When we think about legendary actresses who haven’t yet won Oscars, Annette Bening’s name usually pushes to the top of the pile, along with Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. Although it practically took a village for vets like Viola Davis and Julianne Moore – after long careers of great work – to finally take home statues, we’ve seen Bening, without question one of the best actresses of her generation, passed over again and again.
At this early stage of the game, there is no performance yet that has exploded onto the scene as the frontrunner, as Emma Stone did with La La Land last year (it was already pretty obvious in Telluride she would win) or Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook (ditto but in Toronto). Additionally, so many great films are playing on Netflix and Amazon and are not getting theatrical releases, consequently taking their great performers with them.
A couple of key points to keep in mind:
1. There aren’t a lot of options when it comes to non-white performers. Hollywood lags depressingly when it comes to great roles for actresses of color, whereas Netflix and HBO and Amazon are thriving.
2. We’re in a depressing time right now with Trump in office. The world feels upside down in many ways. I would bet under these circumstances, cathartic films will be embraced more than very depressing ones. I could be wrong. It’s just a hunch, so when looking these over, think: feel good.
3. Best Actress, unlike Best Actor, isn’t often tied to the Best Picture winner. The last time it happened was in 2004 with Million Dollar Baby. It’s not even all that common for Best Actress contenders to have their films nominated. Last year, despite the supporting actress win for Viola Davis in Fences and Emma Stone‘s Best Actress win for La La Land, the only Best Actress contenders appearing in films nominated for Best Picture were Amy Adams in Arrival and Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures – and neither were nominated. In many recent years, it’s been even less common. Leading men from Best Picture contenders are regularly nominated; leading women not so much. It always enhances one’s Oscar chances to be in a film that’s being buzzed for one reason or another, and if it’s headed for Best Picture – all the better.
Most of the actresses that pundits are predicting this year are in films that haven’t yet opened. But slots are being held for a few all the same. Here are the most prominent, with their Oscar history:
1. Judi Dench – she has never won Best Actress, only Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love. In all, seven nominations: five times for lead, two times for supporting with one win. Her work in Victoria and Abdul already looks just beyond brilliant. I’m sure there will be plenty of thinkpieces on this and every other movie that comes out, but if I had to predict your winner, right now I’d probably go with Dench, sight unseen.
2. Annette Bening – Bening has been nominated in lead three times and once in supporting. She will play Gloria Graham in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool which seems, at least on paper, to have the stuff. She might have taken it last year if her part in 20th Century Women had been bigger and had the one big Oscar scene. There always has to be one. Her role was more subtle, though as great as she’s ever been. My favorite of hers is still The Kids Are All Right, but I love her in The Grifters too, of course.
3. Sally Hawkins – Hawkins appears to have met the perfect role in The Shape of Water from Guillermo Del Toro, at least judging from the trailers. Surprisingly, Hawkins has only been nominated once for supporting in Blue Jasmine. She deserved many more nominations for her work. She has another film this year called Maudie, which will only help bolster a win for The Shape of Water.
4. Jennifer Lawrence – tough to tell right now whether Mother! will be “too much” for voters or not, but if it is anything like Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream there should be nominations aplenty. Darren Aronofsky takes his actors to deeply dark places, but we just don’t know how dark and how deep for this yet.
5. The fifth slot – likely between Meryl Streep in The Papers or Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel. Both actresses have already won Oscars – Streep has three and Winslet has one – so they, like Lawrence, might not have the urgency factor to motivate to voters in terms of winning. But they could easily be in the running for the nomination.
Those are the five power players, as far as I can tell, from this far out. But we have many more contenders vying for the prize. They include:
Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes – Stone just won last year but she’s still as hot as you can get and looks like she turns in yet another great performance in this. If she hadn’t won last year, she’d likely be in the running to win now.
Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game – there is no doubt Chastain is among the best actors of her generation and has yet to win an Oscar, but all will depend on what and how good Molly’s Game is. One just never knows with directorial debuts, as this one will be (from Aaron Sorkin) – it could be fantastic, it could be a near miss. It’s hard to say. Chastain is now like Kate Winslet before she won for The Reader. She is always so good in everything that she tends to get taken for granted and overlooked more often than not. Still, hold a slot for her because she might just bring it home.
Speaking of directorial debuts, there are a couple of other possibilities. Claire Foy stars in Breathe, Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, and Saiorse Ronan stars in Lady Bird, which is Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. As I said, these freshman efforts can be hit or miss. Sometimes great, sometimes terrible – or sometimes people just don’t go there. They just don’t feel confident enough in the project to take a chance. I view these projects with some skepticism until they’ve been seen, as opposed to, say, Stephen Frears teaming up with Judi Dench – not a lot can go wrong with that pairing. Or even Woody Allen and Kate Winslet – you know it’s going to be great.
Many seem to have their eye on the always off-the-charts great Frances McDormand starring in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But so little is known about it: is she the central figure or just the biggest star? Will her role be lead or supporting? I really don’t know, but it appears she’s lead and is probably going to be as great as she always is – so yes, this is a possibility.
It should be said that this year is depressingly absent women of color, with the exception of Salma Hayek in Beatrice at Dinner – and if it were me, I’d nominate her. I wonder if the movie came out too early, was a little too weird for Oscar voters – but in terms of pure craft, she’s worthy of a mention.
Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck could begin to build buzz, with Millicent Simmonds in the hunt for Best Actress starring alongside Julianne Moore and hitting the New York Film Festival. What of Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene? Will Mara again be recognized for doing such daring work as she’s done throughout her career?
Nicole Kidman is having quite a year and will likely clean up at the Emmys for Big Little Lies. She may figure into the Oscar race, either with The Beguiled or a different film.
Brie Larson is quietly giving a great performance in The Glass Castle no one is talking about but that could sneak in at year’s end. Stranger things have happened.
Carey Mulligan stars in Mudbound, which played at Sundance, and that could be a potential nod.
If Oscar voters want to honor Wonder Woman’s dazzling box office, they might think about Gal Gadot – or for that matter Emma Watson for Beauty and the Beast.