The first thing to know is that this is one of the “thinnest” years for Best Actress in a while. Indeed, although there are many films by women, starring women — like Booksmart and The Farewell, Harriet, Clemency, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women — there just haven’t been many Oscar contenders out of the lot.
Out of Telluride, it was clear that the Best Actress race had an unequivocal performance with Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. But two things were about to happen that no one could count on. The first is that the Judy Garland fan base would react to anyone daring to play the star in decline, and the second is that no one really likes a frontrunner so early out of the gate.
The question is, can anyone best Zellweger’s Judy? There is, every year, an abundance of actors who transform themselves by gaining weight (Eddie Murphy in Dolemite) or losing weight (Joaquin Phoenix in Joker). Becoming Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. Those kinds of roles often win Oscars. Women who win Best Actress sometimes transform themselves — Charlize Theron in Monster, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, Helen Mirren in The Queen, but it happens a lot less often than you’d think, especially compared to actors. More often, the Best Actress winner is a fresh face, a pretty woman who gives a performance that is well reviewed but she’s also the girl of the moment in a movie a lot of people love. That’s Emma Stone for La La Land, or Brie Larson for Room, or Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. Transformation is often NOT the name of the game for actresses, in fact, honestly, it matters a lot less than how much the actress is liked in the moment overall. Lest we forget Sally Field’s right and memorable “you like me” speech after winning her second Oscar.
For women, you don’t get many chances to win Oscars, and even fewer if you’re older. For men, being older is a benefit and the less attractive you are, often the better your chances. For women, the more attractive you are, the better your chances and young is always an admired quality in a voting body that is still mostly male.
Remember last year, how Glenn Close was the frontrunner until she wasn’t. Part of that was her performance. Olivia Colman had given a bravura performance in a film that had 10 Oscar nominations. It wasn’t so much the chance to rob Close of her Oscar win as much as it was love for the performance in a film that was clearly loved overall (though it did only win that one Oscar, which is bizarre). Close did not transform herself in The Wife as Colman did in The Favourite.
It helps if voters like the movie enough for it to be a Best Picture nominee. True for Colman and also true for someone like Mark Rylance who beat Sylvester Stallone or Sean Penn who beat Mickey Rourke. Without a Best Picture nomination, the win falls squarely on the actor, how badly voters want to “give” them the win over how much they want to spread the wealth among Best Picture contenders. But it can and does happen, like with Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine beating Amy Adams in American Hustle, Judi Dench for Philomena and Sandra Bullock for Gravity all in the same year, or Julianne Moore for Still Alice beating Felicity Jones for Theory of Everything.
Judy fans in particular are somehow miffed at this portrayal being not exactly accurate, or for failing to delve deeper into the whole truth. Bret Easton Ellis compared her performance and character to Joaquin Phoenix’s in Joker, calling them both narcissists who will win Oscars. I don’t think Phoenix will win the Oscar, though I’m putting that thought on ice for the moment. As for Zellweger, I think she flat out deserves it for this performance.
Instructive and troubling double feature this past weekend: JOKER and JUDY. Two movies about lonely deranged narcissistic entertainers with damaged childhoods, drug-addled and wearing too much make-up. One lives, the other doesn’t. Both actors playing them win Oscars. pic.twitter.com/ovOYTsT4sU
— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) October 7, 2019
The more out front you are, the bigger of a target you are. Hang in there, Renee Zellweger. It’s a long long road to the finish.
Another performance should be highlighted for the same reason Phoenix’s role is being highlighted – it’s transformative and its forst weekend will carry a movie to over $100 million in a genre usually ignored by the Academy. Genre bias is a real thing, and despite Black Panther and Get Out both getting into the Oscar race, there were specific reasons that they did. Avengers: End Game, for instance, isn’t getting anywhere near Best Picture. Fans of the genre so badly want it to be legit within the Academy, going all the way back to 2008 when The Dark Knight was shut out after making around $600 mil. Box office was supposed to be a big enough deal that the genre bias was overlooked. But that didn’t happen. There was enough of an outcry that the Academy then expanded the ballot from 5 to up to 10. Turns out, that wouldn’t mean that comic book movies were going to get in.
Lupita Nyong’o drives Jordan Peele’s Us, a film that made $170 million. It is still the only film in the top ten that is wholly original to do so. That is a major feat at a time when the box office is dominated by brands and repeats. Nyong’o transforms herself in the film, playing dual roles of good and evil. It’s an astonishing performance, but will need a lot of people on the ball to get it in. It isn’t that this is a competitive year for women, it isn’t. But there is as much of a bias against horror movies as there is against superhero movies (okay, maybe not quite as much). In the days of the Dark Knight, $600 mil seemed like a lot. Nowadays it doesn’t, really, as so many of these types of films get there now. Hell, Endgame is almost at $900 mil but the Academy isn’t going to care because so was The Force Awakens and it didn’t get there.
Us is a big deal because it is an original creation, straight out of the mind of Jordan Peele, and is driven by a black female lead. Does anyone know how rare that is? Plenty of those driven by black men, and women but not black women. So yeah, Lupita Nyong’o should be in the same conversation as Joaquin Phoenix if we’re talking transformative performances in genre movies. That doesn’t mean both get in. I know this industry and I know for Nyong’o it’s a long shot, and for Phoenix, it isn’t.
Other performances that seem to be big deals right now include:
Scarlett Johansson for playing an oppressed wife in Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach spends a lot of time on her character, giving her a lot of room to deliver meaningful monologues, show a character arc and express herself. She’s also in Jojo Rabbit, which might give her double nominations.
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet – as Harriet Tubman, Erivo’s performance was singled out. Although it seems almost commonplace now, to have a film like this, driven by a black woman, directed by a black woman about a black female icon. It’s extremely rare. Anyway, so far the performance is getting more praise than the film overall.
Elizabeth Moss, Her Smell – Moss was also in Peele’s Us in a supporting role — and absolutely fantastic in it, got to say. She was praised for her work here, as well. It will just depend on how the whole things shakes down.
Awkwafina, The Farewell – Awkwafina has a shot, along with Shuzhen Zhao in a supporting role from The Farewell. The comedian turned actress does a good job in the movie, though Zhao kind of steals it. Still, they could go in as a pair.
Alfre Woodard, Clemency – Here is another film starring a black woman, directed by a black woman – just need everyone to stop and pause and take note of how unusual this is in any year. She plays a prison warden in charge of sending death row inmates off to their death. Most of the film is focused on her, as she goes through the moral dilemma of her job. It’s a great performance.
Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart – though it’s harder to make it lead when it is really a co-lead with Kaitlyn Dever. But there could be a case made, especially now as the year comes to a disappointing close, for both of these two actresses to make the cut, along with screenplay, possibly. It will just depend on how well connected Olivia Wilde, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Megan Ellison and the other names involved with Booksmart are and how many favors they can call in. Since the movie wasn’t the box office smash everyone thought it would be, it will need elbow grease to get in. Booksmart was written, directed, edited and with set decoration, editing and costume all by women.
A few other names include Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell, Mary Kay Place in Diane. Meryl Streep is always a possibility for The Laundromat.
Bombshell will be seen this week, with Charlize Theron turning in a performance and of course, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with Saorise Ronan potentially heading for a nomination. Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen and Slim. Terminator Dark Fate may or not produce a few female performances in lead or supporting. Helen Mirren will have a lead role in The Good Liar.
Right now, to me, it looks like:
Renee Zellweger, Judy
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Alt. Awkwafina, The Farewell