Every Oscar season, it’s customary to grouse about the Academy’s choices: why this performance got overlooked or why that movie got nominated. But that’s just a year-by-year concern. What’s really shocking is when iconic actors, filmmakers or composers go an entire career without a single Oscar nomination. Below, we look at the 10 most surprising examples. (Two quick guidelines: Only those still living were considered, and if you received an honorary Oscar, you’re ineligible for this list. Sorry, Steve Martin and Jean-Luc Godard.)
The Oscars have a long history of honoring funny men who turn serious. But with all due respect to winners like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, it’s shocking that Jim Carrey never even got a nomination for the superb work he did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind constitute a six-year run that’s as impressive as any actor from that period, and Carrey didn’t have to sacrifice his sense of humor or natural charm to reach such heights. Sadly, he’s never been as inspired since.
Hugely influential and defiantly his own man, director David Cronenberg makes movies that are cold to the touch but underneath are…well, they’re pretty frosty there, too. Considering that the Oscars tend to favor the heartwarming and sentimental, Cronenberg doesn’t have much of a chance. No matter: As the master of body horror, he delivered one of the 1980s’ great remakes with The Fly after freaking viewers out on Scanners and Videodrome. He hasn’t slowed down since: What other filmmaker would be interested in doing A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method or Cosmopolis, let alone all four?
A Golden Globe-nominee and Emmy-winner, Jeff Daniels is the sort of actor who does such solid, invisible work that it’s little surprise that he’s never received an Oscar nod. But his best roles argue he deserves consideration. He’s terrific in the dual role of smug, self-obsessed star and sweetly naïve fictional character in The Purple Rose of Cairo; and the anger and self-loathing he brought to The Squid and the Whale made his floundering author character fascinatingly loathsome. Because the Academy Awards rarely recognize comedies, there’s no point in bringing up Dumb & Dumber, except to say how damn funny it still is more than 20 years later.
JEAN-PIERRE AND LUC DARDENNE
Marion Cotillard’s recent Best Actress nomination for Two Days, One Night was the first time that any movie from writer-director siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ever got noticed by the Academy. The Belgian brothers have been making some of the most honored films of the last 20 years, starting with 1996’s La Promesse and continuing through L’enfant and The Kid With a Bike. Incorporating a handheld, documentary-like austerity, their films look at ordinary lives with an uncommon insight, creating drama out of the simplest of situations.
After leaving Peyton Place in the mid-1960s, Mia Farrow moved on to film, excelling in everything from psychological horror (Rosemary’s Baby) to romantic drama (The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford). But, of course, she will forever be remembered for her long professional and romantic association with filmmaker Woody Allen. The seriousness of her allegations against him, though, shouldn’t cast a pall on an incredible body of work: She’s hilarious in Broadway Danny Rose, heartbreaking in The Purple Rose of Cairo, lovely in Hannah and Her Sisters, and beautifully nuanced in her last film with him, the bitter relationship comedy-drama Husbands and Wives.
For years, Iran’s most celebrated director was the toast of international film festivals but little known among the Academy’s rank and file. Nonetheless, in the 1990s Abbas Kiarostami could make a strong case for being that decade’s premier filmmaker: Close-Up, Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us frequently popped up on best-of lists. And in recent times, he’s only further raised his profile by filming outside of Iran, specifically 2010’s Tuscany-set, deeply mysterious Certified Copy, which starred Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as strangers who might, actually, be a married couple.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s films have received 35 Oscar nominations. Remarkably, none of those have gone to their longtime composer. It’s impossible to think of Miller’s Crossing’s melancholy without hearing Carter Burwell’s sighing score in your head. Likewise, Burwell has provided the tenor to Coen films as different as Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading and True Grit. (And that’s not even including his versatile work on other directors’ movies, like Being John Malkovich and The Spanish Prisoner.) A master of deftly imitating different styles — he can even do blockbusters like Twilight — Burwell is long overdue for some Academy recognition.
A character actor’s character actor, the man who provides the narration for Delta commercials has been a reliable big-screen presence since the late 1960s. It’s both a compliment to Donald Sutherland’s versatility and the kiss of death for his Oscar viability that he doesn’t have one clear defining role. The original Hawkeye Pierce in MASH? The titular filmmaker of Alex in Wonderland? The titular detective in Klute? The doomed husband of Don’t Look Now? The hip literature professor in Animal House? The grieving father of Ordinary People? The mysterious informant in JFK? And on and on … Sutherland never had a MVP season, but he’s definitely enjoyed a hall-of-fame career.
Generally considered one of the greatest documentarians, Frederick Wiseman doesn’t make the kind of nonfiction films that usually attract Oscar attention. Quietly observant and lacking the sort of flash that’s commonplace in contemporary documentaries—Wiseman eschews talking-head interviews, snazzy graphics or lively soundtracks—movies like National Gallery, At Berkeley and Boxing Gym give us a sense of a community, letting us discover these ecosystems’ customs and behaviors through osmosis. For nearly 50 years, Wiseman has been chronicling the complexity of social and government institutions, endlessly fascinated by what makes us tick.
The finest modern-day Hong Kong filmmaker came to the attention of many American viewers thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s championing of his 1994 drama Chungking Express. Since then, Wong Kar-wai has only strengthened his reputation with the impossibly romantic In the Mood for Love and its equally despondent sequel 2046. A director who specializes in sensuous imagery — you’ll want to live within the frames of his melancholy movies — Wong finally got a little love from the Academy when his most recent film, the martial-arts drama The Grandmaster, snagged nominations for costume design and cinematography.
Tim Grierson is a film and music critic who writes for Screen International, Deadspin, Paste, Rolling Stone and The Dissolve. He tweets at @timgrierson.