When it comes to winning an Oscar, the key is usually a good narrative.
The young upstart bursting onto the scene with a sparkling debut performance. The faded star staging an unlikely comeback. The hell-bent Method actor transforming themselves completely in service of their craft.
While the decision of who wins is often down to the arbitrary notion of “momentum” and whoever ran the most effusive behind-the-scenes campaign, many talented actors have often found themselves falling just short – losing out to a more romantic narrative.
Sometimes, actors have accrued a whole handful of Oscar nominations without ever once winning.
For every serial winner like Daniel Day-Lewis or Frances McDormand, there’s a Willem Dafoe or Glenn Close: great actors who haven’t yet been given their due by the Academy.
Here’s a breakdown of all the living actors who have been nominated multiple times – but have never taken home an award.
Close is tied with the late Peter O’Toole for the record for the most Oscar acting nominations without a win, having garnered eight across her nearly five-decade long career. While her most recent nod, for 2021’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy, was never likely to bag her a prize, she had in fact been the frontrunner back in 2017, for her role in The Wife. The bookie’s favourite lost out to the actual Favourite, however, as Academy newcomer Olivia Colman stole her thunder. Don’t expect this drought to last forever, though; there’s the belief among many in Hollywood that Close is now long overdue.
For whatever reason, Adams’s career has become synonymous with the idea of the Oscar also-ran. After breaking through with the indie dramedy Junebug in 2005, (which earned her the first of six unsuccessful acting nominations), she has gone on to deliver powerhouse performances in films such as Doubt, The Fighter and The Master, but has never won an Oscar. Her last nomination was back in 2019, for Adam McKay’s turgid Dick Cheney biopic Vice – but at the age of 47, there’s still plenty of time for Adams to finally get her hands on a golden statuette (or several).
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Alexander winning an Oscar must have felt like an inevitability. The Massachusetts-born actor was nominated four times within a span of just fourteen years – for roles in The Great White Hope (1970), All the President’s Men (1976), Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Testament (1983). Testament was to be her last nomination, however, and though Alexander remains a prolific presence on TV and the stage (earning a Tony Award nomination as recently as 2020), she has appeared in just three films since 2009.
One of the finest multi-talents of the New Hollywood era, Beatty has amassed a host of Oscar nominations in various writing, acting, directing and producing categories, winning Best Director for Reds in 1981. His acting was never deemed worthy of the top gong, however, despite four nominations – and what may be his best performance, in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, was never even nominated. Nonetheless, Beatty has still etched his name into the Oscar history books, playing a pivotal role in the infamous Best Picture announcement blunder of 2017.
One of the standout female actors of her generation, Bening is someone whom many people might assume would have already won an Academy Award. That’s not the case, however, despite her four nominations – with 1999’s American Beauty sweeping the awards in several other big categories (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Kevin Spacey), it feels like something of a snub. Even more egregious of a snub was the decision not to nominate her for 2016’s 20th Century Women; her turn as single mother Dorothea Fields was one of the decade’s best.
After getting his breakthrough in the debauched comedy The Hangover, Cooper went on to establish himself as one of Hollywood’s foremost leading men in films like Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper and A Star is Born, all four of which saw him earn acting nominations. Cooper has also been recognised by the Academy for his producing and directing work, but has never won. While his turn in Nightmare Alley has been unappreciated this awards season, the film itself is at least in contention for Best Picture.
Another actor who you might have thought would have already won an Oscar, Dafoe is known for his ability to wow arthouse audiences and Spider-Man fans alike. Of his four near-misses (Platoon; Shadow of the Vampire; The Florida Project; At Eternity’s Gate), it is probably his role as a well-meaning motel manager in Sean Baker’s understated The Florida Project which stings the most; Dafoe was half-expected to win at the time, only to lose out to Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Actor and director Marsha Mason isn’t quite a household name, but her run of projects from 1973 to 1982 saw her land an impressive four nominations: for Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Chapter Two (1979), and Only When I Laugh (1981). Regrettably, she won none of them, though picked up two Golden Globes for her efforts.
One of cinema’s greatest screen curmudgeons, Harris has experienced no shortage of awards over the course of his acclaimed career. An Oscar is one trophy that eludes him, however; despite nominations for Apollo 13, The Truman Show, Pollock and The Hours, he’s always walked away from the big night empty-handed.
Irish actor Ronan’s continued presence on the ballot became almost a running joke among Oscar pundits. By the age of 24, she’d been nominated four times (for 2007’s Atonement, 2015’s Brooklyn, and her two collaborations with director Greta Gerwig: 2017’s Lady Bird and 2019’s Little Women). It’s no stretch to assume that the 27-year-old will end up winning one of these days. And at the rate Ronan’s going, she could even end up pushing Meryl Streep’s record for all-time most nominations.
Williams may be best known to mass audiences through her roles in tentpole releases like Venom or The Greatest Showman, but it’s in smaller, weightier films (like Certain Women or Manchester By the Sea) that she really shines. Her Oscar-nominated turns in 2011’s Blue Valentine and 2018’s Manchester By the Sea would have both been particularly worthy winners; but her other nominations, for Brokeback Mountain in 2006 and for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn (2012), were also deserved recognition of her craft.
While the later years of Cruise’s career have been defined by high-octane blockbusters, he was once capable of nuanced performances. His Oscar-nominated turn as a misogynistic pickup artist in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia might be Cruise’s best work to date, and sits alongside Born on the Fourth of July and Jerry Maguire as one of three nominations in total.
Damon is another of Hollywood’s biggest names to have never scooped an Oscar win – despite coming close on three occasions. In 1998, he lost out after being nominated for Good Will Hunting (though he did manage a win in the Best Original Screenplay category). Later nominations for Invictus and The Martian followed in 2010 and 2016, to no avail. His lead role in last year’s superb medieval epic The Last Duel could have been an interesting contender – but the film was snubbed from the nominations list entirely.
…and the rest
There are 14 other living actors who have been nominated three times without winning: Joan Allen, Johnny Depp, Woody Harrelson, Diane Ladd, Angela Lansbury, Piper Laurie, Laura Linney, Viggo Mortensen, Nick Nolte, Edward Norton, Michelle Pfieffer, Mark Ruffalo, Sigourney Weaver, and Debra Winger.