You heard that right. It’s been 40 years since all five Best Actress nominees appeared in Best Picture contenders. In 1977, those four movies were Annie Hall, The Turning Point (Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft both were nominated), Julia, and The Goodbye Girl. The fifth BP nominee was Star Wars. Diane Keaton would end up taking the top prize along with Annie Hall taking Best Picture and Woody Allen taking Best Director and original screenplay. Now, it’s 2018 and there’s a new Star Wars franchise with a woman in the lead role. Indiewire has declared this the end of Woody Allen’s career because of the #MeToo movement. The #TimesUp movement overwhelmed the Golden Globes and will likely do the same when the Oscars roll around, unless a growing backlash overtakes it. We’re not there yet.
Not only has it been 40 years since all five Best Actress contenders starred in Best Picture contenders, but it gets even worse with the expanded ballot. As things became so bad for women as the rise of fanboy culture took over Hollywood, no film starring a Best Actress contender has won Best Picture since 2004. Hillary Swank was the last to do so, winning her second Best Actress Oscar for Million Dollar Baby.
Now, some actresses have taken their fates into their own hands and more male filmmakers are writing films with women in the leads. Those films have taken the season by storm, so much so that there are many films starring women that won’t make the cut for Best Actress or Best Picture that star strong women. There just isn’t room for them all. While only one female writer/director has broken that barrier — Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird — there are so many other provocative stories told by women that got the shaft, like Mudbound, Detroit, Novitiate, and Battle of the Sexes. Wonder Woman, however, keeps popping up, which tells me that there is a slim chance it will make it through to the Best Picture race, marking another milestone in the process.
What we’re seeing in the Best Actress race is unprecedented for as long as I’ve been covering it. I’ve never seen so many strong contenders up for the prize (though it should be said and remembered that black women and other WOC have been almost completely shut out this season). Two of the strongest contenders for the win are women over 40. One is also a producer on her own movie. While the legendary “fifth slot” is still down to two potential names, all of them are unquestionably the protagonists.
There probably won’t end up being a five for five match but it’s an interesting thing to think about. That would have to mean that I, Tonya gets in for Best Picture and Meryl Streep and not Jessica Chastain get in for Best Actress, UNLESS Molly’s Game also gets in for Best Picture, which it might after seeing the PGA go for it. What’s important to note are those films are PGA-nominated and very much in the conversation, which is unusual. The PGA nominees are packed full of female -riven films.
Before we look at the stats and the previous wins, let’s take a look at the performances driving this race.
Frances McDormand has one hell of a career behind her. A unique face, an uncompromising strength, and an actress who has refused to kiss the ring of Hollywood bullshit purveyors. Though a character actress is rarely given this kind of opportunity, McDormand may have delivered her best performance with Mildred, a woman who has turned away from the life that turned away from her. With an ex-husband who beat her and nearly killed her, a son who loves her with exasperation, and a daughter who hated her until she was picked up, brutally raped, and murdered, there isn’t much left of Mildred but what’s left plans to burn it all down until some justice is served. Or isn’t. Maybe it took a director from Ireland, Martin McDonagh, to drive across America and ponder the appearance of billboards he saw dotting the highway. He wondered about them. He wondered who would have put those up. He settled on imagining Mildred, a woman angry at law enforcement for not catching her daughter’s killer. McDormand anchors Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and elevates it from a good movie to a great one with her performance alone. She is helped along by a brilliant ensemble, and surely much of the film revolves around Sam Rockwell, but there is no doubt that this is a movie McDormand owns. It’s her best since Fargo and maybe her best ever. Whereas Marge Gunderson was an optimistic but competent cop hunting down brutal killers, Mildred is a mostly incompetent pessimist, especially after one of her babies was killed. McDormand would be looking at her second Oscar win, putting her in good company with Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland, Sally Field, Vivien Leigh, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, and Hillary Swank.
Awards won: Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Detroit, Las Vegas, Phoenix, St. Louis, Toronto, Washington DC.
Saoirse Ronan has had a distinguished career already, with notable performances in films like Atonement and Brooklyn. Her performance as Lady Bird in Greta Gerwig’s loosely biographical (she denies it, but…) coming of age movie about a teen growing up in Sacramento in a middle class family who yearns for something more than the humdrum life in the suburbs. It isn’t so much what happens in Lady Bird as how it happens. Gerwig’s snappy dialogue keeps us tripping through life alongside Lady Bird and her cast of misfit friends as they stumble towards adulthood. Ronan masters an American dialect and is what Gerwig called the perfect fit for the part. Awkward, terrible at school, bratty towards her mother, hanging with rich people and pretending to be rich, Lady Bird is making all of the mistakes all young people make before they find their path in life. Lady Bird gets props for not trying to make her admirable or likable — just a chaotic whirlwind setting her sights on the greatest city in the world.
Awards won: Golden Globe, New York Film Critics, Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago Film Critics, Gotham Awards, Iowa.
The Dark Horse
Sally Hawkins probably gave the best performance of the year in The Shape of Water and could win this if the Academy is swept away by the film, or if McDormand and Ronan somehow split up the votes. Hawkins’ Eliza is a mostly invisible person. The only people who notice her are her co-worker (the brilliant Octavia Spencer) and her lonely neighbor (the equally brilliant Richard Jenkins) until the evil Michael Shannon begins to set his sights on her, harass, and threaten her. She lives out her days on a clock, with every day the same as the one before, listening to the daily rantings of her friends (“Short people are mean”). Her life changes when she comes in contact with a monster of sorts, a sea creature — something that could only have sprung from the mind of the incomparable Guillermo del Toro. What follows is the sweetest of love stories juxtaposed against the rigid landscape of an oppressive, homophobic, and racist Cold War America. The Shape of Water will either freak you out or devastate you with its beauty. There doesn’t seem to an in-between. The success of it is due so much to Hawkins who uses her body as the instrument to communicate — head to toe to fingertip, she is aware of every movement she makes. It’s quite astonishing to see someone convey the range of human emotions without a single spoken word out loud. THAT is something.
Awards won: Los Angeles Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, Central Ohio, Dallas Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Nevada, North Carolina, Online Film Critics, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Southeastern Film Critics and Utah.
The Stealth Threat
Margot Robbie comes into this race as someone who helped produce a film that would showcase her versatility in a way that skittish Hollywood execs were never going to okay. Robbie’s work, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s or Halle Berry’s or Nicole Kidman’s, is often upstaged by her beauty so that it’s harder to see the deeper dimensions. Her Tonya Harding is a scrappy, damaged, tough, ambitious woman who, somewhere deep down, knows she has the stuff but whose class and physical appearance barred her from becoming the kind of ice princess the public seemed to want. This was made worse by her non-stop comparison to Nancy Kerrigan, who would ultimately become a victim of a brutal assault. Robbie’s Tonya asks viewers to consider her as a human being, not as what she became for a hungry public addicted to salacious news. The question for some is does the film ask us to forgive her? I don’t think it does. It simply gives us a messy situation to work out for ourselves. That, clearly, makes people uncomfortable. They want good or bad, angel or devil, hero or villain. Tonya Harding was all of the above and even a victim of abuse throughout her life. Robbie is ferocious as Harding, but also vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s tremendous work from an underrated actress and, depending on how this thing goes, she could win it.
Awards won: Florida Film Critics, New York Film Critics Online, San Francisco
The Fifth Slot
Jessica Chastain vs. Meryl Streep
As Molly’s Game rose while The Post receded, it has seemed to indicate that Jessica Chastain will be the fifth nominee. Streep is already way beyond the record for most nominated, with 20 times at bat, and yet if she and The Post are nominated that will mean that all five Best Actress nominees match Best Picture, since The Post is probably more likely to get in than Molly’s Game.
Jessica Chastain has been turning in one brilliant performance after the next and probably should have already won an Oscar by now (perhaps for Zero Dark Thirty) but hasn’t. She has been exceptional, often in multiple films per year, and this year she had two: The Zookeeper’s Wife and Molly’s Game. Her Molly Bloom is a powerful protagonist and, as most Sorkin protags go, the smartest person in the room. Her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete are dashed when she has a debilitating injury. She then finds out she’s pretty good at running poker games. Chastain adeptly handles both the rise and the fall of Molly Bloom, delivering a powerhouse performance. She is also doing a lot of publicity, which is a definite requirement this year especially. Chastain is an actress at the top of her game and deserving of all the accolades she has coming to her.
Meryl Streep turns out yet another great great performance as Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. If you take the time to listen to the real Graham speak, which you can do on NPR’s Fresh Air, you will see just how specific and attuned Streep’s work is here. She plays a woman caught between worlds, who she used to be, how most women used to be, and who she becomes as the women’s movement evolves. Streep is a genius and by far the best actor in Hollywood. It’s always a thrill to watch her work. You know you are in the hands of a total pro who will consider every element of the work.
Are there any others who might pull through to crash these five? It doesn’t seem like it, but there’s always the chance that Michelle Williams might crack the five, perhaps partly as show of support after what happened with the pay disparity in All the Money in the World. It’s not totally outside the realm of possibility.
So let’s look at the nominees, past and present, in our charts:
What it’s likely going to come down to is which films the voters like overall. Will it be The Post, I, Tonya or Molly’s Game? Probably in there somewhere is the answer to which five will be nominated.
As to finding a winner, my money is on McDormand for the time being because she makes such a dramatic impression, but truly anyone of them could win and it would not surprise me. The SAG this weekend will likely clean things up.
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