The Best Actress race is more crowded than it’s even been since I can recall. Unfortunately, it has to come down to five and then one. We’ve looked at the connection between Best Actress and Best Picture and how it can often drive the prize — if voters are enough in love with the film itself, that ardor might sweep Best Actress along with it. Being overdue for an Oscar win can sometimes trump being in a Best Picture winner or contender. The last Best Actress to win from a Best Picture winner was Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby in 2004, an astonishing 12 years ago. 12 years. Contrast that with the last time a Best Actor win corresponded with a Best Picture win and that was Jean Dujardin in The Artist five years ago. Colin Firth and The King’s Speech, the year before that.
In the past 20 years, 11 of the Best Actress winners came from Best Picture nominees, and of those, two came from Best Picture winners.
In the past 20 years, 17 of the Best Actor winners came from Best Picture nominees (including the last six consecutive years), and of those, four came from Best Picture winners.
There is no doubt that the Best Picture race is mostly reserved for male-driven films. The stats speak for themselves. However, this might be the year that the 12-year dry spell will be broken. A double win for Emma Stone and La La Land could do it.
There is also the overdue veteran dynamic at play here with Viola Davis, who is not only long overdue for an Oscar win but — are you sitting down? — this could be only the SECOND TIME IN 89 YEARS OF OSCAR HISTORY that a black actress wins in the lead category. Really let that one sink in for a minute. Sit with it. Bathe in it. It’s astonishing, no? To my mind, at the moment, only Viola Davis can unseat Emma Stone, but others seem to think Natalie Portman is the one who will take that prize, winning her second Oscar. I think it’s near impossible to win a second Oscar unless your movie is winning Best Picture, as happened with both Jodie Foster with Silence of the Lambs and Hilary Swank with Million Dollar Baby.
Let’s take a look at the frontrunners, where they’ve come from, where they’re going.
1. Emma Stone – Oscar nominations to date: one – supporting for Birdman
Stone has been slowly making her mark in Hollywood, standing out for mostly supporting roles, like Birdman, but outstanding leading roles in The Help and Easy A have established her as being comfortable in both comedy and drama.
Why she’s going to win: Because you fall madly in love with her in La La Land. She sings, she dances, she has heavy emotional scenes, but more than that — she owns every frame of this film.
Why she might not: Some might think other actresses have the more difficult roles.
2. Viola Davis – Oscar nominations to date: two – supporting for Doubt, leading for The Help
Up till now Davis has been seen, to Hollywood films, as a character actress. She’s been acting since 1996, seeking to achieve what her young ambition drove her toward: the kind of freedom to choose roles and receive the same kind of recognition that white actresses do. She has recently flourished on television, earning an Emmy for How to Get Away with Murder.
Why she’s going to win: Because she’s one of the greatest, unrecognized actresses in town. Because she’s won a Tony, an Emmy, and a SAG for her work. If she’s good enough in Fences, she’ll become the frontrunner.
Why she might not: If she is put in the supporting category, she might win there.
3. Natalie Portman – Oscar nominations to date: 2 – supporting for Closer, wins: 1 – lead for Black Swan
Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy really is among the surprises of the year. Perhaps it was expected she would win her Oscar, go off and have a baby, and then be rarely heard from again. But Portman has knocked it out of the park as Jackie Kennedy in what seems destined to be a critics darling and a visual feast. Can it be a Best Picture player? Maybe.
Why she’s going to win: If her performance is so good it’s unequivocal, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, where it can’t be denied.
Why she might not: Winning a second Oscar remains a long shot for Portman because much of it is going to come down to which contender does the most publicity during the race. Which actress wants it bad enough to go through that? Sure, a Mark Rylance can sometimes swoop in and win without running that gauntlet (a feat that was due in part to some voters being mean and denying Sylvester Stallone an Oscar because they could), but ordinarily the Academy looks for someone who is going to razzle-dazzle them on the way to the big show. It’s probably not going to be pregnant Portman with a small child at home. Something tells me she won’t quite be up for that, at least not to the same extent she was able when she won for Black Swan.
4. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women – Oscar nominations to date: four – three leading roles for The Kids Are All Right, Being Julia, and Bugsy, and one supporting for The Grifters
If there is anyone as overdue as Viola Davis, it has to be Bening. The promising young Bening burst onto the scene with The Grifters and then, just as she was about to win for Bugsy, the prize went instead to Jodie Foster, winning her second Oscar. Bening then lost to Hillary Swank twice, and then, ironically, lost to Natalie Portman for Black Swan! Bening is brilliant in 20th Century Women and might be among the most vanity-free actresses of her generation. She has refused to get any “work” done on her beautifully lined face — and the reason that matters is because she still has access to a range of emotions many her age do not.
Why she’s going to win: If 20th Century Women becomes very popular and Bening really works the circuit more than anyone else, it’s possible she could pull out the sentimental vote. Think how hard Julianne Moore had to work for her Oscar.
Why she might not: Because there appear to be three ahead of her in line at the moment.
5. Amy Adams in Arrival – Oscar nominations to date: five – Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master, American Hustle
Amy Adams has the distinction of being so far the only Best Actress contender whose existence as a character in her film is not vis-a-vis a co-lead male character. She doesn’t exist as the wife or girlfriend of an equally important male character. She actually exists as a force unto herself, a real whole human being who is actually using her intelligence to save humanity. Think about how rare that is — not just for Adams, whose career has been spent playing women opposite male characters who are more important, but to women overall in Hollywood. Somehow, the genre of sci-fi or women-in-space allows them to have the kind of freedom to be people who matter, whether or not they are the love interest of someone else. Can you tell I love this movie? Adams also has the distinction to be featured in another great role in Nocturnal Animals.
Why she’ll win or not: Well, it’s a long shot for the win. She is where Kate Winslet was when she won for The Reader. She’s going to need to do something extra to win because she has long been taken for granted as a great actress who is routinely nominated.
6. Ruth Negga in Loving
Negga gives a standout performance in Loving. She plays a woman thrust into a world of hatred and bigotry when she happens to fall in love with and marry a white man. Many may not see what a nuanced performance she gives unless we take a look at the woman she plays. She’s captured the real-life person remarkably well. She also has a mostly wordless performance, which is incredibly hard to pull off.
Why she’ll win or not: It’s a long shot for a win simply because the field is so crowded and top-heavy with veteran talent.
7. Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins – Oscar nominations to date: 19! Oscar wins: three.
Meryl Streep is just all kinds of brilliant. What is there left to say? She’s beyond words at this point. She is so good and so funny in this film, which became something of a sleeper hit over the summer — and if the voters love Florence Foster Jenkins enough the whole thing will get nominations all around. Long shot to win, for obvious reasons: her mantelpiece can only hold so much gold.
8. Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane – Oscar nominations to date: two – one for supporting for The Help and one for lead for Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain is among the most talented actresses in Hollywood whose best work has often been overlooked by the Academy, considering the number of significant roles she’s played. This, like Amy Adams in Arrival, is another rare performance that does not depend on a male co-star. Chastain holds down the whole film and ably carries the weighty subject matter of fighting against the gun lobby. Again, it’s so rare to see any woman in any leading role now where they aren’t defined by male co-stars; and moreover, are actually accomplishing useful goals in the world. Chastain enters this race in a very crowded year. It’s hard to imagine her being able to crack the top five but one never knows.
9. Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
While the film is getting mixed reviews, Blunt herself is being singled out for giving yet another great performance. Believe it or not, she’s never actually been nominated — not for the The Devil Wears Prada, not for Sicario. She’s overdue for just a nomination at this point.
10. Rebecca Hall, Christine
Hall has actually done something interesting in Christine, compared to the usual roles she’s known for. The promising actress plays a suicidal reporter and pretty much nails it. In any ordinary year, she would be among the frontrunners, but this year is so overcrowded.
11. Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Again, there’s no Oscar nomination to date for Huppert, a factor that could be enough to boost her recognition from critics, which is what she would need to push a nomination over the top.
These actresses are also potentially in play:
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
Rooney Mara, Una
Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
Jennifer Lawrence, Passengers
The locks are:
Emma Stone, La La Land
Viola Davis, Fences
Natalie Portman, Jackie
The next tier would be:
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Amy Adams, Arrival
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Ruth Negga, Loving
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
That’s seven at the moment. We have to get it down to five.