With Oscar season inevitably comes talk of snubs and pleasant surprises. There's also that awkward third group of folks standing in the corner of the party who maybe, possibly, shouldn't have been invited at all, but are there anyway, sitting in the seats and drinking the punch of more deserving folks. Still, for some reason — be it an intense studio campaign, voters falling in love with the concept of a role rather than a performance itself, or simply taking the bait hook, line, and sinker — these actors garnered a notice from the Academy anyway. It's only in retrospect, often, that we see the disconnect between these nominees and their peers. Here are 10 performances that would have, in this writer's opinion, been best left on the outside looking in.
1. Ann-Margret — "Tommy" (1975)
Probably one of the most curious decisions in Academy history, Ann-Margret 's turn in "Tommy" as the mother of the kid that sure plays a mean pinball remains a true noodle scratcher of a nod. The actress turns in a bizarre, over-the-top performance, spinning into spastic nervous breakdown rages and occasionally finding herself covered in edibles. Except in this case, the acting isn't so much interesting as it is unhinged and frequently cringe-worthy, and her character, Nora, is about as developed as you'd expect from a screenplay based on concept rock album.
2. Dan Aykroyd — "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)
Twenty-five years later, pleasantly ho-hum race drama "Driving Miss Daisy" winning Best Picture remains one of the more WTF misfire moments in Best Picture history this side of "Crash." Another case of Academy over-love came in the form of a Best Supporting actor nod for Dan Aykroyd, who did his best impression of what a non-Southerner might assume Southern folks sound like without having ever talked to one. Aykroyd's role as Miss Daisy's son wasn't particularly meaty, and the acting wasn't particularly notable. Still, the the Academy tends to lose their s**t over comedians in dramatic roles, often for no really great reason, and Aykroyd scored his only Oscar nod for the role.
3. Andy Garcia — "The Godfather: Part III" (1990)
"The Godfather: Part III" doesn't incur as much scorn with this writer as it does with some. "G3" is a perfectly decent movie mobster movie that had its reputation destroyed by Sofia Coppola's terrible acting job and the quality of its predecessors. But the best you can say about Andy Garcia's performances is that he's there, and he's better at actor than Coppola, which is about as impressive as being a better basketball player than a lamp. Lamented as it may be, "G3" actually ended up getting bundles of Oscar love in the form of seven total nods including Best Picture, but the sole acting score for Garcia remains far and away the strangest nomination.
4. Jack Nicholson — "A Few Good Men" (1992)
How does that scenery taste, Jack. Is it very delicious? If you remember "A Few Good Men" as a swift-paced, punchy Sorkin classic, give it a re-watch. It's average at best, and suffers from some seriously overblown performances from Cruise as the lead, and especially Nicholson, whose entire job is to show up and yell at the end of the film, and generally deliver every military man cliché within grabbing distance. Still, the speech that everyone quotes without knowing the meaning of did its job in securing Jack his tenth (!) nod.
5. Kate Winslet — "Titanic" (1997)
If anything remains particularly interesting about "Titanic," it's the grandeur of the production, the revolutionary special effects, and James Cameron's obsession with historical detail. The plot, dialogue and characters are there mostly because they have to be. Still, the Academy's inexplicable love of all things "Titanic" scored Kate Winslet an acting nod, for no good reason that this writer can think of. Winslet even said during the 15th anniversary rollout "my American accent could’ve been much better. My acting could’ve been a lot better." I don't disagree, but Cameron's wooden dialogue didn't help her cause either.
6. Sean Penn — "I Am Sam" (2001)
Oh, "I Am Sam." Where do we even start? Perhaps the very reason for the "full retard" speech referenced below, "I Am Sam" was a role tailor-made for an Academy Award nomination for Penn, and the Academy took the saccharine, ooey, gooey, nonsense-y bait hook, line and sinker. Penn's performance as a mentally handicapped man wasn't bad acting, per se, but it was trapped in the amber of a movie that, if not ludicrously offensive, at very least made an uncomfortable parade of its handicapped subjects. Still, despite being lambasted by critics, Penn scored a nod and the Academy continued its infatuation with all things disability.
7. Matt Dillon — "Crash" (2004)
Really, Matt Dillon's biggest crime here is being in the movie "Crash," which, by now, I think we can all agree was a lame bit of over-important nothing-new-saying heavy-handed silliness. Right guys? Right? OK, cool. Dillon's character is supposed to be complex, in that he's a despicable racist cop that sexually abuses women on routine traffic stops, but also has a sick dad. Dillon existed in a world that mistook tonal shifts for nuance, and his performance reflects the general over-the-top feel of the movie.
8. Sandra Bullock — "The Blind Side" (2009)
There's really no way to sugar coat what a silly mistake it was to give Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for her totally serviceable performance in what was essentially a by-the-numbers Disney sports movie caught somewhere in between "Space Jam" and "The Rookie" in terms of artistic merit. Even the film's subject, Michael Oher, wrote the movie off as an over-Hollywoodized bit of fantasy that portrayed him as a bit dim before he was taken in by an upper-class white lady who, in addition to helping getting his life in order, also showed him how to play football. Bullock was fine in the role if you're willing to down a big spoonful of liquefied cheese, but the nomination (and win) felt so much more like an "everyone likes this person" acknowledgement rather than a reward for artistic excellence, which she just might receive for her stellar work in "Gravity."
9. Robert Downey, Jr. — "Tropic Thunder" (2008)
True stories: comedy is every bit as challenging to pull off as drama (if not more so); fun movies are wildly under-appreciated by the seemingly humorless body that is the Academy; Robert Downey, Jr. tends to make every movie he's in at least a little bit better. Toss this man a nod for an "Iron Man" performance, I say. But Downey snagging an Oscar notice for his portrayal of an overly committed method actor in blackface was way too generous. Maybe it was a "we're hip, I swear!" move on the par of the Academy, especially considering Downey's speech on "going full retard" for an Oscar, but it was still just a medium-funny performance in a medium-funny movie.
10. Denzel Washington — "Flight" (2012)
Denzel Washington is a fine Hollywood movie acting person. He's charismatic, his looks have been the subject of facial symmetry studies. He even occasionally turns in an interesting performance (see: "Malcolm X," "Training Day"). "Flight" was not one of those performances. There was a cool plane crash scene, and then he drunkenly stumbled around a while. Meh. The whole movie was littered with tonal issues that culminated with the scene that was supposed to be Denzel's great acting moment, as he came to terms with his life as an alcoholic. But it was mostly Denzel being Denzel in a movie that didn't have much else going for it.