The Best Actress race is, as a rule, not just about the work. If you approach it that way, not only will you become heartbroken by the end of it, but chances are your prediction will be wrong. Best Actress (and even occasionally Best Actor and Best Director) are about that perfect storm of timing, character, and likability — or right role, right time, right actress.
Take Frances McDormand last year. It didn’t matter how many critics yearned for a different actor to win, McDormand had the thing locked up and that was that. It was the right part for the right actress at exactly the right time. Julia Roberts didn’t win for her work alone in Erin Brockovich — she won because it was exactly the right time and exactly the right role and an opportunity for the industry to give that right actress a prize. Ditto Sandra Bullock and Kate Winslet and maybe even Julianne Moore. Sure, it helps if the work is exceptional, like Helen Mirren in The Queen or Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, but those things only enhance the rightness of the other two.
As of now, the Best Actress race is wide open. Even with the handful of great performances we’ve seen already — Charlize Theron in Tully, Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, to name a couple — we can’t yet know who our “right actress for now now” is. I have a few ideas but there is no way to realistically make that call right now.
There are still many more performances to be seen that could shift the direction of the race at, say, the Toronto Film Fest, where Viola Davis in Widows, and Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk will debut. Amy Adams is either lead or supporting in Backseat. Right now, I’ll assume she’s supporting until I hear otherwise.
Let’s just kick around a few ideas, shall we?
There are a few actresses who seem to fit the right role, right time, right actress demands. Here is how I would personally rank them at the moment, having just come out of Telluride:
Melissa McCarthy for Can You Ever Forgive Me will be tough to beat. If there ever was a right actress in the right role at exactly the right time, this one is it. Why, well because McCarthy has reinvented what a blockbuster star can be. There is something vulnerable, funny, and endearing about her Lee Israel. It’s not often women get to see characters like this on the big screen. Usually there is the rule that all women must be rail thin, that all women must appear at least partly fuckable. But McCarthy, under the careful and brilliant direction of Marielle Heller, is defiant of those norms. The film itself will catch a wave of word of mouth and people will go see her in it, as they’ve gone to see her in so many other movies. Most importantly, when McCarthy gets up to the mic — she just has to win once — it will feel good to see her win. That is so often the key to the whole thing. You have to love watching them get on stage and give a speech over and over again.
Lady Gaga in A Star is Born — I have not yet seen A Star is Born, but from what I’ve heard she gives the kind of performance that gives you goosebumps. It could be the right role, but is it the right time and the right actress? Because it’s Lady Gaga it might be the ONLY time she has this opportunity and that has to make it the right time. On the other hand, who knows where her career goes.
Glenn Close in The Wife – it’s still too soon to say whether or not Close can hang in there and rise to the top. It’s hard to say because, as I said, it’s not about the work. It’s not about how great she is in the part. She’s always great. It is also about timing and likability: how much will people feel the need to give her this award and why. Will they love the movie? Love the character? Or will they just feel it is at last time, after 40 years in the business, to finally bestow her with a most deserved Oscar.
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots — also haven’t seen this film, but coming on the heels of almost winning for Lady Bird last year, it feels very much like this could the right role at the right time for the right actress. She is in her comfort zone doing a period piece, playing a badass monarch and by now it feels like she’s getting to that point where it really is time for her to win.
Nicole Kidman for Destroyer — Kidman seems poised for a double nomination this year, for both Destroyer and Boy Erased. This is one we’ll have to wait and see on, how it’s ultimately received. Kidman is having an extraordinary year and roles like this don’t come around very often. A nomination seems a near certainty, but since she’s won already I don’t know if she can become the one to beat right now. In that role. Maybe. She’s one to watch, for sure.
Viola Davis in Widows — again, not seen. It’s always dangerous to predict that which one has not seen but I’m not so much predicting as putting in order how I think things MIGHT play out, or could play out, depending on how it goes. Davis is overdue for a lead win, having won for supporting for Fences. That was a really good example of the right actress at the right time in the right role, but it should have been lead, except that it isn’t certain she could have won in lead that year. Depending on how her work is in Widows, that could make the difference and once again put her in the top five.
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade — it’s a long shot for someone so young to crack the top five, if not practically impossible. She’s not overdue. She’s not well known, but it just might turn out, when all is said and done, that her performance resonates enough to be remembered somewhere, by someone. It sure resonated with me.
If I had to jot down my best cases for right time, right actress, right role, these would be the main contenders and as you can see, there are six and we have to get down to five. It isn’t going to be easy, as there are so many other potential performances that could emerge either from earlier in the year, or going forward through the festival season.
But know this: in a competitive year like this one, showing up will likely make all of the difference. Beyond these, what I consider to be, standouts – here are a few other names to keep an eye on:
Olivia Colman in The Favourite — the problem with this film is that it seems like there are three female performances of equal import. The Favourite revolves around Emma Stone, who seems like the lead, but it then switches and becomes Colman’s story. This might lead to confusion. She is certainly good enough to earn recognition for her work here, though I suspect all three of them would have a much better chance in the supporting category.
Yalitza Aparicioin in Roma — if Best Picture heat is any indicator, this unknown actress who drives Alfonso Cuaron’s extraordinary Roma could find a spot, particularly if the critics push her — which they might.
Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex — this one will have to be seen and her performance given raves. But considering the doc RBG is so good and itself is a strong contender for Best Documentary Feature, it’s possible she could find herself exactly in the right role at exactly the right time.
Julia Roberts in Ben Is Back – the film will be seen soon enough and it might be one of those standout performances that shoots right to the top of the list. We must hold a spot for Julia because she always become the right actress at the right time in the right role!
Things to keep in mind: which film has Best Picture heat and which film doesn’t? It helps to look for that in terms of finding your winner, but if we’re talking about a veteran like Glenn Close winning, that matters less. But it could make all of the difference for, say, A Star is Born or even something like Eighth Grade. When a performance or a film motivates voters to put the screener on it can often equate to more votes.
It’s only early yet. Lots of time head of us. Take all of this with a massive grain of salt.
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