable, crotchety old ladies than Anne Ramsey, who was best known for her role as Mama Fratelli in The Goonies and received one of the most satisfying death scenes of all time when she was beheaded by a basketball in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend. Even though it was a commercial success, Throw Momma from the Train received mostly mixed reviews upon its initial release, but pretty much everyone praised Anne Ramsey’s performance as Momma Lift. The actress went the extra mile to turn her character into the ultimate monster of a mother, whom you truly believe deserves to be thrown from a train!

Fred Astaire as Harlee Claiborne in The Towering Inferno (1974):

While Fred Astaire once won an honorary Oscar for “his unique artistry and contributions to the technique of musical pictures”, the only nomination he ever received for his acting was from one of the few films that didn’t require him to sing or dance: The Towering Inferno. Believe it or not, The Towering Inferno garnered a “Best Picture” nomination in 1974 and while that may be seem surprising today, you have to remember how incredibly popular all-star disaster films were in the 1970s (hence the numerous Oscar nominations that Airport received in 1970). The Academy probably felt like giving Astaire a nomination as a tribute to his long and storied career, but is the performance Oscar-worthy? Probably not.

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