When it comes to the Academy Awards, it turns out earning a litany of nominations is no guarantee of victory. Here are 15 films that not only received those highly coveted Oscar nods, but time and the masses have anointed them classics. Many have even transcended the medium of film and become an integral part of the lexicon of our larger culture.
These 15 left the Oscars empty-handed, despite numerous having been awarded double-digit nominations. That’s mind-blowing. Guess Oscar loved you… then they didn’t.
There are some legendary filmmakers, actors, and actresses (and a cinematographer named Roger Deakins, who finally won his first Oscar after 14 swings and misses) that anchor these films. Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock experienced an award gut-punch on more than one occasion, and so too did Jimmie Stewart and Leonardo DiCaprio.
We Live Awards scanned the 91-year history of the esteemed film body and bring our own special salute to 15 movies that earned multiple Oscar nods, but when it came to wins, they earned a big, fat zero.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Stewart-starring film has gone on to iconic status. It is played every Christmastime for its dripping with hope in the face of ultimate depression inspiration. It’s a Wonderful Life scored five nominations—including Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra—but alas went home without a single win. Stewart was nominated for Best Actor (he would lose) and was joined in the “loser” column by those nominated for Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing. Guess Oscar didn’t think it was such a Wonderful Life after all. Interesting to note, Stewart earned five Oscar nominations for his thespian talents and, like his friend Hitchcock, won none. They would both earn honorary Oscars later in life.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Rebel Without a Cause scored three nods but none for star James Dean. Co-star Sal Mineo did secure one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his part as John ‘Plato’ Crawford. Natalie Wood scored one for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her turn as Judy. The film also was awarded a nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for the screenplay by Nicholas Ray. In the end, the trailblazing film went home empty-handed. Now, to nominate Mineo and Wood but not the lead is insanity incarnate. Sadly, the Academy has a long history of nominating folks who they think are acting in a vacuum (that’s another column for another day!).
Rear Window (1954)
A year prior to Rebel’s shutout, Stewart didn’t get any love for his immeasurably impressive and immobile turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The Hitch would get a nomination for Best Director, and this film is probably the one he should have won over his six other nominations with zero victories. The film also earned nods for Best Writing, Screenplay for John Michael Hayes, and Best Cinematography, Color, and Best Sound Recording. Out of those four nominations, the AFI Top 100 of All Time honoree (#48) won a whopping… zero.
The Academy has not been fond of scary movies (that is until it discovered Get Out), so Psycho not winning any Oscars is hardly a surprise—given the prism of history. But when you toss in the pedigree that did score a nomination for this envelope-pushing cinematic achievement—it saunters into surprising. Hitchcock scored another Best Director nod but didn’t win. The victim in that iconic shower scene, Janet Leigh, earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Both would finish that Oscar evening “just honored to be nominated.”
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese produced a stunner in 2013 with The Wolf of Wall Street that featured a hurricane of a performance by its title-bearing lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. He would get nominated for Best Actor and deserved to win for this flick instead of his victory for The Revenant (that too is another column for another day). But one of Scorsese’s favorite actors would lose that category to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. The film also scored a Best Picture nomination, a Best Director nomination for Scorsese, Best Supporting Actor nod for Jonah Hill, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Five total nominations… zero wins.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Despite earning seven nominations, the Stephen King-penned story turned powerful cinematic statement would win absolutely nothing. The Shawshank Redemption nabbed a Best Picture nomination, Best Actor for Morgan Freeman, Best Adapted Screenplay for Frank Darabont (who also helmed the film but didn’t get nominated). Deakins added the film to his many losses for Best Cinematography, and it was also a loser in Best Sound, Best Music, Original Score, and Best Film Editing. Although it was a box office bomb, the film has gone on to legendary status—thus making its Oscar ignore simultaneously easy to understand yet still shocking.
Christopher Nolan and Oscar have become almost synonymous, at least in terms of the filmmaker and his films garnering nominations. One of his first films, the Guy Pearce-starring psychological stunner Memento, earned two nods—Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay. The category this thriller deserved to win had to be Best Editing. I mean, come on! But it lost to Traffic. That was pretty well-edited, but let’s be real, Memento does not work without the best editing known to the human race.
The Entire Harry Potter Series
The fact that none of the JK Rowling page-to-screen efforts never got a “major category” Oscar is not what is surprising. After all, genre movies have traditionally never fared well except for the rare exception like Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix winning Academy Awards for playing the Joker or The Return of the King’s coronation. But where Star Wars and other fantastical films have missed out on acting awards or Best Picture nods, they have done quite well in the technical categories such as Best Special Effects, Sound Editing, or even Best Score. To think that the entire eight movie set of Harry Potter movies has not won a single Oscar for any of their stellar tech work, production design, costumes, or makeup… is appalling. The series, which was started by Chris Columbus in 2001 and closed out by David Yates a decade later, earned 12 Academy Award nominations in total and never won a single one. Among their nominations were Art Direction and Set Decoration, Original Score, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Cinematography, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Production Design. Guess Oscar doesn’t like Hogwarts.
American Hustle (2013)
David O. Russell and his films are no stranger to Oscar love. After all, his The Fighter scored Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for Christian Bale and Best Supporting Actress for Melissa Leo back in 2011. So it was truly astonishing that his critically hailed (92% on Rotten Tomatoes) American Hustle and its true tale failed to earn a single trophy. Russell brilliantly chronicled how two con artists (Bale and Amy Adams) were compelled to work for an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) in his effort to bring down a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) and a number of members of Congress. The nefarious affair would become known as the Abscam scandal. Another reason the film’s absence of Oscar wins was so surprising? It earned a whopping 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bale), Best Actress (Adams), Best Supporting Actor (Cooper), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Costumes, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Original Screenplay. Not a single trophy? As they say in Jersey, “nada.”
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Do the Right Thing arrived just over three decades ago and was immediately seen as revolutionary. Now, for those of us who cover the Academy and have for decades, revolutionary is not traditionally a word used to describe anything in their realm! The film did achieve two Oscar nominations—one for Lee for Best Original Screenplay and another for Danny Aiello for Best Supporting Actor. At the time, it was seen as a major snub that Lee did not earn a Best Director nod for his magnificent work. Who exactly did get nominated that year? Peter Weir for Dead Poet’s Society, Kenneth Branagh for Henry V, Woody Allen for Crimes and Misdemeanors (that’s a nod that hasn’t aged well! Lee should have gotten his spot.), Jim Sheridan for My Left Foot, and Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July—who was your winner. Lee has taken comfort in the fact that history has lauded Do the Right Thing, and its place in cinema lore is seismic. He finally won his first Oscar in 2019 for BlacKkKlansman (for Best Adapted Screenplay). The fact that he still hasn’t won a bald golden dude for Best Director is a stain on the Academy. Got a feeling that will change at some point.
The Turning Point (1977)
One would think with 11 Academy Award nominations, surely one of those with a nod would make that trek up to the Oscar stage to deliver an acceptance speech! That was the sentiment for the ballet-centric drama The Turning Point, which starred Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft (both nominated for Best Actress). It also was awarded nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, Best Director for Herbert Ross, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and one last thespian nod, Best Supporting Actress for Leslie Browne. It is a beloved film that will have to bask in its audience adoration instead of Oscar gold.
The Color Purple (1985)
Like The Turning Point, The Color Purple was nominated for a bevy of Oscars, and shockingly failed to win a single one. Steven Spielberg’s monumental movie, based on Alice Walker’s bestselling book, earned an astounding 11 nominations. It received nods for everything from Best Picture to even Best Original Song. Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for Best Actress, and Oprah Winfrey got one too for Best Supporting Actress. Notably absent? Spielberg (who is adored by the Academy) was snubbed for a Best Director nod. Guess they felt that the film directed itself. Then again, not a single presenter opened an envelope that evening in 1986 and said the words “The Color Purple.” Say that out loud for one moment. “Eleven Oscar nominations and no wins.” To quote The Princess Bride, inconceivable!
True Grit (2010)
Since it has happened several times, one would think an Oscar columnist would become numb to a film earning double-digit nominations and by the end of the biggest evening of the year for Hollywood to fail to secure a single award. No… it still shocks. When the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) decided to tackle a John Wayne film that is considered a classic, True Grit, many thought they were barking up the wrong tree. Then, we saw it. The Coens’ True Grit was an astonishing filmmaking achievement and was exponentially more faithful to the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 incarnation. The Academy was moved too, to the tune of 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Adapted Screenplay, another loss for Deakins for Best Cinematography, and two acting nods—one for Best Actor for Jeff Bridges and one for Best Supporting Actress for Hailee Steinfeld with her talent announcement. Seems that the Academy’s love for The Social Network and The King’s Speech was just a little bit more passionate that year.
The Godfather: Part III (1990)
No other movie series in history achieved what The Godfather and The Godfather Part II did. In the 91 years that the Academy Awards have existed, a film and its sequel have never won their top honor except for the Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epics. It would not score the trifecta at the 1991 Oscars. In fact, despite earning seven nominations—including Best Picture—Coppola and his team would go home empty-handed for The Godfather: Part III. It also scored nods for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Andy Garcia, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Song. The mob may have pulled Al Pacino back in, but the Academy Awards did not.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York was another high nominee securer for the filmmaker that failed to garner any wins, a la The Wolf of Wall Street and even Taxi Driver. It’s not that that legendary director is an acquired taste, a la Todd Haynes or someone. He literally is a professor of film at NYU and considered one of the greatest to ever wield a camera. Perhaps it’s the violence that is usually contained in his films? Then again, Oscar did love Scorsese and his penchant for violence when it awarded him his first Best Director Oscar for The Departed (and it won Best Picture). But back in 2002, Gangs of New York had a lot of powerful pedigree going for it heading into Oscar night. Among its high profile, nods were Best Picture, Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), and Best Costume Design by the frequent nominee and winner, Sandy Powell. Heck, it even got a nod for Best Original Song from none other than U2! Despite all that A-list talent and power, Gangs of New York won a big fat “zero” Oscars at the 2003 ceremony.