10 Actors Whose Oscar Wins Are Puzzling in Retrospect

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2016

Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (Triumph Films)

With this year’s Academy Awards just days away, it’s time to ramp up the excitement as well as the cynicism about the event and its honors. The Oscars aren’t just about celebrating the movies and a lot of their components. They’re also about us regular folk having fun challenging the opinions of the elite, declaring such offenses as category fraud, snubs, bully campaigning, unfair rules, unpopular winners, undeserved winners, supposed misread winners, career-achievement-based winners, etc. I guarantee there are more people that hate the Oscars than love them, but plenty of the former still watch the show. Mainly in order to have additional ammo for their criticisms.

We have a well-balanced appreciation for the Academy Awards, good and bad. We like to highlight when they’re an important institution as well as when they’re a joke. Here we’re doing the first, focusing on the negative. Below is a list that provides evidence the Oscars aren’t as prestigious as they mean to be. These are the very worst performers to have Oscars – for acting – who are still alive and working today. More than 10 bad actors and actress have won, but these are the least deserving, as far as their lifelong level of talent (or lack thereof) has indicated. Their wins were flukes, most likely thanks to the work of great directors. And they’re lame company for the truly great thespians with Oscars to have to share their distinction with.

1. Jon Voight
Best Actor winner for Coming Home (1978)

The Karate Dog (Screen Media Ventures)

The top spot goes to a man who has been nominated three other times from the occasion of his win, most recently and laughably with his heavily made-up impersonation of Howard Cosell in 2001’s Ali. I think he’s been lucky, and maybe he has enough friends in Hollywood to help maintain his reputation. Too bad he hurts it himself by appearing in too many movies that would seem beneath him. Not just stuff like Zoolander and Transformers but, worse, The Karate Dog and the Baby Geniuses series. But his choices don’t make him a bad actor. That’s in his performances, none of which have ever convinced me he’s even close to embodying his role. He doesn’t always ruin a movie by being in it, but he did keep me from being able to like the TV series Ray Donovan.

2. Mira Sorvino
Best Supporting Actress winner for Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Smitty (Phase 4 Films)

For an actress who works as much as Sorvino does, you’d think you’d be seeing more of her. But she’s just keeping afloat in awful movies that fit her skill set. I recently had to watch a 2012 family film she’s in called Smitty. It made me really embarrassed for her. Acting opposite one of the worst child actors I’ve ever witnessed plus Jason London and a dog all made her look like a master thespian by comparison, yet she was still unbearable. Her win is one of many that exposes a problem for the supporting actress category, the corner of the Oscars that saw Marisa Tomei dishonored by critics claiming her award was a literal mistake. No, it’s just how this particular award tends to go – I do think Tomei is one of the more decent actresses in the bunch, though.

3. Anna Paquin
Best Supporting Actress for The Piano (1993)

X-Men: The Last Stand (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Please no more Oscar nominations for child performances. Please, please, please, please, please. Thank goodness Jacob Tremblay missed out this year, and he’s actually one of the few I could see going on to become a great actor in his adulthood. Paquin, sadly, did not become a great anything, except manager of her career in a way that she’s stayed relevant. I’ll admit, she’s very good in The Piano. So is Harvey Keitel, though, and he’s another who is mostly a terrible performer who has been able to make great choices and work with directors who can do impressive things with him. Paquin didn’t deserve the Oscar. Jane Campion did. At least she was nominated. Women are rarely nominated, yet kids with undeveloped talents are regularly honored. If there’s one thing making me look forward to X-Men: Apocalypse this year it’s that Paquin’s Rogue is apparently not in it at all. I can’t believe people wanted her reinserted into the last one.

4. Tatum O’Neal
Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon (1973)

Saving Grace B. Jones (New Films Cinema)

Before there was Paquin, there was O’Neal. Yes, it was cute that the Academy used to give special awards to juvenile stars like Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Mostly people who made a lot of money for Hollywood, which was definitely a factor for Oscars in the early years. But look at the youths who’ve been nominated for legit acting Oscars, from Jackie Cooper through Justin Henry and Haley Joel Osment to Quvenzhane Wallis and tell me it’s ever been a good idea. Wait for them to become grown and see how they turn out, like with Jodie Foster. As for O’Neal, she’s definitely wonderful in Paper Moon and was even a fine adolescent actress for a few years. But she’s never been too suited for drama or anything of real weight. Now she’s best used for nostalgic stunt casting like her role in The Runaways, playing a mom in the ’70s to another child actress, Dakota Fanning.

5. Louis Gossett Jr.
Best Supporting Actor winner for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Smitty (Phase 4 Films)

After being honored in a weak year for the supporting actor category, Gossett seems to have suffered the infamous Oscar curse where his next movie, Jaws 3-D, was atrocious and his career has never been very noteworthy since, either. I think that he could have had a more successful run – not that he’s not very, very well-employed to this day, but like his Smitty co-star above, most of it is crap you’ve never heard of. I bet if he was white, he would have been more steady with at least popular fare if not quality fare, especially in the ’80s. He’s not a great actor, but he’s fine at what he does (being Louis Gossett Jr.) and he tends to be a very welcome presence in anything I’ve seen him in (even Smitty). Plenty of worse actors have worse filmographies.

6. Kim Basinger
Best Supporting Actress winner for L.A. Confidential (1997)

Grudge Match (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

I think there’s maybe one movie I believe Basinger in: 8 Mile. Not because she’s any good in it, but she fits the level of talent in the movie as a whole and works for its melodramatic story. Everything else, including movies I love such as Batman and The Door in the Floor, she sticks out like a sore thumb. And it’s just as painful as a sore thumb to watch her in anything. I hate to say it, but she’s a star because of her looks and to that she’s just so stunning that she’s been able to remain in such a position. She never would have even come close to an Oscar, let alone won it, had her year not been so weak that her competition included Gloria Stuart in Titanic. Still, she was somehow celebrated by plenty of critics for L.A Confidential. The whole time I felt like Alyson Hannigan in My Stepmother is an Alien, wondering why nobody else saw that this woman is a fraud.

7. Cuba Gooding Jr.
Best Supporting Actor winner for Jerry Maguire (1996)

Radio (Columbia Pictures)

Don’t even try to tell me he’s redeeming himself lately with his portrayal of O.J. Simpson on American Crime Story. He’s serviceable in the role at best. If you want to make me maybe think he has some talent, bring up American Gangster instead. He’s fine in Jerry Maguire, but he somehow beat out Edward Norton in Primal Fear and William H. Macy in Fargo. And then went and starred in such varied drivel as Boat Trip, Snow Dogs, Chill Factor and, worst of all, Radio, movies that better suited his talent level. He’s actually the worst thing about The People v. O.J. Simpson, his acting so terrible that I keep just getting the impression that we’re supposed to think it’s O.J. who is just a bad actor in his own life and trial. Maybe it’s both, but mainly Gooding just doesn’t sell the role well for me

8. Timothy Hutton
Best Supporting Actor winner for Ordinary People (1980)

Serious Moonlight (Magnolia Pictures)

Most of the people on this list are here because they’ve given some truly awful performances. I can’t think of anything Hutton has done that’s notably so terrible. And that’s my problem with him. He’s just really bland and forgettable in everything he does. He’s a placeholder. A fairly recognizable face, enough that he does continue to have a prominent yet not very noteworthy career. His worst offense is being the youngest male to win an acting Oscar, though at least at 20 years old he was an adult. That was another bad year for the category, such that I can’t think of who definitely deserved it more among his fellow nominees (certainly not Joe Pesci). Since then, though, he’s done worse to make sure he’s just getting by. I doubt he tries to do more than he’s capable of, which is probably more respectable than the bad ones who think they’re great, yet sometimes I’d rather watch a full-on bad performance than one as boring as he gives on a regular basis.

9. Jennifer Hudson
Best Supporting Actress winner for Dreamgirls (2006)

Winnie Mandela (Image Entertainment)

Quality of her acting talent aside, I’m honestly surprised Hudson hasn’t done more film work since her Oscar win nearly a decade ago. She’s likable enough, even in her title role in Winnie Mandela, which is the movie that cemented the fact that she doesn’t deserve to have an Academy Award (her one fine scene playing opposite an ant aside). Like with Gossett, I am sure if she was white she’d be doing more and all of it big and entertaining. We need more musicals, and not just for white guys like Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She may not be good with drama, but she’s great with song and can carry enough of a movie on that and her charms.


10. Roberto Benigni
Best Actor winner for Life is Beautiful (1997)

Pinocchio (Miramax Films)

I’ll confess that I was one of those who fell in love with Life is Beautiful when it came out. I still think it’s good at what it’s trying to do. And also if we ignore what it’s really doing, making light of the Holocaust and giving too narrow a perspective of hope in a spotlight that shadows the real horrors going on in the background. Always look on the bright side, even in times of genocide, I guess. Benigni is just that charming and funny that he entertains in spite of the movie’s content and its potential for controversy. The movie isn’t an isolated fluke, either. He’s been very enjoyable when working with Jim Jarmusch, particularly in Down by Law. But he definitely became irritating during and following his Oscars glory, and his eventual follow-up starring role in his own Pinocchio was so bad that it buried his reputation forever it seems. He’s far from untalented, though he’s really great at one thing, and that quickly wore out its welcome.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.