If Jeff Daniels doesn’t seem like most other movie stars, it’s because he isn’t like most other movie stars. Happily residing since the mid-1980s in Michigan, the state where he grew up, he’s never been much for Hollywood. “I never bought whatever you had to do in L.A. to sustain a movie career,” he said a few years ago, “which included going to parties and introducing yourself to producers, going to other people’s premieres just to be seen. I could not do that, would not do that. I honestly didn’t think the career would last.”
It has, and he’s received plenty of accolades along the way, including two Emmys, three Tony nominations and five Golden Globe nominations. But perhaps surprisingly, he’s never received an Oscar nomination. Why is that? As his new Showtime series, American Rust, prepares to launch, I decided to go back and look at Daniels’ best film work and analyze why it never caught the eye of Academy voters.
What I discovered is that, more often than not, it was the voters’ fault, not his — truth is, he’s very rarely sought out (or been cast in) the sorts of showy roles that usually get you Oscar buzz. Instead, he gravitates toward very appealing types and not worrying about playing the awards-season game. Below, I outline nine of those types — as well as his most famous TV role, which only further illustrates why the Oscars keep missing the boat on one of his generation’s finest, subtlest performers.
The Schmuck: Terms of Endearment
Flap seems like a decent-enough guy — he’s an English professor with a sweet demeanor who would probably be a good dad. But as Emma (Debra Winger) will discover, he’s also a total cad who doesn’t turn down the advances of the pretty girls in his classes. Flip and Emma are two of the characters in Terms of Endearment, one of Daniels’ first film roles. After years of doing television and theater, it was his big break, although the set wasn’t a particularly warm one.
“I had 2,000 bucks in the bank when they started shooting,” he said in 1985, “and then Shirley [MacLaine] and Debra started fighting and the rent was due and I thought, ‘I don’t know where I’m gonna get it.’” Those distractions didn’t faze him: He’s terrific as a truly shitty individual who pretends to be a nice guy when he’s actually a master manipulator. He’s so good in the film that audiences loathed his character, sympathizing en masse with Emma’s plight. “There’s a reason why every young actor in Hollywood turned that role down,” Daniels would later say.
Why No Oscar Love? Ironically, there was plenty of love for just about everybody else in Terms of Endearment. The Best Picture-winner received 11 nominations, including four for acting. But Daniels wasn’t nearly as big a name as co-stars like Jack Nicholson. An Oscar nod would have been great, but at that stage of his career, simply being associated with such an acclaimed film was probably reward enough.
The Matinee Idol: The Purple Rose of Cairo
One of Daniels’ best roles almost didn’t happen: Initially, Woody Allen had cast Michael Keaton to play Tom Baxter, a dashing, earnest character in a 1930s movie that’s a favorite of lonely, unhappy housewife Cecilia (Mia Farrow). But when Allen felt Keaton was too contemporary, he decided to go in another direction, allowing Daniels to bring a wholesome charm to this fictional being who, magically, walks off the screen and into the housewife’s life.
Tom doesn’t understand the real world, though — for instance, you have to pay for things with actual money — and Daniels is able to balance the character’s naiveté and genuine sweetness. (Daniels also portrays Gil, the far more cynical real-life actor who played Tom in that movie and doesn’t understand why his creation decided to exit the picture.) The Purple Rose of Cairo is the Jeff Daniels you seek when you’re in the mood for a little old-school Hollywood charm: If Daniels didn’t have a little edge to him, he probably could have portrayed Tom Baxter types back in the day.
Why No Oscar Love? Despite being one of Allen’s most beloved films, The Purple Rose of Cairo only got a screenplay nomination. (Remarkably, though, it won Best Picture at the BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards.) But if you want to know how much this movie means to Daniels, he named his Michigan theater company after it.
The Secret Bad Boy: Something Wild
Something Wild director Jonathan Demme once cheekily described his movie as “an exciting attempt to marry screwball comedy with film noir,” and plenty of film noirs feature a man whose life is about to be upended by a femme fatale. Enter Daniels’ Charles, a prototypical 1980s-yuppie type who, at the start of the film, is about to dine and dash — that’s when he meets Lulu (Melanie Griffith), a sexy free spirit who sees the bad boy beneath his clean-cut exterior. What follows is a romp that’s equal parts exciting and scary, but although Griffith’s electric performance got most of the attention — she’s terrific navigating her character’s unexpected shifts — Daniels is excellent as a man getting in touch with his darker side. What made him good in the role was that you felt you were watching Charles discover this about himself in real time.
“I didn’t hide much,” he said about his onscreen self. “I didn’t do the Brando, De Niro, Pacino thing where you’re thinking something and it’s a secret. That’s a real simple actor trick, not to belittle those guys, but I wasn’t doing that dangerous ‘what’s he hiding’ thing. I was Jack Lemmon, you know, walking face first into the wall. Something Wild was like that. That’s Dick Van Dyke and Jack Lemmon had a baby, and it was me in Something Wild.”
Why No Oscar Love? The Academy ignores comedies all the time. Daniels had no chance.
The Normal-Guy Hero: Arachnophobia
“No offense to Jeff, but the studio said, ‘Would you talk to Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner and all the ‘A’ people?’” But Arachnophobia director Frank Marshall didn’t listen, insisting he wanted Daniels for his tongue-in-cheek horror movie about some deadly spiders that invade a sleepy small town. “[I]t’s not a movie about that sort of a character,” Marshall said. “Jeff made it what it is. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in it. He has a great sort of sardonic humor in a soft, subtle way, and he’s very accessible to the audience.”
As Ross, a family doctor who’s just moved to town from the big city, Daniels draws on his Midwestern unpretentiousness to play a guy who finds himself in this crazy predicament. John Goodman’s zany exterminator gets the big laughs, but Daniels anchors the silliness in something real. The movie doesn’t work without his straight-man demeanor — everything’s funnier because he isn’t trying to be.
Why No Oscar Love? The Academy is never going to go for a horror-comedy unless it’s something like Get Out. Daniels, however, did win a Saturn Award, which is handed out to genre fare by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
The Inspirational Leader: Gettysburg
Joshua Chamberlain isn’t necessarily among the most famous men who waged the Civil War, but Daniels brought him to vivid life in Gettysburg, playing the college professor who became a Union colonel. This is as close as the actor has ever gotten to doing a really stirring movie-star-type character — and it’s not even that close, to be honest — but that’s part of what makes the performance so thrilling. Daniels doesn’t change who he is as a performer — there’s a calm, modest confidence to his Chamberlain — and his everyman appeal helps to illustrate how extraordinary it was that Chamberlain emerged as a battlefield leader. You can still see that quiet college professor within the character, but Daniels shows how Chamberlain found something inside himself to lead his troops to victory.
Why No Oscar Love? Gettysburg was initially planned as a cable miniseries — it runs nearly four-and-a-half hours — but got a last-minute theatrical release because of its epic ambitions and big-screen scope. The Academy loves war movies, but this one proved a little too unfocused and long-winded to connect, dooming Daniels’ chances.
The Sidekick: Speed
Action movies have to feature a hero, of course — but it also helps to include a sidekick, that one buddy who roots on the hero or otherwise provides him with a little assistance. Speed cemented Keanu Reeves’ transition from Bill & Ted Valley bro to Hollywood A-lister, and Daniels provides necessary supporting work as Harry, who serves alongside his pal Jack (Reeves) on the LAPD.
But as much as Speed is Jack’s (and Sandra Bullock’s Annie’s) movie, it’s Harry who has some of the big emotional moments. After all, he’s the one taken hostage by evil mastermind Howard (Dennis Hopper) during the film’s dramatic opening — and it’s Harry’s death in that house explosion later on that leaves a lump in your throat. (Daniels’ sad look of acceptance right before the bomb goes off is a thing of beauty.) Action-hero stardom was never going to be Daniels’ thing, but he’s a dependable sideman who can add a little gravitas and genuineness to the proceedings.
Why No Oscar Love? Action movies rarely get Oscar nominations for acting — and if they do, it’s usually for the villain. Like in life, sidekicks tend to get overlooked.
The Goofball: Dumb and Dumber
A super-dumb slapstick comedy from the Farrelly brothers? Of course you’d cast Jim Carrey, who was riding high from Ace Ventura at that point. But Daniels? There was nothing in his résumé that suggested he’d be right for Dumb and Dumber — or that he’d even want to do it. And yet, he’s the perfect Harry Dunne alongside Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas. “You know, I was doing a lot of dramas and heading toward an Oscars trail, whatever that is,” Daniels said in 2019, “and I just said, ‘I’m not doing what I was five years ago; I’m not interested.’ I am going to audition for that Dumb and Dumber thing.”
It was Carrey who wanted Daniels, insisting that for the film to work, he needed to play off an actor, not another comedian who was trying to top what he was doing. Carrey’s instinct paid off: His Lloyd is a rocket of stupidity, while Daniels’ Harry is a touch sweeter and simpler. “Jim is a comedic tornado,” Daniels has said. “And you want him to be that. You want him to do what Jim does. So he’s gonna lead.” Which left Daniels to quietly surprise viewers by how incredibly, brilliantly dumb he could be, too.
Why No Oscar Love? The Academy, in its infinite wisdom, wasn’t ready to get on the Farrelly brothers’ bandwagon until Peter made the atrocious Green Book a couple decades later.
The Monster: The Squid and the Whale
The history of film has been full of terrible fathers. And then there’s Bernard, the bitter patriarch of Noah Baumbach’s corrosive indie comedy-drama. Mad that the world doesn’t recognize his genius, endlessly condescending to anyone he comes across, and a horrible husband to wife Joan (Laura Linney), Bernard is a mountain of ego on top of a mountain of self-loathing.
“Easy to say yes to. Hard to get a handle on it,” Daniels once observed when talking about his thought process behind taking the role. Often, even when he plays irksome characters, there’s an inherent decency that Daniels brings that makes them sneakily endearing. Not here: Hiding behind a beard and a surly attitude, Daniels allows no sweetness to emit from Bernard, who’s slowly warping his admiring son (Jesse Eisenberg), turning him into a budding misogynist. Bernard’s futile rage — his blatant patheticness — makes him funny, but not in a ha-ha kind of way. You spend much of The Squid and the Whale marveling at what a sad, ugly train wreck this small little man is.
Why No Oscar Love? This is the kind of towering role that almost never gets you Oscar attention: The Academy doesn’t feel comfortable awarding monsters that aren’t redeemable. But Daniels did get an Independent Spirit Award nomination, as well as a Golden Globe nod. Still, a movie this prickly and insular had little chance of bigger prizes, although Baumbach’s screenplay did grab an Academy Award nomination.
The Boss: The Martian
Character actors often look like certain types: the cop, the lawyer, the criminal, the soldier. Daniels looks like a boss — he has the intelligence and handsome, composed demeanor to easily play a Fortune 500 CEO. He’s played lots of bosses lately — he’s very good in everything from Steve Jobs to The Comey Rule — but his bossest boss is in The Martian, where he’s Teddy, the head of NASA. That Oscar-nominated sci-fi drama is all about Matt Damon’s astronaut trying to stay alive on the Red Planet, but some of the film’s most riveting scenes are back on Earth, where Teddy and his colleagues try to figure out what to do.
The Martian shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but director Ridley Scott located the dark humor in this impossible circumstance that his characters find themselves in, and Daniels nails the tone perfectly. Teddy has massive pressure weighing on his shoulder, but he’s always cool, calm and collected — and he tends to have a dry wisecrack at the ready, too. Teddy is the boss who instantly intimidates you — he doesn’t suffer fools — and yet you admire him because of how good he is at his job.
Why No Oscar Love? His was a smaller supporting part — he’s really there to add a touch of class — so there’s no chance he’d garner Oscar consideration. If anybody from the cast of The Martian was going to be recognized, of course it would be movie star Damon.
The Champion of the People: The Newsroom
Aaron Sorkin enjoys writing characters who get to be his mouthpiece, telling off the morally inferior characters around them and expressing the author’s viewpoints on The Way Things Are and also The Way Things Used To Be (When Things Were Better). When Sorkin is off his game, that tendency can be insufferable. But when he’s got Jeff Daniels speaking his words, it’s pretty stirring.
On The Newsroom, Daniels played Will McAvoy, a self-righteous TV anchor who doesn’t just want to give his audience the news — he wants to shake them out of their stupor with the power of his inspiring, brilliant rhetoric! The HBO series was often utter nonsense — self-satisfied liberal talking points disguised as drama — but Daniels made it sing. As McAvoy, he transformed Sorkin’s scolds into something almost heroic. Little surprise that, after The Newsroom ended, he teamed up again with Sorkin, this time on Broadway, for a new version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course Daniels would make an excellent Atticus Finch — and, in fact, he’ll soon be returning to the stage to reprise the role.
Why No Oscar Love? Well, because it’s a TV show. But Daniels did win an Emmy for his performance — he might not be a traditional movie star, but he’s a respected actor and his television peers recognized his greatness, even if the film industry never could quite figure him out.
“There’s so much good work going on in television now,” he said in 2014, “so many great performances, so many actors and writers flocking to television. It’s a great time to be in television, especially on the cable end of things [because of] the freedom that you have. … It feels like the ’70s, when they would make movies that they just would not make now. That kind of writing is coming up on television, that kind of daring, risky writing — that’s where you’re finding it. It’s an exciting time to be an actor. I’m lucky.”
It’s shocking that Daniels hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, but it also makes sense. His best film work is the kind that the Academy never really recognizes. That’s actually why it’s so good.