Many iconic actors never earned an Oscar

Hits and myths of acting honors

No one ever promised that the Academy would be just, let alone fair.

This year, Frank Langella (who will be 71 by Oscar night) is said by some to have a better chance with “Frost/Nixon” just because last year’s “Starting Out in the Evening” was neglected. Beware of such attempts at tit-for-tat.

They start in Oscar history with the theory that Bette Davis won in 1935 for the slender “Dangerous” because no one was brave enough to nominate her the previous year for “Of Human Bondage.” But that theory depends on no one having seen “Dangerous,” which turns out to be a very intriguing film with a great performance.

Sentiment is not reliable. This year, for instance, Clint Eastwood — who has won for director and picture twice but never actor — appears in “Gran Torino,” and it might be the last chance anyone has to give Eastwood an Oscar for his skill in front of the camera. On the other hand, who’s to say that the 78-year-old icon won’t elect to do a “King Lear” Western when he’s 85?

As it is, we have to live with the regret that no nonhonorary Oscar was ever given to Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields or Laurel and Hardy. There may have been a feeling in that age of giants that those people were not actors, but today, I think, we have a broader and more enlightened idea of what constitutes acting.

And the skill set is certainly expanding.

Are we really that far from the moment when a nomination might go to a character in an animated film? Such characters are written, visualized, directed, spoken — in so many ways acted.

Even if you have a more conventional view of acting, you have to note that no “ordinary” Oscar was ever awarded to Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Alan Ladd, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (this list is restricted to major box office attractions).

Add on to this the list (far longer than I will actually type out) of major actors and actresses who never collected an Oscar: Joseph Cotten, Dana Andrews, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Margaret Sullavan, Deborah Kerr, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Ryan, Anthony Perkins, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole — and don’t forget Orson Welles.

Now, I can understand in 1941 that Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York” was judged superior to Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, though the more you think about that, the greater the absurdity. But how are you going to explain that Welles the actor was not even nominated for “The Third Man,” “Touch of Evil” or “Chimes at Midnight”?

In a way it’s a game, this listing of Oscar possibilities, and sometimes even the truth fails to resonate. If I tell you that Perkins won for “Psycho,” just as Sullavan won in “The Shop Around the Corner,” you may want to stop and check the record books. Did someone really beat out Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity”? (Yes, it was Bing Crosby in “Going My Way.”)

So look them up and read the truth. They were not even nominated, not one of them. That’s right. Perkins’ Norman Bates — one of the most significant performances in screen history — was not nominated. Yet Perkins did get a supporting actor Oscar nom for “Friendly Persuasion” (see if you can sit through it).

This is not just astonishing, it’s seriously disappointing. But we’ve had training: Robert Walker was not nominated for “Strangers on a Train.” Why was that? Was it because in 1951 not enough people knew what acting was, or even what movies might be? What makes it all the stranger is that in the year Perkins’ Norman was by-passed, Janet Leigh was nominated for her Marion Crane.

It all gets stranger: In the awards ceremony of 1961, an honorary Oscar — on top of his two for acting (“Sergeant York,” “High Noon”) — went to Cooper. I can’t see any reason why, except that he was dying. Now, that gesture amounts to real kindness, or sentimentality — in which case, why should kindness not prevail?

Seven years before his death, Buster Keaton got an honorary award. In addition, in the same year that Cooper received an honorary award, so did Stan Laurel. It was Laurel’s wish that Jerry Lewis (a disciple) accept the award for him, but the Academy chose Danny Kaye.

You may wonder why, and while you’re wondering (Kaye had an honorary Oscar in 1955, Lewis has never had anything until now: The Acad announced Dec. 10 he’ll receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award — which comes in the form of an Oscar statuette — at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 22), ask why Oliver Hardy has gone unrecognized.

Film historian David Thomson’s most recent book is “Have You Seen …? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.”

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