It was a long time coming, but Sam Elliott finally earned his first Oscar nomination for “A Star Is Born” (2018). He contended as Best Supporting Actor for this musical drama about a failing rockstar (Bradley Cooper) who falls in love with a rising pop star (Lady Gaga), but can’t kick his drug and alcohol addiction despite the best efforts of his girlfriend and his older brother/manager (Elliott). Let’s take a look back at 15 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
In a career spanning 50 years, Elliott has received scant awards recognition for his film career. He has, however, contended at the Emmys for his work in “Buffalo Girls” (Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actor in 1995) and “Robot Chicken” (Best Voice-Over Performer in 2013). He competed at the Golden Globes for “Buffalo Girls” and once more for “Conagher” (Best TV Movie/Mini Actor in 1992).
An overdue narrative has been brewing for the actor for years, thanks to memorable supporting turns in “Mask” (1985), “Tombstone” (1993), “The Big Lebowski” (1998), “The Contender” (2000), “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015), and “Grandma” (2015), plus a rare lead role in “The Hero” (2017). That paid off in a big way with “A Star Is Born,” which brought him additional nominations at the Critics Choice and SAG awards, plus a victory at the National Board of Review. So perhaps the iconic star can finally add a little gold man to his shelf.
Tour our photo gallery above of Sam Elliott’s 15 greatest films, including a few for which he should’ve earned Oscar nominations.
– Original text and gallery published in November 2018.
15. PRANCER (1989)
Directed by John Hancock. Written by Greg Taylor. Starring Rebecca Harrell, Cloris Leachman, Abe Vigoda, Michael Constantine, Rutanya Alda, Ariana Richards.
This sweet-natured holiday classic centers on a nine-year-old farm girl (Rebecca Harrell) who encounters a wounded reindeer she believes to be one of Santa’s own. She nurses the animal back to health just in time for Christmas, inspiring everyone in her small town with her holiday cheer. Elliott co-stars as her father, who just can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “Prancer” is filled with a sincerity that’s sorely missing from modern family films. A direct-to-video sequel followed.
14. THE LEGACY (1978)
Directed by Richard Marquand. Written by Jimmy Sangster, Patrick Tilley, Paul Wheeler. Starring Katharine Ross, Roger Daltry, John Standing, Ian Hogg.
“The Legacy” holds a special place in Elliott’s personal life, because it’s where he met and fell in love with his wife, Katharine Ross. (Ross starred in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in which Elliott had a small role; however, they had no scenes together.) The film itself is rather silly, but still a lot of fun. It centers on an American couple (Elliott and Ross) who find themselves in a haunted British mansion among a host of other guests who meet with violent ends. Squeamish viewers beware!
13. LIFEGUARD (1976)
Directed by Daniel Petrie. Written by Ron Koslow. Starring Anne Archer, Stephen Young, Parker Stevenson, Kathleen Quinlan.
Elliott’s big break came with this small-scale drama about a 32-year-old lifeguard who begins to question his choices in life after attending his high school reunion. When he rekindles a relationship with his former sweetheart (Anne Archer), now divorced and caring for a five-year-old son, he decides to look for a steadier job. This is the definition of a nice little movie, where nothing much happens but you still enjoy watching it. And admittedly, there’s few people you’d rather see run around without a shirt on for 90 minutes than Elliott.
12. UP IN THE AIR (2009)
Directed by Jason Reitman. Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn. Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Danny McBride.
Elliott has a small but crucial role in Jason Reitman’s comedic character study. George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, who travels around the country firing people and spending most of his time living out of a suitcase. Yet he soon realizes that his career has destroyed any chance of romance and family. Elliott plays Maynard Finch, the pilot who congratulates Ryan when he reaches the 10 million mile mark at the worst possible moment. “Up in the Air” earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, though it went home empty-handed.
11. GETTYSBURG (1993)
Written and Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, based on “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara. Starring Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, Richard Anderson, Richard Jordan, Stephen Lang, W. Morgan Sheppard.
Ronald F. Maxwell’s four-and-a-half hour opus about the Civil War’s most decisive battle is a tough sit for non-enthusiasts, but those willing to sacrifice an afternoon will enjoy its rich performances and precise period detail. Elliott appears as Brigadier General John Buford, a US calvary man who plays a major role in the first day of combat. He didn’t return for Maxwell’s followup “Gods and Generals” (2003), which turned out to be a blessing: it feels as endless as a summer’s day, and not in a good way.
10. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005)
Written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, Robert Duvall.
With “Thank You for Smoking,” Jason Reitman takes aim at the nefarious tobacco industry, using it as a microcosm for all forms of political spin. Aaron Eckhart stars as a professional lobbyist who uses his charm and skills to defend cigarettes against health nuts. While on a P.R. offensive, he meets with the cancer-stricken actor who played the original Marlboro Man (Elliott), now a staunch anti-smoking advocate. But there’s nothing a suitcase full of money can’t buy. The film launched Reitman’s filmmaking career, bringing his a WGA nom and earning Golden Globe bids for Eckhart and Best Comedy/Musical Film.
9. WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002)
Written and directed by Randall Wallace, based on the book ‘We Were Soldiers Once… And Young’ by Hal Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. Starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper.
“We Were Soldiers” takes the brutal carnage of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and applies it to an old-fashioned war epic, and while the results are mixed, they’re undoubtedly powerful. Directed by Randall Wallace (who penned “Braveheart”), the film recounts the first land battle of the Vietnam War in 1965, as led by Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) and Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Elliott). Both are outstanding soldiers who soon realize they might be fighting an un-winnable war. Though the script lays on the cliches pretty thick, the combat scenes are riveting, and the emotional material packs a punch.
8. THE CONTENDER (2000)
Written and directed by Rod Lurie. Starring Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, William Petersen, Philip Baker Hall, Saul Rubinek.
Elliott loses his trademark mustache for Rod Lurie’s barn-burning political thriller. When the Vice President suddenly dies, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) decides to replace him with Democratic Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). But Republican Congressman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman) opposes her nomination, and turns up some sexually-explicit opposition research from her college days, much to the consternation of the White House Chief of Staff (Elliott) and Press Secretary (Saul Rubinek). Allen and Bridges earned Oscar nominations in lead and supporting, respectively.
7. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (2015)
Directed by Brett Haley. Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch. Starring Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, Malin Akerman.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” is mostly a showcase of Blythe Danner, but Elliott is her equal in a stellar supporting role. Co-written and directed by Brett Haley, the film centers on a 71-year-old woman (Danner) who finds a new lease on life thanks to a new lover (Elliott), her three girlfriends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place) and a friendly maintenance man (Martin Starr). Rather than recycle the same tired tropes about aging, “Dreams” manages to create a tender, loving character study through some refreshingly original moments.
6. TOMBSTONE (1993)
Directed by George P. Cosmatos. Written by Kevin Jarre. Starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Robert Burke, Dana Delany, Stephen Lang, Joanna Pacula, Bill Paxton, Jason Priestley, Michael Rooker, Jon Tenney, Billy Zane, Charlton Heston.
The story of Wyatt Earp’s legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been told several times cinematically, perhaps never more memorably than in this popular western hit. Kurt Russell plays the iconic marshal, who tries to bring law and order to the unwieldy town of Tombstone, AZ. Elliott and Bill Paxton are his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Val Kilmer is the sickly, drunken Doc Holliday. The four team up to stop a band of outlaws led by the villainous “Curly Bill” Brocius (Powers Boothe). As directed by George P. Cosmatos, this is a rollicking entertainment for every shoot-em-up fan.
5. A STAR IS BORN (2018)
Directed by Bradley Cooper. Screenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters, based on the screenplay by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell. Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle.
After a long career of solid and undervalued work, Elliott finally scored his career-first Oscar nomination for this acclaimed musical drama. Bradley Cooper directs and stars as Jackson Maine, a rock star spiraling out of control from drug and alcohol abuse. Into his life comes Ally (Lady Gaga), a talented young singer struggling to get her big break. The two strike up a romance, and as her career rises, his falls. Elliott plays Bobby, Jackson’s long-suffering brother and manger, who has been hurt too many times by his sibling’s bad behavior. His last scene (not to spoil it) is a real heartbreaker.
4. GRANDMA (2015)
Written and directed by Paul Weitz. Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox.
Elliott gives one of his best performances in this road comedy from Paul Weitz. “Grandma” stars Lily Tomlin as a brash, witty poet who’s just broken up with her girlfriend (Judy Greer) when her pregnant granddaughter (Julia Garner) shows up seeking help with an abortion. While en route to the clinic in Los Angeles, she visits her ex-husband (Elliott) to ask for money, dragging old skeletons out of the closet. Tomlin earned Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations, while Elliott contended at the Chicago Film Critics as Best Supporting Actor, igniting an overdue Oscar narrative that may one day pay off.
3. THE HERO (2017)
Directed by Brett Haley. Written by Marc Basch and Brett Haley. Starring Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross.
It’s rare to see Elliott headlining a movie, which is what makes this character study so satisfying to watch despite some flaws in the storytelling. Directed by Brett Haley (who previously gave the actor a juicy role in “I’ll See You In My Dreams”), “The Hero” centers on an aging film star coming to terms with his past and his mortality. The script doesn’t have anything new to say about aging, Hollywood, or anything else, really. But it does effectively play upon Elliott’s screen persona — gruff, charming, and straight-talking — while finding new shades of nuance.
2. MASK (1985)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Written by Anna Hamilton Phelan. Starring Cher, Eric Stoltz, Estelle Getty, Richard Dysart, Laura Dern, Harry Carey Jr.
Most of the praise for “Mask” goes to Cher and Eric Stoltz, but Elliott deserves equal credit for his steady supporting turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s biographical drama. Stoltz stars as Rocky Dennis, a teenager with severe facial deformities. His biker gang mother (Cher) tries to kick drugs and provide a better life for her son with the help of her boyfriend (Elliott). Laura Dern makes her film debut as the blind girl who falls in love with Rocky. Rather than make an insipid teen drama, Bogdanovich and company craft a surprisingly powerful story about the perseverance of the human spirit. The stunning makeup won an Oscar, though more nominations were deserved.
1. THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, Peter Stormare.
To try and describe the plot of this hallucinatory Coen Brothers comedy would prove an exercise in futility, but Elliott does his best as the film’s de facto narrator. It all starts when The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a rambling, shambling stoner who spends his days bowling with his pals (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) and drinking White Russians, is mistaken for a wealthy big wig known as The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston). This sets off a disjointed chain of events involving kidnapping, modern art, pornography, nihilists, and the Vietnam war. It’s Elliott as The Stranger who utters the film’s most iconic line — “The Dude abides” — and provides the coda for this Raymond Chandler mystery for flower children. Perhaps more than any other role, “The Big Lebowski” helped solidify the actor’s screen persona, making him a household name.