There are three performances that qualify as strong enough to be considered Best Actress contenders right now. It’s early yet, of course, and there is no telling at this stage what performances will make it through to the end. But so far, Mary Kay Place in Diane, Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell, and Lupita Nyong’o in Us have earned enough acclaim to warrant consideration. Of the three, Nyong’o has the strongest chance of making it through to the end of the year, simply because of the uniqueness of the performance and the box office success of Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar winner, Get Out. Even if some of the reaction to the film has been complicated, Nyong’o has received raves across the board.
Us is headed to blow through $100 mil in its second week in release, which will likely make the film one of the highest grossing original horror films of all time. Already an Oscar winner and juggling dual roles, Nyong’o definitely has earned enough cred and clout to land on the contender tracker.
Here is Peter Rainer:
“[I]n her dual role, Nyong’o is ferociously good. Coming as it does after Toni Collette in “Hereditary” and Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place,” her performance would appear to officially herald a golden age for fullscale performances in a long-derided genre.”
And Scott Tobias:
In a stunning dual performance as Adelaide and her gravel-voiced other, Lupita Nyong’o carries the psychological complexities of a woman whose identity was shattered by an incident over 30 years earlier and who still gets cut by the shards. What’s happening to her is fundamentally inexplicable and unresolvable, so Peele allows that chasm to open up and swallow the rest of the film whole, like a crack in the earth that portends the apocalypse.
And then there’s Lupita. While each member of the family excels, Nyong’o delivers arguably her fiercest, most extraordinary performance as both Adelaide and her monstrous doppelganger. The wild difference between the two will get the most attention, but I was most impressed by the great subtlety of her Adelaide, a quiet, uneasy woman with a dark secret.
A vibrant, appealing screen presence, Nyong’o brings a tremendous range and depth of feeling to both characters, who she individualizes with such clarity and lapidary detail that they aren’t just distinct beings; they feel as if they were being inhabited by different actors. She gives each a specific walk and sharply opposite gestures and voices (maternally silky vs. monstrously raspy). Adelaide, who studied ballet, moves gracefully and, when need be, rapidly (she racks up miles); Red moves as if keeping time to a metronome, with the staccato, mechanical step and head turns of an automaton. Both have ramrod posture and large unblinking eyes. Red’s mouth is a monstrous abyss.
Nyong’o hits extraordinary notes. When she’s the double, her voice is the whistle of someone whose throat has been cut, with a gap between the start of a word in the diaphragm and its finish in the head. It’s like a rush of acrid air from a tomb, further chilled by eyes like boiled eggs, fixed on nothing in this world. The terrestrial Adelaide is more subtly scary; Nyong’o builds extra beats into the performance, lurches and ellipses that keep you from identifying with her too closely. Something’s off — but what?
If Nyong’o doesn’t get some professional recognition for her performances here, I will be very disappointed. As Adelaide, she’s fearful, trying to keep some traumatic memories at bay but putting on a brave face for her family. To play her character’s opposite, Nyong’o adopts a graceful, confident movement for her doppelgänger, sliding into the family’s home with scissors at the ready. The doppelgänger looks wide-eyed and maliciously curious as if she’s looking for new ways terrorize this family. She whispers in a raspy but sinister voice that would make many people jump and run away.
Here is the early word on Mary Kay Place in Diane, which has not yet been released, and the high praise for Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell. Both of these actresses will have to fight for slots that will be likely be filled by other actresses as the year goes on.
Nyong’o has the benefit of starring in a very big film that may or may not make box office history. It is also rare for a black actress to be nominated in lead. To date, only 11 black actresses have been nominated in Best Actress, and only one — Halle Berry in 2001 — has won. Films centered around a singular black woman are few and far between, whereas showcase performances like Diane and Gloria Bell are becoming more and more common for the vets who look to the indie circuit to get the great roles.