The 25 Greatest Comedic Performances That Weren’t Nominated for an Oscar
It’s a daunting task to compile a list of brilliant comedic performances that failed to gain notice from the Academy — not because there are so few but, rather, because there are so many. Occasionally, the Oscars honor someone like Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda, but by and large, being funny isn’t valued that much during awards season. But because there have been plenty of worthy contenders who were ignored, picking the 25 best risks omitting myriad excellent performances. So consider the below list a jumping-off point, a way to start a conversation rather than pretend this is even close to definitive. I’m sure I’ve left off some that were your all-time favorites — there was simply no way to get them all in.
But first, some quick ground rules. This list is alphabetical by performer. No actor is on here more than once. Also, no movie could have more than one person from it. Oh, and one other thing: The first Oscars were held in 1929, so no film that premiered before that ceremony’s eligibility window counted. (In other words, nothing before August 1927 is on my list.) What’s clear is that there’s been so much great comedy that never got any Oscar love. Also clear is that it doesn’t matter: These performances have stood the test of time, which is way more important than prizes.
Amy Adams, ‘Enchanted’ (2007)
Adams is one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation, having been nominated for six Oscars. It should be seven: She’s never been funnier or more delightful than as Giselle, the happy-go-lucky princess who’s transported from her animated realm to the live-action reality of New York City, discovering that the Big Apple is nothing close to a fairy tale. Enchanted is a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, but it works so well because Adams completely sells Giselle’s confusion about this strange new world, embodying the sweetness and ditzy bewilderment of a Disney cartoon character suddenly thrust into a city that has no patience for her insistence on randomly breaking into song. For such an acclaimed dramatic performer, Adams has a knack for bighearted comedy, and it’s a shame she doesn’t flex those muscles more often.
Sacha Baron Cohen, ‘Borat’ (2006)
One of the most incisive comics of the George W. Bush years, Baron Cohen was a master of sophisticated pranks, going in disguise as outrageous characters like Ali G and then getting public figures to agree to be interviewed, humiliating themselves in the process. The hallmark of this period was Borat, a full-length film that expanded on his notoriously bigoted Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, sending him across the U.S. to interact with everyday Americans — and also real-life politicians like Alan Keyes, who had no idea what was going on. Baron Cohen envisioned Borat as a misogynist who, weirdly, is also incredibly sweet, a combination that throws his on-camera subjects. Borat’s screenplay received an Oscar nomination, but his performance was just as deserving, confronting America’s dark underbelly while, at the same time, exploring the decency and kindness of so many average Americans who cross his path.
Albert Brooks, ‘Modern Romance’ (1981)
Writer-director Brooks once described the hell he went through trying to secure financing for his smart, distinctive comedies: “I had to go out and raise my money, and that took a year of work, and a very unrewarding year’s work, because you don’t get a single laugh, and nobody compliments you. No one even knows what you’re doing. You’re just out there in hotels.” Nonetheless, in the late 1970s and early 1980s he made one killer film after another. His finest performance came in Modern Romance, where he plays Robert, whose relationship with girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold) has just imploded, leaving him at loose ends. Between getting over that heartbreak and trying to do his job as a film editor on what looks like the worst sci-fi film ever, Robert goes through a lot, and Brooks milks it for maximum comic desperation. Few actors have made patheticness so damn amusing.
Nicolas Cage, ‘Raising Arizona’ (1987)
Long before he won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, Cage was already wowing his peers with performances in Moonstruck and Wild at Heart. But in terms of sheer comic lunacy, it’s very hard to top Raising Arizona, in which he’s a stunningly convincing idiot. Meet Hi, an ex-con trying to turn his life around now that he’s married to Ed (Holly Hunter), a cop who wants to be a mother — even though they can’t conceive. Criminal hijinks ensue, with Cage equally touching and hilarious as a dumb guy with a good heart. This was still early in Cage’s career — the Cage mannerisms weren’t as prevalent yet — and as a result there’s an unfiltered, deadpan strangeness to his portrayal that’s deeply appealing and utterly unaffected.
Charlie Chaplin, ‘City Lights’ (1931)
In terms of sustained comic brilliance, Chaplin’s finest hour may be The Gold Rush, which was released a few years before the Academy Awards debuted. So we’ll put that film aside to honor what’s generally considered his masterpiece. City Lights is a romantic comedy in which his iconic Tramp character falls in love with a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill), and the movie shows off all of Chaplin’s sides: You get the genius slapstick comedy, the impeccable filmmaking skill and the sweet sentimentality. It’s telling that filmmakers as different as Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) and Benny Safdie (co-director of Uncut Gems) cite it as one of their favorite movies. When people say they love City Lights, what they’re really saying is they love the indelible impression Chaplin made on them as an on-screen presence.
Matt Damon, ‘The Informant!’ (2009)
In the early 1990s, Mark Whitacre was a Midwestern executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a food-processing company, who became a whistleblower. There was just one problem: The FBI could never entirely trust what he was saying. The Informant! turned Whitacre’s story into a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction dark comedy, with Damon giving one of his best performances as the titular character. From the start, audiences know that Whitacre seems fishy — his voiceover rambles in increasingly unsettling ways — but Damon superbly taps into the cringey feebleness of a man who dreams of being a big hero, only to be undone by his many failings. This is a comic/tragic portrait as we see Whitacre destroy his life, all the while revealing the depth of the con he’s pulling on everyone around him.
Mia Farrow, ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ (1984)
It is hard now to watch Farrow’s movies with Woody Allen from the 1980s in light of the serious allegations of sexual abuse leveled against the filmmaker by their adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow. But she delivered a series of terrific performances, the finest purely comedic one coming in Broadway Danny Rose, where she plays Tina, a brassy former girlfriend of a mobster who wants her back, no matter what. Farrow often went for subtle, humanistic portrayals in Allen’s movies, but here she’s having a ball depicting a hilariously no-nonsense, larger-than-life character who follows her own drummer. Farrow was never nominated for an Oscar — not for Rosemary’s Baby, not for any of her work with Allen — and she was perhaps never more deserving than she was here.
Ruth Gordon, ‘Harold and Maude’ (1971)
A screenwriter and actress, Gordon won an Oscar for playing the devilish neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby. A few years later, she was equally good in a very different film, the coming-of-age comedy Harold and Maude, in which she played Maude, a much-older woman who befriends Bud Cort’s suicidal teen Harold. An unexpected love story and a sweetly life-affirming tale, Harold and Maude is powered by Maude’s cheery DGAF attitude, and Gordon shrewdly amplifies the character’s hard-earned wisdom and irreverent spirit. Despite the age difference, you can understand why Harold would fall for her: She’s funnier and more compelling than anyone around them.
Cary Grant, ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938)
Because he was so smooth on screen — as critic Pauline Kael famously dubbed him, “The Man From Dream City” — it was easy to take Grant’s talent for granted. Perhaps that’s why he only received two Academy Award nominations in his career, later being bestowed with an honorary Oscar. He had so many highlights, it’s challenging to narrow it down to just one. But my pick would be this Howard Hawks screwball comedy, in which he plays a paleontologist who finds himself in the crosshairs of an impetuous beauty (Katharine Hepburn) who courts him, despite the fact that he’s about to get married. Grant defined class and dry wit in plenty of gems, but he’s especially charming in Bringing Up Baby, matching Hepburn one-liner for one-liner. Nobody’s been as debonair and funny at the same time since him.
Charles Grodin, ‘Midnight Run’ (1988)
What a pleasure it was to watch Grodin annoy the living hell out of Robert De Niro in Midnight Run. The comedian and former talk-show host, who died in 2021 at the age of 86, played Jonathan Mardukas, an accountant who has stolen a bunch of money from the mob, with De Niro as Jack Walsh, the bounty hunter tasked with bringing him in. De Niro was his usual tough-guy self, but the seemingly wimpy Mardukas wasn’t intimidated by this guy at all, allowing Grodin a chance to demonstrate why he was one of his era’s driest wits. The two actors’ rapport was developed by them going through the script over and over, memorizing the dialogue so intensely that, when it was time to go in front of the cameras, they had it down cold. “You’re completely free to come alive and do anything,” Grodin later said. “You’re never thinking about your words. … You’ve got to be so solid before you can really be free and be creative. And that’s something I think he understands, and it’s what I do. And it had a lot to do with the freedom you see in the playing.”
Robert Hays, ‘Airplane!’ (1980)
The man who would forever be remembered as Ted Striker, the washed-up former pilot who’s the only man capable of saving the seemingly doomed passengers heading from L.A. to Chicago, had never been in a movie before Airplane! and didn’t get paid a ton to be in it. “That was my first time,” Hays said later. “I thought, ‘You’ve got all these big people that are big names (in the film) … and here I’m just a nobody,’ and yet they listened to what I had to say, they tried it, and they liked it even better.” Airplane! is the greatest parody film ever, and while the whole cast is glorious, it’s Hays’ deadpan hilarity that holds the thing together. Now if only he could get over his drinking problem…
Cleavon Little, ‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974)
Let others argue whether this envelope-pushing Mel Brooks comedy could be made today: Instead, why don’t we all just acknowledge how good Little is as Bart, the Black man who comes to a Western town to become its new sheriff, discovering just how racist everybody there is. Brooks often allowed his all-star cast to go broad, but Little works so well in Blazing Saddles because of how restrained he is in comparison to the rest of the ensemble. Bart has to endure so much from these buffoons, but he knows he’s smarter than everybody around him: Indeed, Little figured out how to make competency funny, while also slyly mocking white audiences for their racial prejudices.
Steve Martin, ‘All of Me’ (1984)
Both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics bestowed Martin with their Best Actor prize for his inspired performance in All of Me. He plays Roger, a lawyer whose body is invaded by the soul of a dead woman, Edwina (Lily Tomlin), who wasn’t intending him to be her receptacle. As a result, Roger is literally at war with himself, providing Martin a platform to engage in physical comedy that’s both uproarious and incredibly well-executed. The Jerk, Roxanne and other Martin films are perhaps more beloved, but All of Me is something special — especially if you’ve never seen it before. This is the kind of high-wire comedy you’d expect from Jim Carrey.
Michael McKean, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ (1984)
It kills me not to include all three actors who made up the fictional metal band that this fake documentary purports to chronicle. But with massive apologies to Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer — not to mention Rob Reiner — I’m giving the slight edge to McKean, whose David St. Hubbins is my favorite of this trio of clueless rockers. Parading endless (unearned) confidence and slowly growing exasperation as everything around him starts to collapse, David wants to believe desperately that Tap hasn’t lost a step, even though their current tour very much looks like it will be their last. McKean captures the character’s pathetic high hopes, giving David a certain nobility that his terrible, terrible songs have definitely not earned. In the process, McKean set the tone for many of the mockumentaries Guest would go on to make, like Waiting for Guffman: No matter how silly the people in his movies were, they always had that one person who was a true believer at their core.
Marilyn Monroe, ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959)
It’s been more than 60 years since Monroe died, and she remains a figure of endless fascination — and also endless debate. (Look no further than last year’s divisive portrait Blonde, which inspired some of the most glowing but also some of the angriest reviews of 2022.) Even her greatest performance is up for argument, but for my money, her turn as Sugar Kane, a musician who befriends on-the-lam pals Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), is tops. Sexy but also wickedly funny, Monroe isn’t on screen as much as her hallowed costars, but she more than holds her own. The Academy never deigned to nominate her during her short life, but Some Like It Hot is all the proof anyone needs that she was a top-flight comedian.
Eddie Murphy, ‘Bowfinger’ (1999)
If you could only pick one Murphy comedic performance, which would it be? Several came to mind, but I went with Bowfinger, which allowed him to do two performances — one as a super-paranoid superstar, the other as a nerdy everyman who (for reasons that eventually become clear) looks just like him — that showed his range even better than The Nutty Professor. This isn’t the R-rated provocateur of Murphy’s stand-up years or early on-screen stardom, but he’s so in control of his craft that the lack of F-bombs hardly holds him back. An overlooked, genial Hollywood satire, Bowfinger deserves more love than it gets — and that goes double for Murphy’s expertly executed twin roles.
Donald O’Connor, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)
All hail Jean Hagen, the only member of Singin’ in the Rain’s distinguished cast to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s tough to narrow down my pick from this movie to only one actor, but I’m going with O’Connor, who’s perfection as Cosmo, Don’s (Gene Kelly) faithful friend and this masterpiece’s reliable comic relief. Sure, everybody in Singin’ in the Rain is funny, but O’Connor — who was never Oscar-nominated (although, oddly, he won a Golden Globe for this movie) — may have the single funniest, joyous sequence in the whole thing. That’s right, I’m talking about “Make ‘Em Laugh.”
Dolly Parton, ‘9 to 5’ (1980)
A real flip-a-coin choice here — any of 9 to 5’s three female leads would be worthy, and none of them were nominated — but my vote goes to Parton, in part because this was her first film role. She played Doralee, the secretary to Dabney Coleman’s sexist boss Franklin, who tries to convince the entire office that he’s having an affair with her. Eventually, Doralee joins forces with coworkers Judy (Jane Fonda) and Violet (Lily Tomlin) to hit back at this jerk, in the process turning 9 to 5 into a feminist rallying cry years before #MeToo. Parton proved she wasn’t just one of her generation’s best singers and songwriters — after this film, she was a full-fledged movie star.
Rosalind Russell, ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940)
Russell was nominated for four Academy Awards, eventually being presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1973, preferring to be thought of as a great actress rather than a bombshell. (“I wasn’t prepared to pay the price it would have required to get on the big Varsity,” she wrote in her memoir.) As a result, she’s somewhat overlooked in the history of Hollywood’s finest stars, but one viewing of His Girl Friday is all you need to know that there was no one quite like her. This quintessential screwball comedy stars her as Hildy, a former hard-hitting journalist who’s left that life behind (as well as her ex-husband editor Walter, played by Cary Grant) for a quieter life with a nice guy she’s about to marry. Walter has other ideas, though, which allows Russell to deliver withering quips at rapid-fire rate. Russell wasn’t nominated for His Girl Friday, but perhaps she received a more flattering honor when Jennifer Jason Leigh flawlessly channeled her performance when playing a similarly fast-talking, hard-nosed reporter in The Hudsucker Proxy.
Meg Ryan, ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ (1989)
Perhaps not since Diane Keaton in Annie Hall has an actress so owned a romantic comedy while also defining an era. Ryan had been in movies before When Harry Met Sally…, but she’d never been so well-utilized: As Sally, she personified a grownup, playful urban sophistication that was the furthest thing from the Manic Pixie Dream Girls that would eventually populate the genre. Instead, Sally was smart and funny — not to mention somebody that Billy Crystal’s cynical Harry was going to have to prove himself worthy of being around. This movie is where Meg Ryan really became Meg Ryan. Whether faking an orgasm or standing up for herself when Harry invariably tries to mansplain to her, Sally was a role model for lots of young people who wanted a love story that was a little more realistic than the typical rom-com.
George C. Scott, ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)
Peter Sellers was deservedly nominated for his multiple roles in Stanley Kubrick’s acidic Cold War satire. But not enough love has been shown to Scott, who’s an absolute riot as Buck Turgidson, a bloodthirsty U.S. general who wouldn’t be that unhappy if America accidentally bombs the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. As for the collateral damage, well, Buck’s response is an all-timer: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops — depending on the breaks.” The fact that Scott went on to win Best Actor a few years later for playing an actual military man, the triumphant wartime leader George S. Patton, only makes his Dr. Strangelove performance funnier — and more chilling.
Barbara Stanwyck, ‘The Lady Eve’ (1941)
Stanwyck received four Academy Award nominations, eventually receiving an honorary Oscar. Shockingly, none of those nominations was for The Lady Eve, one in a string of excellent Preston Sturges comedies during the 1940s. She plays Jean, a sleek con artist determined to seduce Henry Fonda’s naive heir to his family’s massive fortune. The epitome of icy sophistication and bombshell looks, Jean figures she has this mark’s number, but she didn’t plan on falling in love — and when the relationship doesn’t work out, she creates a disguise to reenter his life. When people list the all-time great dual performances in film, Stanwyck’s name sometimes gets left off. But she’s incredibly funny not once, but twice in this underrated screwball classic.
Jacques Tati, ‘Playtime’ (1967)
One of France’s premier filmmakers, Tati wrote, directed, produced and starred in his movies, playing the amiable, slightly overwhelmed Monsieur Hulot, who always finds himself in some fresh new predicament. Tati’s greatest work was Playtime, in which Hulot spends time in a Paris that’s starting to be overrun by modernity and technology. The auteur created a collection of brilliantly choreographed vignettes that harked back to the precision of the silent-comedy days, emphasizing a mass of characters rather than the individual. “There’s no star, no one person is important, everybody is,” he once said of Playtime. And yet, Tati’s performance is really beautiful: His nearly wordless character is a buttoned-down fount of sanity in a world that’s quickly shifting around him, funny and poignant in equal measure. Playtime was overlooked by the Academy, but it’s now considered among the greatest movies ever made.
Charlize Theron, ‘Young Adult’ (2011)
Maybe it’s because Theron had already won an Oscar. Maybe it’s because Young Adult was a dark comedy about an unlikable character. Maybe it’s because the movie didn’t do so well at the box office. Whatever the reason, the Academy snubbed Theron’s unfiltered turn as Mavis, a truly horrible person who destroys everything she touches. A drunken, unhappy writer, Mavis returns to her hometown, hoping to get back with her high-school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), even though he’s married and just had a kid. This is a very delusional, troubled person, and Theron does nothing to sand down the character’s rough edges, resulting in a portrait of self-absorption that’s shockingly funny. Over the years, Theron (who got her Academy Award for the stark true-life drama Monster) has tried her hand at comedy, often proving to be far better than the material she’s chosen: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Long Shot. But Young Adult is proof that when she grabs the right script, she can deliver the goods.
Reese Witherspoon, ‘Election’ (1999)
Before she was Elle Woods, June Carter Cash or Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon was Tracy Flick, one of the greatest teenage characters ever created. Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, and adapted by director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, Election pits this overachieving kid, who wants nothing more than to win the class presidency, against Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, a vindictive teacher who can’t stand Tracy and would like to see her lose. Witherspoon turned Tracy into a symbol of unfiltered ambition — a holy terror who’s a natural-born politician. But also credit the actress, who later went on to win Best Actress for Walk the Line, for undercutting Tracy’s ruthlessness with insecurity, vulnerability and loneliness. Tracy will stop at nothing to be successful, but that’s partly because this bright, sensitive young woman feels so unloved and misunderstood amidst the hell that is high school. It was Witherspoon’s genius to make you initially resent Tracy and then come to feel for her.