This year’s Best Actress race has so far been mostly dominated by performances already seen at Cannes and Sundance. At the top of that list would be Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Carol, Bel Polowy for Diary of a Teenage Girl, Emily Blunt for Sicario, along with Charlize Theron for Mad Max: Fury Road and Marion Cotillard for Macbeth. The entire race could be down to just these names and it would be impressive already. Except we know Oscar season doesn’t work like that. The consensus doesn’t work like that. It involves so many conflicting factors, not the least of which is which contender gets the most publicity from the early acting competitions like the Gothams or the Golden Globes or the Screen Actors Guild awards. You could be riding high with buzz and publicity only to be derailed by a mobilized faction of film critics who complain about your inclusion, as happened last year with Jennifer Aniston, who seemed to be the first person ever punished for producing her own award-worthy performance; no one was ever going to fault Matthew McConaughey for making Dallas Buyers Club happen but Aniston, wow, she got the full treatment. Marion Cotillard, the critics wailed, was the preferred choice. They rallied behind her and thus, she got the nod in the end. And so it goes for women — not only do you have to worry about getting any challenging acting role but then you have to contend with critics who launch whole movements against your backstory. THAT was not a fun thing to watch.
At any rate, the same thing could happen this year, god knows, where the critics are concerned. They say they don’t care about awards but then they reveal themselves to care very very much. They care enough to subvert and manipulate the process whenever possible — Gravity, not 12 Years a Slave. Cotillard not Aniston. Good times.
Many prominent performances are on the horizon that could shake up the Best Actress race as it stands right now. Among those would be Emily Blunt in Sicario (Sept. 18), Elle Fanning in About Ray (Sept. 18), Ellen Page in Freeheld (Oct. 3), Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak (Oct. 16), Brie Larson in Room (Oct. 16), Carey Mulligan in Suffragette (Oct. 23), Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back (Oct. 16), Sandra Bullock in Our Brand is Crisis (Oct. 30). There is also Angelina Jolie in By the Sea (which she wrote and directed) (Nov. 13), Nicole Kidman in The Secret in Their Eyes (Nov. 20), Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun (Dec. 31).
The two sight-unseen frontrunners are expected to be Jennifer Lawrence in Joy versus Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. In the Best Actress race, popularity (unless you’re Jennifer Aniston) counts for a lot. Thus, pundits will have their eyes on the bigger names, like Bullock in Our Brand is Crisis, like Brie Larson in Room. It can become difficult to jam through certain names once the five biggest are in position. It is impossible at this time to know who they’ll be, but Lawrence and Mulligan (nominated back to back in and 2009 and 2010 for An Education and Winter’s Bone) really do appear to be the names at the moment with the most heat. Since Lawrence already has an Oscar, that puts Mulligan very near the top of the list as the de facto frontrunner to win, even before anyone has seen the film. This, because she’s never won before and she’s probably got the most prestige going in, in terms of who she is playing and what the role means overall: women getting the right to vote. That alone makes her stand out from many of the other roles women are playing this year. Her movie and her role will stand for something important, especially amid the heated election cycle that looks to be on the brink of electing our first woman to the US presidency.
Emily Blunt is cast as an idealistic law enforcement agent on the trail of a leader of a drug cartel. The part was originally written for a man but the director, Denis Villeneuve, insisted on it being cast female. Fanning will play a transgender male dealing with body issues and societal norms. Wasikowska will be launched into the horror fantasy world of Guillermo Del Toro in Crimson Peak, “When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place ﬁlled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind Crimson Peak.”
Sandra Bullock (and Jennifer Lawrence and Lily Tomlin) will be among the few comedy entries, thus they will do extremely well finding traction at the Golden Globes, no doubt, since the HFPA has a separate category for that. Bullock plays a political operative “Calamity” Jane Bodine, who comes out of retirement to help navigate an election.
It’s hard to tell at this stage how Best Actress is going to go. But if someone asked me how I think it MIGHT go, I see things shaping up something like this:
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Emily Blunt, Sicario
Marion Cotillard, Macbeth
Sandra Bullock, Our Brand is Crisis
Lily Tomlin, Grandma
Elle Fanning, About Ray
Bel Polowy, Diary of a Teenage Girl
Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak
Does this list mean anything? Well, it means that women of color look to be, at least for right now, mostly shut out of the race once again. There are no leading black females, or even Asian or Hispanic females in what I see here. It is so difficult for any actress (except Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence) to get cast in anything of value. They hold on to what they have. They try, in every way that’s available to them, to get work, to get noticed, to have some power in an industry that gives them none.
We will check back in the Best Actress race once film festival season starts up again at the end of this month.