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Top 10 Underwhelming Best Actor Oscar Wins

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by George Cimurt. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has long honored the excellent performances of some very fine actors; so, we don't really know what they were thinking with these choices. Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the top 10 underwhelming Oscar-winning actor performances. For this list, we’re taking a look at some of the least impressive performances from 1928 onwards that received the Academy Award for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor. Special thanks to our users TennantsBitch, Jonathan Velazquez, Andrew A. Dennison, Tristan Ruiz, flabble10, mothslayer and Van Nguyen for submitting the idea on our Suggestions Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by George Cimurt.

Top 10 Underwhelming Oscar Winning Actor Performances


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has long honored the excellent performances of some very fine actors; so, we don’t really know what they were thinking with these choices. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 underwhelming Oscar-winning actor performances.

For this list, we’re taking a look at some of the least impressive performances from 1928 onwards that received the Academy Award for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor.

#10: Denzel Washington
“Training Day” (2001)

Playing the corrupt Detective Alonzo Harris to Ethan Hawke’s naïve officer Jake Hoyt, Denzel Washington’s Harris takes Hoyt along on a day on the streets that he’ll never forget. While Washington undoubtedly embraces his bad-to-the-bone character in a way that makes us forget about his more amiable film characters, his Best Actor-winning performance is a little too over-the-top. Playing the extreme character so extravagantly that he launches him past believability and into fantasy, he is certainly memorable, but not for the right reasons, as opposed to Russell Crowe’s brilliant performance in “A Beautiful Mind” that same year.

#9: Michael Caine
“The Cider House Rules” (1999)

Although Michael Caine’s mild-mannered performance in this 1999 drama was respectable, along with his mastery of an American accent, we feel that the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was deserved elsewhere. Michael Clarke Duncan’s raw and unforgettable portrayal as John Coffey in “The Green Mile” that same year or the complex and gripping Tom Cruise performance in “Magnolia” have been called the best of their careers. How the Academy snubbed these two spellbinding performances for Caine’s unremarkable Dr. Wilbur Larch, we’ll never know.

#8: Roberto Benigni
“Life Is Beautiful” (1997)

Channeling the slapstick comedy persona that made him a legend in Italy, Roberto Benigni starred here as Guido, a loveable and entertaining clown who moves to the big city, falls in love, and later uses humor to combat the horrors of war. With a Best Actor-winning performance that is completely one-dimensional in a film some found to be in poor taste, Benigni showcases his proficiency for comedy, but can you really call it acting? The fact that his enactment was considered finer than Ian McKellen’s for “Gods and Monsters” and Edward Norton’s for “American History X” is also totally bewildering.

#7: Jim Broadbent
“Iris” (2001)

Although Jim Broadbent certainly delivered a worthy performance as the frustrated husband of author Iris Murdoch in the 2001 biopic that also starred Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, his Best Supporting Actor winning-performance was certainly no match for the incredible Ian McKellen, who was once again robbed of Oscar glory. As the iconic Gandalf, McKellen powerfully brought this J. R. R. Tolkien character to life in a way that had all viewers and especially fans mesmerized. With a presence that made Broadbent’s look miniscule in comparison, this is one decision they probably should regret.

#6: Jack Palance
“City Slickers” (1991)

While we surely love this veteran actor, best known for his villainous personas on stage, in television, and in film classics like “Shane,” this was definitely not the role that should’ve won him the golden statuette. Playing the tough and grizzled Curly Washburn in one of his rare comedic roles, Jack Palance does little else than crack one-liners and act tough in this western. Compare that to Ben Kingsley and Harvey Keitel’s intense performances in “Bugsy” and Tommy Lee Jones’ layered character in “JFK,” and it’s clear to see the Best Supporting Actor award was more sentimental than anything.

#5: Charlton Heston
“Ben-Hur” (1959)

While Charlton Heston’s memory lives on today as one of the most dramatic and larger-than-life stars in Hollywood history, few can vouch for his acting ability, especially in this regal historical epic. Winning Best Actor for his portrayal of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, the film is grand in every sense along with themes of faith, betrayal, revenge, and forgiveness. However, as usual for Heston, his performance is a little too overbearing and over-the-top, while the nominated performance of Jack Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot” can be considered much more deserved and memorable.

#4: Art Carney
“Harry and Tonto” (1974)

With his most famous other appearance being in the 1950s sitcom “The Honeymooners,” Art Carney’s sentimental performance as an elderly man travelling cross-country with his cat certainly tugged on a few heartstrings, but didn’t break any acting ground. That’s why his win as Harry Coombes shocked moviegoers for generations. With his unlikely win, Carney had crushed titans Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson with infinitely worthier performances in film classics like “The Godfather Part II” and “Chinatown.” How and why, we’ll never know.

#3: Cliff Robertson
“Charly” (1968)

With his portrayal of an intellectually disabled man, Cliff Robertson broke all kinds of new ground—unfortunately, not for the right reasons. While a similar role may have been performed with more sensitivity today, Robertson’s portrayal of the disabled bakery worker involved not much more than talking slowly and alternating between extreme emotional states. In addition to not bringing much new to the table, many found the performance offensive and boring. On top of this, Robertson’s Best Actor win that year killed Peter O’Toole’s chance of winning an Oscar for 1968’s “The Lion in Winter.”

#2: John Wayne
“True Grit” (1969)

While most definitely a major Hollywood icon and a film legend, John Wayne’s ability to portray complex motives, themes, emotions, and characters could be extremely limited. Playing stiff, rough-and-tough characters was his job, and he kept the film industry alive with this persona whether he played a cop, a soldier, or a cowboy. It thus stunned film lovers when Wayne won for Best Actor for his drunken Marshal over Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman, and Jon Voight in peerless performances. It’s clear that the Academy felt they owed the icon a reward; no other explanation makes sense.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few dishonorable mentions:
- Richard Dreyfuss
“The Goodbye Girl” (1977)
- Rex Harrison
“My Fair Lady” (1964)
- Paul Lukas
“Watch on the Rhine” (1943)
- Robert Donat
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939)

#1: Al Pacino
“Scent of a Woman” (1992)

Don’t get us wrong, we love Al Pacino; “The Godfather Part II,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon”… His performances in these classics and many more still live on. But instead of winning for these or any of his other Oscar-nominated roles, he won for Best Actor as the blind and irritable Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in a performance that feels more like a gimmick than 1992’s best acting. Compared to his other work, this one is definitely hammy and forgettable, especially when compared to Denzel Washington’s brilliant “Malcolm X.” All we have to say about this one is a half-hearted HOO-HAH.

Do you agree with our list? Which Oscar-winning actors did you think failed to deliver the goods? For more entertaining top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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