When looking back over the movies of 2015, it’s hard not to notice the women. It’s also bittersweet, given that it’s been a great year for white actresses, not so much for any lead actress of color. Still, it would be narrow-minded to punish the success of the women who have prevailed this year because Hollywood is still so backwards in regard to women overall, but especially women of color. One open door leads to another. One closed door leads nowhere. Halle Berry still being the only black woman to win Best Actress in 88 years of Oscar history is a stain on that history. But I’m not writing that story, partly because I’ve been writing it for ten years. This is a different story, one where the Best Actress field is crowded – so crowded that several lead performances have spilled over into the supporting category.
Best Actress is so crowded, in fact, that many great performances will go unrecognized. Those who want a spot in the top five will have to campaign hard. Only a few will get there on the basis of performance alone. To secure a space in the Best Actress lineup this year especially, but really any year, here is what a contender needs to secure a nomination:
- A great performance. It goes without saying. Star power alone can get you close, but in a competitive year the performance has to be one that resonates.
- A likable character or a loathsome one. You can’t really be in between. They love you or they love hating you. Most of the time, where women are concerned, loving you is better than loving to hate you but if your whole career has been built on likable roles, playing a complex or broken down character can help.
- You must be known among actors as an actor’s actor. It always helps to be theater trained. Being likable and popular goes a long way. Votes often accumulate because people “like” you, more than they do by simply acknowledging your brilliant work. When Marion Cotillard was up for La Vie En Rose she had the performance but she had to make sure people knew her and knew that she was fluent in English.
- You go to everything. It is like being a politician already. Sad, but true. It would be nice if you could sit back and wait for a nomination. Look at how early Julianne Moore was out there last year. She made it clear beyond any doubt that she was in it to win it. Brie Larson, Rooney Mara, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Carey Mulligan are all out there doing stuff. That gives them the edge.
- Star in a likable film, and all the better if it’s a Best Picture contender. This isn’t an unbreakable rule like it is for Best Actor but it never hurts. Brie Larson, Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan, and perhaps Jennifer Lawrence will have the edge because it’s expected their films will or could enter the Best Picture race. This hurts other contenders whose films are not as well liked or else will have no chance to get anywhere near Best Picture — the caveat here is if the actress is a veteran. Vets can overcome much of the stuff newbies cannot. Lily Tomlin, Charlotte Rampling, Maggie Smith and Blythe Danner are already so entrenched in Hollywood they don’t really need to campaign much.
When it comes to winning, things are a little more tricky. Securing a nomination will probably be good enough for those who are winners already, like Jennifer Lawrence (who could win her second), like Cate Blanchett. Winning a second Oscar is harder than winning a first Oscar. Here are the five rules for winning.
- You are in it to win it. Even Meryl Streep when she went for it with The Iron Lady, Kate Winslet for The Reader, Julianne Moore for Still Alice – they went everywhere. Streep even went to the AARP. The last thing they did was sit on it, wait it out and hope they might win on merit alone. Yeah, no. Doesn’t happen like that for women; not anymore. That’s probably because picking a winner is hard, especially when there are various reasons for picking one. It could be because they gave the best performance period (Charlize Theron for Monster, Natalie Portman for Black Swan) or it could be they are making history as the first black woman to win (Halle Berry, Monsters Ball) or it could be because they’ve been nominated so many times and never won before, even if this isn’t their best work (Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore) – you might be a commercially successful actress whose opportunity to be rewarded has finally arrived (Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon). Either way, it seems like showing voters that you want to win, that you are willing to fight for your win, does appear to give contenders an edge. You can’t go overboard, though, and look desperate. You have to be easy breezy cover girl about it. Smile, look like you’re having a great time. Have fun – make jokes. That’s probably why previous winners like Charlize Theron, Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence aren’t appearing to make such a strenuous reach for it this year. They’ve already won so they aren’t as hungry, plus it’s unseemly to look that greedy.
- Be overdue for a win. This can be upset by a more likable contender – like Hilary Swank besting Annette Bening (twice). But if the horizon is clear for a win and there’s no upstart in your way, you can go for it free and clear. A lot of Best Actress Oscars have been won by women regarded as overdue, legends who inspired an essential urge for voters to vote. Any Oscar win has to come with that urgency to reward when the right moment arrives, either out of sheer love for the character, the actress, or the film.
- Don’t have a recent Oscar victory. Hilary Swank and Jodie Foster are two of the few who won Oscars in fairly close secession. Swank in 1999 and 2004, Foster in 1988 and 1991. How do you get your second Oscar if you’re not Sally Field? Star in a Best Picture winner, as Swank did with Million Dollar Baby and Foster did with Silence of the Lambs. That would be the precedent for a Jennifer Lawrence win – if Joy won Best Picture and swept up Jennifer along with it.
- Win at least one major precursor, preferably one on television where lots of people see how might look onstage on Oscar Night. It always helps to win critics awards but there is simply nothing like having that moment in front of the mic to seal the deal. People like to like seeing someone win. That’s harder for women because being liked is harder for women overall – with other women, with the fickle public, with men.
- Sex it up. I hate to say it but there is always that one photo shoot that lays out a contender in it to win it as if she’s a delicacy on a deli platter. Meryl Streep was probably one who never had to do this. The steak eaters in the Academy (who aren’t actors) like the sexy young ones. It always helps to put yourself in a position that helps them along with their fantasy. It’s yucky but sadly part of the job — at least now they only have to do photo shoots. They don’t have to sleep with people to get work. This year, there is one contender who probably won’t have to and could win anyway – and that’s Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at the year’s top contenders for Best Actress.
Brie Larson in Room – Larson is the one to beat this year for many reasons. The biggest reason is that Room is so likable and it’s only partly likable because of the kid, Jacob Tremblay. Like she did in her breakout performance in Short Term 12, Larson is an actress you can’t take your eyes of off. She always keeps you guessing where her character might go next. Her performance in Room is an actor’s dream because she is given a chance to showcase all that she can do. She is so many things at once in the film – a loving mother, an angry mother, a victim, a fighter, a petulant teenager whose best years have been taken from her. Among many scenes in the film that resonate is when she’s being challenged on whether she did the right thing keeping her son with her all of those years. “I’m his mom,” she says. Maybe you have to be a mother to really feel that scene but she says it both defiantly and with a hint of doubt. That Larson is not actually a mother makes her conviction all the more remarkable. She is the frontrunner to win because she’s great in the role, she is everywhere doing publicity and is going to star in a strong Best Picture contender.
Jennifer Lawrence in Joy– Lawrence has to be considered a frontrunner too because of who she is and what Joy is. It’s an entire film centered around her, and will be — all signs seem to indicate — her most challenging role to date. Lawrence defies all the rules in Hollywood and couldn’t be more powerful. If she won her second Oscar before the age of 30 no one would be that surprised. David O. Russell is also overdue for a big win. Joy could be that win. It could take them all with it. The only problem for Lawrence is that she’s won before, just three years ago. She’s also not doing that much campaigning yet. She’s out there but she’s out there (for the time being) for The Hunger Games. She is smart when it comes to managing her rise to fame – she knows that she doesn’t want to overplay her hand. Trying to stampede through to a win for Joy would seem too much like an overplay. I suspect she’s going to wait it out and see how it goes. She is a big enough star that she can afford to wait it out.
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. Ronan is quietly the biggest threat to the top two actresses. The reason being it’s impossible to watch Brooklyn and not fall madly in love with her. More than that, you want to root for her. It is a positive vote for a positive character. It will depend on how Brooklyn does overall. If it comes in with more nominations than Room – which it might, considering all of its design elements – Ronan could suddenly be a force to be reckoned with. The entire film is about her. She transforms from shy, withdrawn Irish immigrant to confident, assured American. It’s quite a thing of beauty, this performance.
Cate Blanchett in Carol. Since Blanchett won so recently, there isn’t much of a chance she will win again so soon. But she gave two great performances this year with this, and her work in Truth – which sadly was killed by controversy before it had a chance to really fly. This is another one of those situations that will depend on how much the Academy likes the film overall. Rooney Mara is the Carol co-star who has the better shot at winning in the supporting category, and would have about the same chance in lead as Blanchett has. Dividing them gives the film two nominations. Putting them both in Best Actress means one at the most but a good chance they would cancel each other out and neither would get in. Blanchett is wonderful in Carol — it’s such a luscious, beautiful, moving film overall that it’s hard to imagine this year without a Blanchett nomination, whether or not she can win.
Carey Mulligan in Suffragette – this is probably a long shot at the moment, given that Suffragette is struggling with critics and audiences, not to mention the brutal attack by the politically correct police (don’t even get me started). Still, she seems like a sure bet for a nomination, at least, rounding out the five. In the early days, she seemed like a threat to win her first Oscar but perhaps she might have to wait on that.
Maggie Smith in Lady in the Van – if she is nominated – and right now, it’s a big if, she is already so well liked and truly gives the performance of a lifetime in Lady in the Van – which, considering it’s Maggie Smith is saying a lot. While Charlotte Rampling in 45 years, Lily Tomlin in Grandma and Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams have each delivered career best work at the end of their careers, it is only Maggie Smith — well liked across the board by the actors — who seems like a threat to win. She’s been nominated six times – won once for supporting and once for lead but hasn’t won since 1979. Still, she’ll have to bump Carey Mulligan in Suffragette – who is doing a heroic thing by campaigning on the heels of giving birth.
On the Fringe
Just outside the top five sit many brilliant performances that may or may not get in, but will ultimately have a hard time getting in depending on how much the Academy likes their films overall. And those would be:
Charlie Theron – if there has been one iconic performance this year it’s Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. What a great performance by a great actress who really is the most compelling actor in the film. The Oscar fate of Mad Max is not yet known. Some of us are still predicting it gets in for Best Picture, with George Miller possibly getting a nomination as well. While others think its time has passed and might only earn tech nods. It really feels up in the air and will depend on how much people appreciate Miller’s efforts to preserve the integrity of practical visual effects, working with real actors and his groundbreaking feminist take on this durable, flexible franchise.
Emily Blunt in Sicario – the same goes for Blunt. Sicario’s fate is also not know in the Academy. I heard from one director who said it was his favorite film of the year but that doesn’t mean she will be able to pierce the top five or topple the bigger names and vets who stand in her way. Still, Blunt is one of the very best things about Sicario.
Regina Case in The Second Mother – what a brilliant performance this is. It would take many critics standing behind her to get this performance some attention, enough to topple the big name stars in the category. But in a very white year for women, Case stand out. The Second Mother is one of the best reviewed films of the year and it’s yet another example of the broad range of films about women this year that are driving the narrative.
Probably Not This Time
Amy Schumer in Trainwreck – it’s simply too competitive a year to break in. Schumer really did change the game with this film, and should be remembered, at least by the Broadcast Film Critics and the Golden Globes. Hopefully the writers branch will honor her with a screenplay nomination. Best Actress, though, is probably off the table.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for Tangerine – it isn’t even the “first transgender actress” that will hold Rodriquez back but rather the sheer competitiveness of the race and how hard it will be for any film not widely seen to get attention. That said, should she earn one critics’ award after another it might happen.
Sandra Bullock for Our Brand is Crisis – she might have had a shot but the critics killed it dead. Also, there isn’t any wiggle room in the category.
The Best Actress category has not been this interesting in a long while. Along with films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Trainwreck and maybe Joy soon topping the box office, Star Wars will give us another dramatic shift back to a strong female protagonist. With four movies about women almost certainly heading into the Best Picture race – Carol, Brooklyn, Room and Joy – this could be a record breaking year for the Academy. The last time there were four Best Picture contenders starring women? You have to go back to 1977, when the first Star Wars opened. You had: Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Julia and The Turning Point. That’s how rare of a year this might turn out to be.
Even when you look beyond the Oscar contenders you see an array of performances that are worthy of attention, like Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria, like Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back, like Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina. It’s an embarrassment of riches, that’s what it is. What we’re shooting for next time is a more colorful one.
1. Brie Larson, Room
2. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
4. Cate Blanchett, Carol
5. Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
6. Maggie Smith, the Lady in the Van
7. Lily Tomlin, Grandma
8. Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
9. Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
10. Blythe Danner, I’ll See you in My Dreams