This year is already looking like Oscars not-so-white, but especially — at least right now dwelling in the world of fantasy — in the category of Best Actress. Reminder: only one actress to date, Halle Berry, has won in the lead actress category in 88 years of Oscar history. Yes, you read that right. Despite great strides in television, music and even the gaming realm, the Academy and the film industry have a long way to go before movies and acting categories are as fully integrated as the American population. It’s still a shocking stat that it’s been fifteen years since a black woman has won Best Actress and that her win was such a long time coming. Remember, Sissy Spacek was favored by many to win that year. Most people believed that either Denzel Washington would win for Training Day or Halle Berry would win for Monster’s Ball because it was thought to be beyond imagination that both could triumph. A few of us got lucky and predicted both, figuring we didn’t know which one it would be but we’d surely get one right. That turned out to be a good bet.
Since then, in the category of Best Actor, 9 black actors have been nominated and 2 have won. But it’s been a full 10 years since a black or African-American actor has won in the lead actor category. In the Best Actress category, 4 black or African American women/girls have been nominated and none has won.
And yes, we’re a really long way off from seeing equitable Asian, Latino and LGBT representations in the Oscar race. What makes it all kind of surreal is that the Academy and the industry are still working from a mostly outdated model. For instance, the star system really used to rule Hollywood. Women had much more power in previous decades than they do today. With the exception of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, you see the best and brightest actresses always relegated to playing the wife, the girlfriend, the mother, the sidekick – they are rarely the center of the film. The mid-century Hollywood star system drove the box office and thus, it was harder for minority actors to break through because they weren’t cast in the kinds of roles deemed worthy of a lead Oscar nomination. Thus, you could see why five white actresses nominated every year for the five roles they played in box office champs made a certain sense within that mindset.
But things have changed in Hollywood. They’ve changed a lot a lot. We are no longer picking off the top names in the top money-making movies because the top box-office movies now tend not to be films Oscar voters go for. But awards circles still seem stuck in this idea that the five women chosen have to be, with a few exceptions, those five white actresses who have buzz for whatever reason. Take last year, for instance. Given that the nominations were mostly taken from independent films, it seems strange that Oscar voters still glom on to mostly white performers. Sticking to another moribund formula, the nominees were also five young actresses in a year where a lot of older women turned in great work.
This year, there are going to be older actresses going up against younger ones, yet again and — though many of us believe actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer and Annette Bening are long overdue for wins — how do they compete with names like Emily Blunt and Alicia Vikander?
Oscar voters might avoid one mistake this year. Instead of five white actresses being chosen once again, it looks as though there are two black actresses headed for the Big Show. One, Ruth Negga, has already been highly praised in Cannes for her work in Jeff Nichols’ Loving. The other is Viola Davis, who almost shattered the record previously held by Halle Berry in 2011, when Davis came close to winning for The Help. Meryl Streep won her second lead actress Oscar instead. Might we see Davis and Streep going up against each other this year? Indeed, we might. Streep is already being praised for her work in Florence Foster Jenkins and is probably going to earn a nod for it. Davis will appear in Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of Fences.
While it’s sill too early to begin reserving seats in any category, especially before Telluride, there are a few names that look like they’re possible. With the help of Erik Anderson at AwardsWatch, I’ll lay them out. You can see their Best Actress chart by clicking here. Our own list of Awards Daily’s expected nominees (spitballing, of course) is slightly different.
It is always somewhat disheartening to scan the list of upcoming films and see how few of them are about women. They almost always start with a man and then work from there. The man is the tree, the women are branches of the tree. Almost always. The Big Oscar Movies we all look forward to each year will mostly revolve around men. Thus, many of the nominees for women will often be women helping to tell the story of the man in the story. I have tried wherever possible to look for films where the women were the central figure, because I think those kinds of roles tend to do better overall with voters. They’re few and far between, however, this year and every year, in what Lynda Obst calls “the new normal” of Hollywood.
It’s probably an absolute impossibility that all five Best Actress contenders will come from films that star women. That’s because Best Picture is almost always about films that revolve around men. Nonetheless, starring in a film that has a better shot at Best Picture always helps a contender. Looking for any that will also be Best Picture contenders is even more difficult and I’ve marked those with an asterisk.
*1. Viola Davis – Fences – Powerhouse role for a powerhouse actress. Davis won the SAG Award in 2011 for The Help and is known for giving speeches that blow the roof off the joint. Since 2011, her career has soared, as she’s won two back-to-back SAG awards for lead in How to Get Away with Murder and also won the Emmy last year. The brilliant Ms. Davis was vastly superior to Streep in 2011, in our humble (okay, not so humble) opinion, but the two worked together in Doubt, and gave two awards-worthy performances. Sure, it’s too soon to put her atop a winner’s list because no one has seen the movie. But she’s already done the play, for which she earned a Tony, and there is footage:
We don’t want to hype this too much because, as we all know, hype is the killer of winners, but after 2011, Davis seems poised to take home the gold.
*2. Emily Blunt – The Girl on the Train – Blunt is another one of those actresses poised to win an Oscar at some point in her career. She almost earned a nomination last year for Sicario and probably would have if the film had been more centered on her role than it turned out to be. This entire film rests on her performance, and though she is nothing like the character in the book who has gained weight through drinking and is past her prime, Blunt is so good she will likely knock it out of the park.
*3. Ruth Negga – Loving – Without having yet seen the film, I’m going to hazard a guess that it may not be be emotionally explosive enough for a win, but should be strong enough to secure a nomination, at the very least. This, because it’s going to be backed by Focus Features and they know what they’re doing. The film earned raves in Cannes, and since Jeff Nichols has this and Midnight Special as his one-two punch, this is very likely the year Hollywood notices him, which can only boost Negga’s chances higher.
*4. Emma Stone – La La Land – word on the street is that this musical turn by the always charming Stone is going to land her strong consideration and probably the Golden Globe win for Best Actress, Comedy or Musical. Sure, it’s too soon to say, but we’re just spitballing here in the dead of summer, right?
*5. Jennifer Lawrence – Passengers – Lawrence can’t ever be counted out for anything but she, like Streep, will be “expendable” if it’s a competitive year and if her film is just so-so. Reading the script for Passengers it’s hard to tell what it will ultimately be like, even with recent Oscar nominee Morten Tyldum directing. But Lawrence is a supernova and always “in the conversation.”
6. Alicia Vikander – The Light Between the Oceans – I part ways with Anderson here in that they at AW don’t see this one having much traction. I think she is so beloved right now — having just won for the Danish Girl but also just being one of the most-liked and most-photographed actress in Hollywood (these things shift like the wind, right?) — that if the movie is good and it gets a big push, she’s in. But who knows how the dice will roll.
7. Jessica Chastain – The Zookeeper’s Wife – Synopsis says this film “tells the account of keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the Nazi invasion.” This is one of the few films this year directed by a woman (Niki Caro). Chastain is always good and if she doesn’t get in for this, she could be nominated for John Madden’s Miss Sloan, which is in pre-production and may or may not be released this year.
8. Amy Adams – Nocturnal Animals – Plot: An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale. Written and directed by Tom Ford, it’s a film I can’t wait to see. No doubt Adams will be great enough to be strongly considered for a nod – why do I think this? Well, I remember the magic between Ford and Colin Firth in A Single Man, proving he’s good with actors.
9. Michelle Pfeiffer – Beat Up Little Seagull – one of the few black directors bringing it for actresses this year, Andrew Dosunmu directs Pfeiffer in what looks to be a full-blown showcase for the actress. She might find herself in Julianne Moore territory where her singular performance adds up to a career’s worth of great but unrecognized performances. Pfeiffer is woefully overdue, thus, she could definitely Still Alice this one to the finish line.
10. Lupita Nyong’o – The Queen of Katwe – A Ugandan chess prodigy who becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her victories at the World Chess Olympiads. Directed by Mira Nair — and one of the most interesting plots of the whole year, I might add, chess geek that I am. Nyong’o never really got the red carpet treatment after winning Best Supporting Actress in 2013.
11. Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins – it’s possible that she’ll be recognized with this, but it’s also possible that it will be such a competitive year she isn’t. It’s one of those things where she’ll get in with weak competition and won’t get in if there are many strong performances in lead actress. But what we do know is that already her reviews are great and, thus, she’s bound to be up for consideration.
13. Marion Cotillard – Allied – 1942. Max (Brad Pitt), a French-Canadian spy, falls in love and marries French agent Marianne (Marion Cotillard), after a mission in Casablanca. Max is notified that Marianne is likely a Nazi spy and begins to investigate her. It’s possible Cotillard will be as great as she always is and pull in a nomination.
14. Annette Bening – 20th Century Women – Looks like maybe a supporting part to me since it’s the story of three women in the 1970s. Will her part be big enough to earn a lead performance? Hard to say.
15. Rooney Mara, according to AwardsWatch’s list, has three potential films. Lion, though, looks like she has the supporting role. Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture looks like the best shot for lead for Mara, described this way: “A woman keeps a diary of her extended stay at a mental hospital.” Her third film this year, Una, also looks promising.
16. Kristen Stewart tends to star in films that are, let’s face it, too smart for your average industry voter. But that doesn’t mean her work in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper should be discounted. Stewart earned all of the raves in Cannes for her work, even if the reception of the film itself was mixed. The critics will make the difference here.
Other names worth remembering for now include Royalty Hightower for The Fits, Rebecca Hall in Christine, Natalie Portman in Jackie (which is slated for 2017 at the moment).
That is our rough template for Best Actress, with much thanks to Erik Anderson who is far more plugged in to the scene at the moment than I have been.
We will be checking in each Friday with a new predictions piece as we head into summer and towards festival season.