10. Josephine Hull for Harvey (1950)
Josephine Hull may not be the most recognizable of names for film lovers but theatre fans in the early 20th century were very familiar with her work. She starred in the original production of You Can’t Take it With You as well as a slew of other big Broadway productions through the 1920s and 1930s. She was able to reprise some of her stage characters with Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace and her eventual Best Supporting Actress Oscar win, for her wildly comedic performance in Harvey. Six months after being handed her Oscar statuette, Josephine Hull made her final big screen appearance.
9. Mo’Nique for Precious (2009)
This is a woman of massive talent. She can switch from serious to comedic with effortless ease and yet it took five years for Mo’Nique to star in anything of any note. Luckily, we got to see her raw talent on display just last year in Bessie; a made-for-TV movie that garnered a large audience. And while a successful HBO TV movie is nothing for an actor to scoff at these days, when comparing Mo’Nique’s Supporting Actress win to other winners in that category it’s hard to argue that her career isn’t as fruitful as Cate Blanchett, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton and Anne Hathaway. Here’s hoping that her critically praised performance in Bessie lands her more opportunities in the future.
8. Katina Paxinou for For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
For Whom the Bell Tolls was the biggest film of 1943. It was headlined by Gary Cooper, one of the biggest money makers of the time, and Ingrid Bergman in the same year she starred in Casablanca. And yet, Katina Paxinou, towered over both of them as a brash, ballsy and homely gypsy, stealing the spotlight from the two stars. In an uncharacteristic move for Hollywood, Paramount Pictures cast the Greek stage actress in her film debut, despite her nontraditional Hollywood appearance. The film was nominated in all four acting categories at the Oscars, yet Paxinou was the only cast member to walk away with a statuette. However, after appearing in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Paxinou only made seven American films in the subsequent seventeen years, none of which made much money domestically.
7. Tim Robbins for Mystic River (2003)
Largely considered robbed of a nomination after his towering performance in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption, Robbins was finally nominated and won for his Supporting Actor performance in Mystic River. Yet, Robbins made an appearance the following summer in War of the Worlds and everyone promptly forgot he was in it. After winning the Oscar, the only movie Robbins starred in which earned over $30 million was the turgid mess that is Green Lantern in 2011.
6. Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (1998)
In actuality his performance is exactly the sort of thing the Academy goes for. Benigni is tear jerkingly optimistic in the kind of movie the Academy loves to reward and despite being a foreign language film, he managed to beat Tom Hanks’ performance in an even more celebrated WWII movie. Thanks to his antics at the awards ceremony Roberto Benigni became a household name and an overnight sensation. Having acted in Italy since the ‘70s, Life is Beautiful was his first international breakthrough.
5. Mercedes Ruehl for The Fisher King (1991)
Unlike most actors on this list, Mercedes Ruehl has actually had many credits to her name post-Oscar win. More specifically, she currently has forty-three acting credits to her name since 1991’s The Fisher King, not counting individual episodes of shows like Frasier and Entourage. What’s bizarre about Ruehl’s career trajectory is that after winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Lead Actress Tony Award only months apart, her career received a quick spark that quickly died out. She starred in a mediocre adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play, Lost in Yonkers and had a small role in The Last Action Hero simultaneously, but directly afterward, her career took a sharp turn.
4. Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls (2006)
We can talk about how this Oscar win was unexpected until we’re blue in the face. Yes, she was a former American Idol contestant, one that finished in seventh place, but her Supporting Actress win for Dreamgirls, a role she was born to play, should have been a star-making turn. She outshines Beyonce, and hits the movie’s emotional highs with her portrayal of the troubled, utterly sad singer. Jennifer Hudson’s story is what the Hollywood dream is really made of, a young talent that comes out of nowhere, blows the audience away, walks off with the award and becomes a star. Make no mistake, we’re well aware of the fact that Jennifer Hudson still has a successful music career, has had several endorsement deals and continues to sporadically act. And while we don’t begrudge Hudson her music career, her limited and somewhat dubious acting credits since winning her Oscar leave a lot to be desired.
3. Ronald Colman for A Double Life (1947)
Ronald Colman is the only person on this list who had been nominated for an acting Oscar prior to his win. In fact, Colman was a certified star and leading man by the 1920s and scored his first two nominations both in 1930. Ultimately, by the time he was handed his Oscar statuette for Lead Actor, he had a large and impressive resume under his belt. Having worked with directors such as Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Lewis Milestone and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, coupled with Colman’s reputation as the consummate leading man, it simply makes sense that he won an Oscar for portraying a method actor, in George Cukor’s engrossing A Double Life.
2. Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields (1984)
An absolute unknown in American cinema prior to 1984, Dr. Haing S. Ngor was plucked from obscurity to portray the dedicated Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, regardless of having never acted before. His tragic life story makes his performance all the more unsettling, when you learn that Ngor was indeed a victim of the Cambodian civil war, forced by the Khmer Rouge to give up his life and identity, subsequently being thrown in a concentration camp where his wife passed away during childbirth; something he could have prevented were he able to reveal to his captors that he was a gynecologist. It’s not difficult to imagine that Ngor’s involvement in The Killing Fields was personal to say the least, and that’s showcased by his deeply affecting performance. He became the first man of East-Asian heritage to win an acting Oscar and could have likely retired, returning to his medical career.
1. Harold Russell for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
To be fair Harold Russell wasn’t an actor. In fact, after being cast in The Best Years of Our Lives director William Wyler was horrified to learn Russell was planning on taking acting lessons, urging him that the part of Homer Parrish was simply meant to be him; a young man, disfigured by the horrors of war. Despite having lost his hands to the war, despite being the only person that could have truly played Homer Parrish, the part still required Harold Russell to have an emotional connection to the material, which led to his nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It would be easy to write off the nomination as a throwaway honorary award due to Russell’s bravery and commitment to the role, and indeed the Academy bestowed upon him their Honorary Award for that very reason.