Oscar Profile #501: Overlooked Leading Actresses

In 1996, when Julie Andrews was the only actor nominated for the Broadway version of Victor/Victoria, she withdraw her nomination with the comment, “I have searched my conscience and my heart and find that I cannot accept this nomination, and prefer instead to stand with the egregiously overlooked.” As I have been saying, Julie and they are in good company. Awards bodies have been egregiously ignoring great work for decades.

In this third week of focusing on performances that failed to win Oscars in the last century, my focus is on actresses in leading roles. I selected six iconic performances to profile here, three from women who never won an Oscar despite multiple nominations and three from actresses who won for other performances. Three of them are profiled for dramatic roles and three for comedic ones, but all six moved effortlessly between both disciplines. All six also appeared in musicals throughout their lengthy careers. They have 36 Oscar nominations, 6 wins and 2 honorary awards from the Academy between them, yet they were all egregiously overlooked for one of their greatest performances.


IRENE DUNNE in THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Irene Dunne rose to stardom heading the national touring company of Show Boat in the role she reprised in the 1936 film version. Nominated by the Academy for Best Actress five times for Cimarron, Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, Love Affair and I Remember Mama, she might just as easily have been nominated five more times for Back Street, Penny Serenade, The White Cliffs of Dover, Anna and the King of Siam and The Mudlark. Although she never won, she probably came closest for her masterclass in comic acting on display in The Awful Truth.

Arthur Richman’s play had been filmed twice before and would be remade as Let’s Do It Again in 1953, but none of the other versions holds a candle to this one which earned Leo McCarey the first of his two Best Director Oscars. Cary Grant, channeling McCarey, came into his own opposite Dunne as his soon-to-be ex-wife in this uproarious comedy about a divorce in which neither party really wants to end their marriage.

DEBORAH KERR in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Before Deborah Kerr received any of the six Oscar nominations she was destined to lose, she failed to even be nominated for her brilliant portrayal of the tortured Anglican nun in Black Narcissus for which she received the first of her three New York Film Critics awards. Kerr’s Sister Clodagh heads a a group of nuns sent to the Himalayas to create a school and a hospital out of an abandoned palace. The film is so beautifully photographed by Jack Cardiff that it’s hard to realize that it was filmed in a studio against the backdrop of a matte painting and not on location. Kerr’s emotionally devastating performance is ably supported by David Farrar, Jean Simmons, Sabu, Flora Robson, and Kathleen Byron.

Kerr would win her second New York Film Critics award ten years later for her portrayal of another nun out of her element in John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison for which she would receive her fourth Oscar nomination opposite Robert Mitchum. She and Mitchum reunited for 1960’s The Sundowners for which she would receive her third New York Film Critics award and her sixth and final Oscar nomination.

KATHARINE HEPBURN in SUMMERTIME (1955), directed by David Lean

Katharine Hepburn received her second, third and fourth Oscars for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond on her 10th, 11th and 12th nominations between 1967 and 1981. Her first win was on her first nomination for 1933’s Morning Glory. Her luminous portrayal of the middle-aged Midwestern secretary who spends her life’s savings on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Venice before settling into spinsterhood came halfway through her remarkable career for which she earned her sixth nomination. Ironically, her American in Italy lost the Oscar and most of the year’s other major awards to Anna Magnani’s Italian in America in The Rose Tattoo.

Photographed entirely in Venice by Jack Hildyard, this was David Lean’s first location film and Hepburn’s first film in three years. It ran afoul of the censors because of Hepburn’s implied adultery with married merchant Rossano Brazzi resulting in the deletion of 18 feet of footage and the trimming of one line of dialogue. Lean fell in love with Venice during filming, making it his second home for the remainder of his life.

ROSALIND RUSSELL in AUNTIE MAME (1958), directed by Morton Da Costa

Rosalind Russell was a first-rate dramatic actress in films from Craig’s Wife to Sister Kenny to Picnic, but it is for her comedic roles that she is best remembered. She was unforgettable in The Women, His Girl Friday, My Sister Eileen, Auntie Mame, A Majority of One and Gypsy in which her singing voice is seamlessly blended with that of Lisa Kirk. Nominated for a Tony for Broadway’s Auntie Mame, she lost to Margaret Leighton in Separate Tables. Recreating her signature role on screen, she was nominated for the fourth time for an Oscar, losing to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! .

Russell did win a Tony for 1953’s Wonderful Town in which she recreated her second most famous role, that of the older sister in My Sister Eileen for the musical version with a score by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein. She later turned down Jerry Herman’s musical version of Auntie Mame retitled Mame, paving the way for Angela Lansbury’s remarkable Broadway career.

ANNE BANCROFT in THE GRADUATE (1967), directed by Mike Nichols

Anne Bancroft often complained about being remembered more for her iconic seductress in The Graduate than for her Oscar-winning performance in The Miracle Worker five years earlier. Funny, but I always thought the 1962 Oscar should have gone to Katharine Hepburn for her portrayal of the tragic Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night while Hepburn’s long overdue second Oscar for 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner over Bancroft was a travesty. If anyone other than Bancroft deserved to win that year it was Edith Evans in the screen’s consummate portrayal of old age in The Whisperers.

Bancroft, only seven years older than Dustin Hoffman, as the boyfriend of her daughter Katharine Ross, she seduces, with gray streaks in her hair to make her look older made an incomparable comedic villain. She would continue to give thrilling performances throughout her career in such films as The Turning Point, To Be or Not to Be, Garbo Talks, Agnes of God, and ’night, Mother.

DIANE KEATON in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), directed by Richard Brooks

Many actors and actresses won Oscars for the wrong film, but few won for the wrong film the same year they were overlooked for an even greater performance. Such, however, was the case with Diane Keaton who won an Oscar or more-or-less playing herself in Annie Hall. While that was a charming performance, it didn’t begin to plumb the depths of her portrayal of the hedonistic schoolteacher who is murdered by one of her conquests in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Based on a tree story, the film suffers from not being filmed in New York where it happened, but in a no-name amalgam of San Francisco and Los Angeles where filming on location was more affordable.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar has never been released on DVD due to issues involving the music rights to its splendid soundtrack. Hopefully, one day that will be resolved. In the meantime, we have Keaton on DVD in The Godfather Trilogy, Annie Hall, Reds, Mrs. Soffel, Baby Boom, Marvin’s Room and so much more.


  • Irene Dunne – 5 nominations, no wins
  • Deborah Kerr – 6 nomination, no wins, honorary award
  • Katharine Hepburn – 12 nominations, 4 wins
  • Rosalind Russell – 4 nominations, no wins, honorary award
  • Anne Bancroft – 5 nominations, 1 win
  • Diane Keaton – 4 nominations, 1 win

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