A Certain Cinema
The Academy Award for Best Actor is one of the most prestigious acting awards given, and a sign that an actor is among the best practitioners of his craft. Legends such as Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman have all won the award—sometimes more than once. Some much lesser-known actors have also taken home Best Actor Oscars for roles that stood out at the time, but weren’t able to keep their careers from vanishing.
5 Maximilian Schell for “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1962)
Austrian-born Maximilian Schell was named Best Actor in 1963 for his role as a lawyer defending Nazi war criminals in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Even in this, his most celebrated role in an English-language film, Schell is still arguably less memorable than the rest of the cast, which includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. Schell went on to make dozens more films, but always in smaller roles.
4 Paul Scofield for “A Man for All Seasons” (1966)
Paul Scofield was a classically trained Shakespearean actor who brought all of his skill to the screen in the historical drama “A Man for All Seasons.” Scofield stars as Thomas More, who finds himself embattled in a religious and personal conflict with King Henry VIII. Other than this movie, Scofield made only a handful of major films, sticking mostly to the stage. Many of his later film credits were voice work for animated and computer-generated characters.
3 Roberto Benigni for “Life Is Beautiful” (1998)
Italian comic actor and director Roberto Benigni won big in 1998 for “Life is Beautiful.” The movie tells the story of a family imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II, using humor to survive the emotional anguish. American audiences embraced Benigni in the late ’90s, not only for his ability to bring a thoughtful sensibility to a subject such as the Holocaust, but also for his over-the-top Oscar acceptance, which included perching atop his seat when his name was announced. With a new measure of creative freedom, Benigni labored over his dream project, an adaptation of “Pinocchio” with the 50-year old actor playing a wooden boy. The film was a flop and Benigni returned to relative obscurity.
2 Peter Finch for “Network” (1976)
In 1976’s “Network,” Peter Finch plays a memorable newscaster whose on-air tirades enthrall the entire nation. Much of Finch’s acting career took place in England on small-scale productions, meaning that American audiences didn’t get to know him until “Network.” Finch died in January 1977. His Oscar was awarded posthumously, and his career ended abruptly at its highest point.
1 Broderick Crawford for “All the King’s Men” (1949)
Broderick Crawford made many films, but usually only as a character actor in a bit part. In 1949 he played his best role as the corrupt politician Willy Stark in the thriller “All the King’s Men.” The film was a timely reflection on American politics, and Crawford brought a conniving presence to the role. After his big win, Crawford dabbled in comedies, smaller productions and, eventually, television. The lack of a unified body of work in any one genre makes him one of the most unknown Best Actor Oscar winners today.