The Best Actress race is suddenly more wide open than it seemed even months ago, not in terms of who might win, but in who might be nominated. That’s due to the names that just popped from today’s Gotham nominations, namely Awkwafina for The Farewell and Florence Pugh for Midsommar. Indeed, Awkwafina has been on many lists for a while, but Pugh is having a moment with this and with her supporting turn in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which just screened for people in Los Angeles and New York.
The Best Actress race, right now, to my mind anyway, looks a little like this.
- Renee Zellweger for Judy
- Charlize Theron for Bombshell
- Scarlett Johansson for Marriage Story
It gets a little fuzzy after Johansson because there are a lot of possibilities — like Lupita Nyong’o in Us, like Saoirse Ronan in Little Women, like Alfre Woodard in Clemency, like Awkwafina in The Farewell, like Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen & Slim, like Florence Pugh in Midsommar.
But we’ve pretty much “seen” everything that’s going to come out this year regarding Best Actress. The rest of the films waiting in the wings are actor-driven. Unfortunately, it just so happens that many of the potential nominees are women of color — some are, some aren’t but the majority are. Why it’s gone this way this year — who knows. But at some point, those last two slots will be filled. We just don’t know by whom.
Transformation is the name of the game this year, with Zellweger and Theron being two of the strongest contenders for the win right now. That might change, of course, depending, but that is how most are predicting the race will go. As usual, there is a wee bit of backlash against Zellweger, because everyone loves to hate the frontrunner, but it’s hard to say whether that will affect the chances that she’ll win. Think about it like this: how good will it feel to watch Renee Zellweger win any award versus how bad it will feel to watch her lose.
I know that this was the Glenn Close argument too, but unlike Close, Zellweger gives a fully transformative performance. Close did not. It was a great performance but a subtle one. Colman had the more transformative performance. The two who really disappear into their roles are Zellweger and Theron – and they do it to an astonishing degree.
Other actresses who go beyond emotional work into the transformation zone include an impressive performance by Lupita Nyong’o in Us. It would be a shame if a film driven by her performance that made $178 million goes unrecognized. Yes, it’s horror which does exile it beyond the usual bounds of Oscar’s method of choosing ideal nominees but Nyong’o plays two different parts and shows just how good of an actress she really is. Elizabeth Moss also gives a transformative performance in Her Smell, which could push her up the charts a wee bit. And then there is Florence Pugh who must endure all manner of horrors in Midsommar. However, that would require voters actually getting through Midsommar and I’m not sure that’s possible.
If Bombshell goes into Musical/Comedy at the Globes — you might see both Zellweger and Theron both winning Globes for Best Actress. You might also wonder how that will play. We’ve seen the dynamic play out in the past — like Colman and Close. Remember Jessica Chastain winning for Zero Dark Thirty and the same year Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. Also, Cate Blanchett winning for Elizabeth and Gwyenth Paltrow winning for Shakespeare in Love. What made the difference there was the strength of the Best Picture contender. But since 2000, 12 of the Best Actress Oscar winners were Globes Drama winners, and just 4 were from Musical/Comedy.
It is always an intriguing question, what makes an Oscar winner different from any other contender. What brings in a win, versus what doesn’t. In both lead categories, it does come down to those three key elements, in this order:
1. Likability of star
2. Likability of role
3. Likability of film
Over at Gold Derby the win isn’t down to Zellweger vs. Theron but rather Zellweger vs. Johansson. That might happen too — and therein you have your Best Picture contender conundrum. Sometimes Oscar voters like to spread the wealth and give their favorite movies a big prize if they aren’t giving it Best Picture. So if they really love Marriage Story but pick something else for Best Picture they might go with Johansson as the film’s one big win – that’s if it doesn’t win something else, like Screenplay.
Why my money is on Zellweger is for the three factors for sure, but maybe 1 and 2. My money is on her taking the stage for the win and it being a big bang for your buck, emotionally speaking. So much of the Oscar race for actors — especially actresses — is how good it feels to see them win. And yes, I know, last year seemed to defy that rule without a doubt. No theory is 100%. But in general, either they are madly in love with the character or they are madly in love with the actress – at least for a season.
With Zellweger, she lost weight for the role but more than that, her Judy is a deeply emotional performance where actor and real-life person connected on a level that rarely happens. Zellweger gets Judy’s pain. She gets Judy’s sense of being an outsider. Of being rejected and beloved at the same time. She gets that women “expire” in Hollywood — that they are chewed up and spit out both by the industry itself and by audiences.
Last year taught us that nothing is a sure bet or a done deal. We must keep our options open. Anything can happen. But for now, it is still Zellweger’s to lose.