Okay, really this should be more of a top 100 list, so these seven are more "off the top of my head" than any kind of definitive selection. There are several kinds of Oscar snubs. There are talented actors, artists and filmmakers who have never been nominated, and others who have been nominated many times and never won. There are great films that received one or two nominations in minor categories (Vertigo, Singin' in the Rain) and great films that received none at all. The ones I've chosen here are the ones that, especially in retrospect, seem like the most obvious omissions.
1. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Watts did receive a nomination two years later for 21 Grams, though that was clearly a case of making up for this mistake. In 2001, no one gave a slyer or more canny performance, in any film, in any category. Watts not only plumbed the depths of her soul for material, but also stretched to two opposite extremes of the character's personality, making up the two parts of this great, enigmatic film. It was historically important that Halle Berry won the Oscar that year, but considering the other nominees: Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones's Diary), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Judi Dench (Iris) and Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge), Watts' snub is a real head-scratcher.
2. David Cronenberg for A History of Violence (2005)
On any given day this week, Cronenberg would be my choice for the greatest living English language filmmaker. And yet he has never received an Oscar nomination. Not one. He came the closest with this startling film, which won the overall critics' consensus as the film of the year. But the Academy had other ideas. A History of Violence wasn't "important" enough, and so they selected films with larger messages, notably the two front-runners Crash and Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps even more frustratingly, the film did receive a nomination for Best Screenplay. The lone, credited writer Josh Olson got it, even though Cronenberg re-wrote great portions of the script and never took credit. Moreover, if you look up Olson's other credits (Instinct to Kill, Infested, etc.), you'll see a huge quality gap between this film and his other films, leading us to surmise that, indeed, Cronenberg wrote at least half of it, if not most of it. So now Olson has one Oscar nomination and Cronenberg still has none.
3. Cary Grant for Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Notorious, North by Northwest, etc.
On any given day this week, Grant would be my choice for the cinema's greatest actor. Yet he received two measly Oscar nominations -- for two of his least interesting films -- and never won a competitive award (he received an honorary Oscar in 1970). Some people say, 'He was always just Cary Grant!' But just take a look at those five films listed above, all masterpieces, and consider the range of material and performance; henpecked and passive in Bringing Up Baby, and persuasive and active in His Girl Friday; snaky and charming in Notorious and grim and withdrawn in Only Angels Have Wings. He was very clever in creating his persona... so clever that it eventually eclipsed his talent. (See also Barbara Stanwyck.)
4. Touch of Evil (1958)
Today, Welles' film is considered one of the 25 greatest films ever made, but in 1958 it was released only in an edited version, and probably at the bottom half of double-bills or at drive-in theaters. Critics and viewers discarded it because it was a lurid potboiler with little redeeming societal value, and because Welles was pretty much a washed-up, former boy genius who had outstayed his welcome. It, of course, received no nominations and probably wasn't even considered for any. But it's an important lesson not to ignore films just because they seem lowdown or unworthy; take this year's Gran Torino or Burn After Reading or Let the Right One In, none of which have any nominations. I'll bet they have a much longer shelf life than something like The Reader. (Other films with zero nominations include King Kong, Modern Times, The Night of the Hunter, Once Upon a Time in America, Reservoir Dogs and both versions of Scarface).
5. Peter Lorre in M (1931)
Charlie Chaplin reportedly declared after seeing this film that Lorre was the greatest living actor. Not to mention that many serial killers -- including some award winners -- probably never would have come out the same way without Lorre's feverish, tormented performance in this Fritz Lang masterpiece. But, you guessed it: no nomination. And in fact, Lorre never received anything from the Academy, not even a "make-up" or honorary award. Although I do have to confess that that year's actual winner, Frederic March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was pretty cool too.
6. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988)
If I ever get around to making a list of the all-time greatest movie performances, Irons' work in this film will be in the top ten. Of course, it's a gimmick performance with the same actor playing twins, and special camera tricks were invented to show them onscreen at the same time. But Irons does astonishingly subtle things not only to distinguish the twins from one another, but also to portray them as genuine troubled souls with personal history and emotional depth. It's possible, and indeed entirely likely, to watch and forget that Beverly and Elliot Mantle are actually one man. Irons was not nominated. The winner that year was Dustin Hoffman for his one-note, tick-filled Rain Man. Irons received one nomination -- and won -- two years later for the infinitely less interesting Reversal of Fortune.
7. Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)
Remember who won in 1998? I'll give you a hint: he bounded up to the stage like an Italian cartoon rabbit, walking on the backs of the chairs. If the Academy was really that desperate, and if they really didn't want to give the award to Ian McKellen, who was nominated for his superb performance in Gods and Monsters, they could have at least considered Bridges for this career-defining performance. Bridges is one of those sly actors who is always good but perhaps a little too good; no one ever remembers his performances as performances (only the characters). If you comb through his list of 60-odd movies, you're bound to say, 'Oh yeah! He was great in that!' In this long career filled with treats and treasures, he has been nominated four times, but not for Lebowski, which is most likely his most enduring work. Who among us can't quote something he said in that film? One thing you can say about Bridges: he really ties the room together, man.
Some others: Barbara Stanwyck for Baby Face, etc., Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Warren Oates in Two-Lane Blacktop, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, Gary Oldman in Sid & Nancy, Fight Club (1999), James Stewart in Vertigo, Reese Witherspoon in Election, City of God (for Best Foreign Language Film).
What did I overlook?