The 10 Most Famous Actors Who Never Won Oscars

When it comes to the Academy Awards, there are winners and losers.  It may be an honor to be nominated, but the fact of the matter is they only hand out so many statues every year.  Over the course of a career in showbiz, there are a limited number of opportunities to win an Oscar.  For varying reasons, some of the most famous actors and actresses in Hollywood history never took home the prize.  In the April 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, they compiled a list of the ten most famous actors who never won.

With the seven feature films she made under legendary director Josef von Sternberg–The Blue Angel, Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman–Marlene Dietrich became Hollywood’s highest paid star of the early 1930s. Her brand of appeal blended heady allure, ambivalent sexuality, mocking attitude, eroticism, tenderness and cruelty. In the play of light and shadow maniacally conceived and executed by the obsessive von Sternberg, Dietrich became an extraordinary creature of contradictions, virtues and dangers.
Whether one considers Dietrich’s stardom a triumph of manufacturing, one of the greatest smoke-and-mirror effects in the history of the movies, or credits her for being a screen personality of the first order, she made an indelible mark on movie history. To get a sense of what a wonder Dietrich was, one has only to watch her strike sparks with the French legionnaire played by Gary Cooper in Morocco, see the glory she makes out of singing “See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have” in the famous saloon scene in Destry Rides Again with James Stewart, take in the iconic voltage she brings to her trial scenes in Judgment at Nuremberg or witness the incredible pathos and scathing self-mockery she brings to her scenes with Orson Welles in Touch of Evil Maybe Hemingway put it best when he said of her, “If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face. It makes no difference how she breaks your heart if she is there to mend it.”
Though she was considered an icon first, there clearly is evidence that she could in fact act. Dietrich was only once nominated for an Oscar, for Morocco, the first American film she made. She was deserving of a nod, if not a win, though, for more films than that, probably most notably Destry Rides Again, which she starred in after a series of critical failures in the late ’30s. In what turned out to be an important comeback vehicle for the siren, Dietrich reminded audiences that she was the most electric and attractively complex performer the silver screen had.

Indelible moments and images from Marilyn Monroe’s movies almost make one wonder whether she and the camera weren’t invented for each other. She was a successor to such earlier comic sexpots as Jean Harlow and, like Harlow, was considered by some to be a joke as an actress. Detractors believe Monroe was crippled by her own immaturity, terrible insecurities and emotional disarray.
For those on the fence, may we submit some rebuttals for your consideration? Watch her scintillate and wriggle her way through “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Or, in the same movie, watch the zest and sly eroticism she brings to her role as a gold-digger with a hilariously single-minded obsession of obtaining such baubles as Lady Beekman’s diamond tiara. How about her turn as the deluded show business hopeful croaking “That Old Black Magic” to a saloon full of hooting rednecks in Bus Stop? In the classic Some Like It Hot, what about the rueful heartbreak she puts into “I’m Through With Love,” let alone the comic zeal with which she attacks her role as the erotic epicenter of an all-girl band? What about the tragedy and loss with which she infuses every line and movement in the cruel and melancholy The Misfits?. Now, name a contemporary actress who could touch Monroe for sexuality and comic timing.
Monroe was never once nominated for an Oscar, and she attended a ceremony only once in her life, as a Sound Award presenter in 1951. The event must have traumatized the budding star because just prior to going onstage her dress ripped slightly and she broke down in tears. Even though it was repaired in time, she never recovered emotionally and when finally in front of the audience, she hardly lifted her head to the cameras. Her lack of paying dues to the Academy by way of showing up as a pretty guest in subsequent years may have been another reason she was snubbed. Or perhaps Oscar voters were just waiting for her to deliver a more mature dramatic performance later in life. After all, she was only 36 when she died; certainly more must have been expected of her. But then again, she drove her directors and fellow actors crazy, so crazy they might not have voted for her no matter how brilliant she was. The thing is, she already had been brilliant but some were too dazzled by her body, allure, charisma and harrowing personal life to want to recognize it.

During his nearly 40 years of international stardom, Cary Grant looked so effortlessly handsome, debonair, buoyant, urbane and flip that it was easy for audiences and critics to mistake him for someone who was simply playing himself. He repeatedly turned out sophisticated, burnished, supremely confident gentlemen on-screen, most notably in Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest and That Touch of Mink. Women lusted after him and men wanted to be him. But in real life, Grant was an almost entirely different animal than the characters he played and, ironically, nobody wanted to be “Cary Grant” more man Grant himself.
Whether Grant’s charming ways were natural or concocted for the screen seemed to be of little concern to the studio selling his personality–Grant was a classy movie star who was making loads of money for them in hit after hit. And Grant’s personal life only increased his celebrity. During his tenure as a top Hollywood star he squired nearly every great leading lady, including Mae West, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. So it was just too easy to overlook the talent behind that magnetic screen presence. But talent there was. He was simultaneously coolly caddish and unfailingly attractive as an ambivalent newlywed in Suspicion, a spy in Notorious and a man of mystery in Charade. Similarly, he was resolutely heroic while satirizing machismo in Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings.
Grant was twice nominated for an Oscar, for 1941’s Penny Serenade and for 1944’s None But the Lonely Heart. That means his performances in His Girl Friday, An Affair to Remember and four of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films–Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest–were ignored, which seems quite ludicrous today. He was so superb so often that in 1969 those in the Industry, realizing the absurdity of his never having won an Oscar, gave him an honorary statuette “with the respect and affection of his colleagues.” Too little, too late.

Although James Dean starred in only three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) before a car crash claimed his life at age 24, his searing presence and performances in at least two of those movies captivated a generation. He was brilliant and plumbing all sorts of depths in East of Eden as a bruised boy caught between a ramrod of a father and a slatternly, wayward mother. But it was in Rebel Without a Cause that he electrified audiences as an alienated teenager. His tragic, haunted gaze suggested wisdom beyond his years; his moods were quicksilver, his sexuality was alive and fluid. It was as if he had come into the world expecting great things and had already wised up to the nightmare that was the American Dream. By looking, talking, acting and moving like no one who had come before him, he instantly developed a cult following. It wasn’t that teens merely identified with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. That would have made him a movie star. It was as if he was them. That made him a legend.
Dean was long gone before the 1955 Academy Awards, when he was nominated for his work in East of Eden (not, interestingly, for his heralded turn in Rebel Without a Cause, which was released the same year). Influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was such a fan of Dean’s she campaigned for him to receive an honorary award, but the Academy didn’t want to give a special prize to an actor who was already nominated for a performance. The following year Dean was nominated again, for costarring with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant. Though he was yet again riveting, it was popularly believed he didn’t have a chance of landing the Oscar because me Academy preferred to hand out awards to the living.
It fascinates and breaks the heart to speculate on what Dean might have done if he had lived longer. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Psycho? The Hustler? Days of Wine and Roses? The Last Picture Show? Last Tango in Paris? The Godfather? And like his role model, Marlon Brando, one would imagine that he’d have picked up much gold if only he had not crashed that silver Porsche.

Make no mistake about it–Irene Dunne was easily one of the two or three most versatile stars in the entirety of American film. She was an accomplished comedienne, singer and dramatic actress. That’s perhaps why she received a whopping five Oscar nominations. Why she never won, especially for the tearjerker I Remember Mama, is somewhat of a mystery, however.
Dunne won her first nomination for the second film she made–the 1931 Western Cimarron, in which she played a strong, dauntless heroine. Some 70-odd years later, she’s the sole reason to watch that Oscar winner for Best Picture. In 1936 she was nominated for her combination of wit, sexiness, buoyancy, whip-smartness and wicked timing as a best-selling author who falls for an illustrator in Theodora Goes Wild. When she was incomparable opposite Cary Grant in the much-imitated classic romantic comedy The Awful Truth, she was nominated for the third time (Dunne and Grant had legendary chemistry together, which is why they went on to costar in two more films–My Favorite Wife and Penny Serenade). She was given a fourth nod for wringing tears effortlessly as the gallant, funny, unsentimental heroine in Love Affair. And her last nomination was for making graciousness seem heroic in I Remember Mama, in which she played a selfless, loving Norwegian mother.
Perhaps winning wasn’t everything to Dunne, which is why she never went overboard in her more mature years to try to get her mitts on Oscar gold. More than any other actress, Dunne treated acting as part of her life, not her life. All along, she made some of the smartest moves any Hollywood actress ever has. On-screen she never stopped setting out to prove her range. Offscreen, she didn’t much mix business with her private life, and managed to keep her marriage to a dentist intact for over 30 years, until his death in 1965. She also knew when to quit–at age 59 she gave up acting to volunteer for the United Nations.

That titanic tremolo and vulnerable, outsized personality were such forces of nature that it’s easy to miss what a powerful and persuasive actress Judy Garland could be. Several times during her brilliant career she could have won a full-fledged Oscar.
She was nothing if not terrific in Easter Parade, The Clock and Meet Me in St. Louis, but it was easily her comeback performance in 1954’s A Star Is Born for which she was most deserving of the gold (Garland hadn’t been hired since 1950, when she was fired off Annie Get Your Gun for being unstable). Playing a star on the way up to James Mason’s slipping-down movie great, Garland gave what is perhaps the greatest single tour de force ever snubbed by the Oscars (Grace Kelly won instead for The Country Girl). Garland brought to A Star Is Born such unerring dramatic intensity, it’s no wonder that shortly after the Oscar ceremony–which Garland did not attend because she had just given birth to son Joey Luft–Groucho Marx sent off a telegram to the star saying, “This is the biggest robbery since Brink’s.” Today, Kelly’s performance looks like high school drama class acting, but Garlands dazzling emoting through the songs “Born in a Trunk” and “The Man That Got Away” look like cinematic benchmarks.
Though Garland was nominated again, for her small role in 1961’s ensemble Judgment at Nuremberg (in the Best Supporting Actress category), it was surprising how little love the Academy showed the actress. She seemed destined to get gold one day when in 1939 she received a special miniature Oscar statuette for her “outstanding performance as a screen juvenile in The Wizard of Oz. She certainly paid her dues by often singing during the ceremonies–in 1939 she did “Over the Rainbow,” in 1940 “America” and in 1964 a Cole Porter medley. But perhaps the Academy did not want to reward her bad behavior. Oscar voting has always been highly political, and she had burned many bridges with her coworkers due to her sometimes erratic and self-destructive behavior. But just watch her torch her way through “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to a heartbroken Margaret O’Brien in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis and try arguing that Garland wasn’t Americas greatest singing actress then and now.

In a career that lasted nearly 60 years, Barbara Stanwyck came to epitomize the screen persona known as the tough mama. Joan Crawford, Ann Sheridan and Claire Trevor trod the same territory but, good as they were, Stanwyck was even better. She reigned supreme in the ’30s and ’40s. With her trim figure and come-hither allure, she gave off sparks as shrewd, sexy, on-the-make, dangerous–in short, an edgy little minx. The husky speaking voice, the accent that betrayed her Brooklyn upbringing, her snappy way with a smart line, all these made upwardly striving audiences identify with her. Some critics gave her short shrift for it, which is a pity. She was greater than they ever knew, clearly one of the best, most reliable and beloved stars that ever hit Hollywood.
Stanwyck was as equally dazzling in romantic comedies (The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire) as she was in tearjerkers (Stella Dallas and Clash by Night), Westerns (Annie Oakley and The Furies) and razor-edged melodramas (Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number). Too bad she never won from one of her four Best Actress nominations–for playing a working-class mother in 1937’s Stella Dallas, for her turn as a nightclub entertainer in 1941’s Ball of Fire, for duping dopey insurance agent Fred MacMurray in 1944’s Double Indemnity and. for acting the part of a potential murder victim in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number. Although she worked steadily throughout the ’50s and ’60s, she rarely found work worthy of her and, silver-haired and flinty almost to the point of self-parody, she drifted into TV successfully with her series, “The Big Valley,” and the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds.
Stanwyck eventually saw gold at age 74, when John Travolta presented her with an Honorary Academy Award for her life’s work. Some people in the Industry had remarked that Stanwyck didn’t care about winning. But she certainly did. When backstage at the 1981 Oscars she told reporters, “Of course I was disappointed those times I was nominated before and lost. Anyone who says they’re not is lying.”

Blonde, beautiful, breezy, supremely self-confident, with a breathless delivery, it’s hard to believe that Carole Lombard never won an Oscar and was only nominated once, for playing a superficial socialite in 1936’s mini screwball comedy classic My Man Godfrey. But perhaps if her life hadn’t been cut short at age 33 by a plane crash (while she was on a World War II war bond tour), she would have eventually gotten there. She obviously wanted the gold. In 1939, when she accompanied husband Clark Gable to the Academy Awards and he seemed down over not winning for his turn as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind she said, “Aw, don’t be blue, Pappy. I just know we’ll bring one home next year.” After he replied, “This was it. This was my last chance, I’m never gonna go to one of these things again,” she countered, “Not you, you self-centered bastard–I mean me!”
Lombard had already appeared in dozens of feature films by the time she died. Four of those movies–Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred To Be or Not to Be–are comedy classics which alone should have been sufficient to proclaim her Oscar-worthiness once and forever. Although Lombard starred successfully in dramas and tearjerkers, too, it was in comedies that the actress, dubbed by the press as “the Daffy Duse of Screen Comedy,” so reigned supreme. Though Lombard knew she excelled in this category–she was one of the highest paid actresses in the ’30s because her comedies nearly guaranteed audiences–she had an inkling comedic performances would not bring her gold. When she was not even nominated for her brilliant timing in 1937’s Nothing Sacred she simply told reporters, “They don’t give awards to comedy performances,” and she was half right.
Lombard’s runaway freight train delivery–which simultaneously suggested smarts and ditziness–her charm and her unfussy allure has for decades been emulated. She remains the standard by which such successors as Meg Ryan and Cameron Diaz are compared and measured. She was one of a kind.

One can go almost nowhere in the world where the face and form of Charlie Chaplin as “The Little Tramp” go unrecognized. Beginning in 1914 and continuing into the ’30s, Chaplin’s most famed character–a spunky, melancholy, pugnacious, courtly, put-upon, often sentimental Everyman–charmed and entertained audiences globally.
A complicated and controversial soul, Chaplin the artist was a formidable actor, mime, dancer and world-class charmer who also wrote and directed many of his most memorable and beloved movies, including The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. In those films and his shorts, audiences identified fiercely with Chaplin’s character in his loneliness and his up-against-the-world sense of oppression. Universally, he seemed to represent the Little People, the ones who’d been kicked around.
In the 1920s, Chaplin was one of the most respected actors in Hollywood, so it was little surprise when he was nominated for Best Actor and Best Comedy Direction for the silent film The Circus in the 1927-1928 Oscars. He didn’t win in either category, but he was given a special award for his “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus” (this was the first year they held the Academy Awards so they were making up the rules as they went along). He wasn’t nominated again until 1940 for The Great Dictator. The film was labeled by critics as “important” and Chaplin showed range with his dual roles–as a Jewish barber and as Adolf Hitler, renamed Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania–but he didn’t win in any of the categories he was nominated for, which included not just acting, but writing and producing.
Chaplin showed himself to be an even greater artist than he’d been given credit for in 1947’s black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, in which he played a woman-hating killer. The film led to a writing nomination for Chaplin, but he lost to Sidney Sheldon’s script for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. When he was barred from returning to America in 1952, after he was stung by charges of his being sympathetic to Communist ideals, Chaplin embraced exile, bitterness and regret. He clearly deserved an acting Oscar, not merely the honorary award he was given in the 1971 ceremony when America had forgiven him (he received two standing ovations during his acceptance speech) or the Best Score Oscar he shared with two others in 1973 for Limelight (the 1952 film was not released in L.A. until 1972). Perhaps Oscars had been denied him before because some considered him “too” everything–too controversial in his affairs with young women, too egotistical and self-reflexive, too difficult to control. In any event, his legacy as a film giant is secure.

Lillian Gish looms large on the short list of the most exquisitely passionate, emotionally accessible actresses who ever graced the screen. Her stardom began with the birth of cinema–in silent films, especially in some of director D.W. Griffith’s most famous, such as Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm and Way Down East. She was even better in films Griffith had no part in, like The Scarlet Letter and The Wind.
Fragile-looking, eyes intense with ferocious intelligence and resilience, Gish in her best work packs the punch of genius. Born to play serene saints, volatile hysterics and women possessed, Gish dedicated herself to the physical and emotional demands of her projects long before Robert De Niro packed on the pounds for Raging Bull or Tom Hanks reduced himself to skin and bones for Cast Away. She fasted to the point of appearing as terminally ill as the tragic heroine in the silent version of La Bohème. Her escape from a waterfall over the ice floes of a frozen river in Way Down East was nearly as real as it looked on film. And she braved merciless shooting conditions to star in the prairie drama The Wind.
Surprisingly, Gish didn’t receive her first Oscar nomination until she costarred with Lionel Barrymore and Gregory Peck in 1946’s Duel in the Sun. When she picked up an Honorary Oscar in 1970, she showed no signs of discontent with the Academy over being snubbed for decades. “Oh, all the charming ghosts I feel around me who should share this,” she said during a touching speech. After making several TV movies throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Gish received standout reviews for her role in 1987’s The Whales of August. So when costar Ann Sothern was nominated instead of Gish, insiders were stunned. When Sothern called the legend to convey her regrets that she too was not nominated, Gish laughed it off and said, “Now I won’t have to go and lose to Cher [for Moonstruck].”


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All of these actors and actresses deserved Oscars for some of their work. Greta Garbo also came up short of winning.