You see, acting is all about pretending to be something you’re not. Like, for instance, being “happy just to have been nominated”. But come on Hollywood! We don’t buy that humble runner-up guff… of course you want to win. You’re just not supposed to show it.
So, with the help of celebrity body language expert Judi James, author of ‘The Body Language Bible’ and a veteran ‘Big Brother’ commentator, we translate the most awkward loser reactions in Oscar history.
What were they really thinking when the other guy’s name was read out?
Bill Murray (Lost In Translation) loses to Sean Penn – Best Actor 2003
After years of playing the fool, Lost In Translation was Bill Murray’s Oscar-worthy arrival on the serious stage. He scooped a Golden Globe and bagged an Independent Spirit Award – it seemed too good to be true for Bill. And sadly, it was. Sean Penn deserved the gong, but you can’t help feel a little sorry for the Ghostbusters star, struggling to hide behind his own brand of nonchalance.
“Bill built his response into a plateau of what looked like indifference by listening to the nominations wearing the expression of a man who has better places to be. When he found out he’d lost he just held that look of vague boredom firmly in place as though not getting the Oscar was a matter of complete indifference,” says Judi.
“The bird-pecking nods implied he knew what was going to happen all along. The best way to hold onto your dignity is to imply you were right about who was going to win. A display of cool machismo for the cameras.”
Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) loses to Kim Basinger – Best Supporting Actress 1997
Want a lesson in how to definitely not look like you really wanted that Oscar? See Minnie Driver. The Brit actress’s turn in Good Will Hunting was worth a nod at least, but when Kim Basinger intercepted the award for L.A. Confidential, Minnie dealt with her shock by smearing it in overkill. It just looked sarcastic.
“Minnie’s response leaves no stone unturned in the faux ecstasy department. Her ‘wow!’ is huge and ends in a cute lower lip bite, and her hands come so high with their seal-like clapping that they provide the perfect screen for her facial expression,” says Judi.
“In reality a ‘wow I didn’t expect that’ response should be saved for when you win your own Oscar rather than when someone else wins, which makes the shock tactics slightly questionable. Hence the high clapping to suggest empathy and respect.”
Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) and Nicolas Cage (Adaptation) lose to Adrien Brody – Best Actor 2002
Adrien Brody’s performance in The Pianist was harrowingly impressive. Still, heavyweights Nicholson and Cage seemed genuinely shocked when their distinctly average outings in About Schmidt and Adaptation were trumped by some newcomer.
“How pleased were these two when a newbie actor pipped them to the main prize? Not very,” says Judi.
“Cage’s response got off to a faltering start when a micro-gesture of what looked like anguish seemed to cross his face followed closely by some smart emotional role-play. Cage becomes one of the crowd with this ‘wow!’ of approval that mirrors what’s going on in the rest of the auditorium.”
“Jack Nicholson shows his old-school credentials by arriving primed for the poker-style bluff with his eye expression hidden behind a large pair of shades. This left all the hard work to masking to his mouth, which deserved an Oscar of its own for turning a crash-test-dummy ‘woo’ of shock into a roar of what passed for approval.”
Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) loses to Meryl Streep – Best Actress 2011
In the land of Oscar losers, Glenn Close is one of the biggest. The 65-year-old has a record breaking six nominations without a win. (Can an apology Oscar be far away?) Jump over in winner world, and Meryl Streep reigns supreme with 17 nominations and three wins – making her one of the most recognised actresses in history. The pair have come up against each other three times in the same category, with Streep snapping away this 2011 award for The Iron Lady. Don’t pretend you’re not jealous Glenn.
“When many of us might feel like rising from our seats to rip our designer dress to shreds in a welter of rage and grief, Glenn manages a slightly delayed but ladylike response,” says Judi.
“She pauses as the news goes in before going for the open-mouthed in delight look at hearing rival Streep has won yet another award for her cabinet. Glenn’s clapping is quaintly little-girlish, quick and slightly rigid of finger making he look childishly excited rather than sour.”
Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) loses to Alan Arkin – Best Supporting Actor 2006
Believe it or not, Eddie Murphy actually turned out to be a good actor. Although embarrassingly out of frame for the iconic split-screen moment, he pulled off a natural looking humble reaction when the bad news was delivered. But how do we know this was all an act? Well, he stormed out of the auditorium minutes later.
“Eddie managed a response with a warm and friendly eye expression that barely changed as the winner was announced,” says Judi.
“The high clapping is a masterstroke though as the hands cause a small distraction while partly covering the face. Good-natured and smart.”
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) loses to Marion Cotillard – Best Actress 2007
Two years before Public Enemies, Marion Cotillard was barely recognisable to many mainstream audiences, making Cate Blanchett’s reprisal as the virgin queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age an apparent royal shoe-in. When Cotillard did grab the little gold man, however, Blanchett seemed just as shocked as the rest of us. Good thing she handled it well.
“Cate’s response was old-school Hollywood, looking filled with utter orgasmic pleasure at discovering the Oscar had gone to someone else. This is an over-congruent display that is supposed to signal a modest and generous nature,” says Judi.
“Her first response is ambiguous: her mouth falls open in a perfect ‘O’ as her eyes widen with shock that could be prompted by horror or genuine pleasure, but then she falls into fast clapping and an expression bordering on ecstasy, clearly delighted that someone else won and she didn’t.”
Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) loses to Martin Landau – Best Supporting Actor 1994
If Pulp Fiction achieved one thing, other than giving mainstream cinema a boot up the backside, it’s that it gave us Samuel L. Jackson as we know and love him. It was the actor’s breakthrough role, and the one that still defines his career. No wonder then that SLJ clearly disapproved when Martin Landau grabbed the gong in this infamous Oscar moment:
“Bucking the body language trend of the time, when stars used to show their pedigree with industrial strength masking including whooping and gurning, Samuel clearly felt that a bit of honest, bad loser ‘revealing’ might be more appropriate to the moment,” says Judi.
“After listening to the nominations with his chin held high and his lips pursed to register seriousness, he very deliberately mouthed a suspicious word without once trying to hide his face. This could only suggest a highly competitive nature and a sore loser.”
Talia Shire (Rocky) loses to Faye Dunaway – Best Actress 1976
Aaaaidrian herself, Talia Shire, was up against some worthy competition back at the 49th Academy Awards – including Faye Dunaway for Network, and Carrie’s Sissy Spacek. Like fictional husband Rocky, Talia was a total underdog. Still, it did nothing to lessen the inevitable blow when it came, with the actress looking genuinely offended that Faye Dunaway scooped the Oscar.
“There’s a flicker of what looks like annoyance from Talia, whose hand had already fluttered up to her chin to form a potential screen or cut-off. Her eyes close hard and long which hides her eye-expression at the moment of impact,” says Judi.
“There’s no real attempt to place a mask of mock happiness over the one of vague unhappiness. It’s an honest-looking response as her hopes seem to flash away in an instant.”
Holly Hunter (The Firm) loses to Anna Paquin – Best Supporting Actress 1993
Holly Hunter had two misfortunes when it came to the 66th Academy Awards. The first was being seated next to her competition, meaning she’d have to remain calm and gracious no matter the outcome. The second: that particular competition was an 11-year-old girl – Anna Paquin. Luckily, Holly pulled off a beautifully proud reaction when Paquin made history as the second youngest winner ever for her role in ‘The Piano’. They were co-stars after all.
“Go girl!” says Judi, “a tough call, but Holly plays a blinder, roaring with approval and bouncing up and down in her seat while she uses the kind of eye contact on Anna that manages to look full of maternal-like pride rather than seething resentment at being out-acted by an embryo.”
“Holly shows her kindness and generosity of spirit where many of us might have made sure the kid sat on a full tub of ice-cream when she got back to her seat.”
The 2018 Oscars take place on Sunday, 4 March.