Nathaniel Rogers has sketched an outline for what the Best Actress race might look like. He has smartly divided up the field between veterans and the hottest of the moment. His top five includes Viola Davis for Fences, Emily Blunt for Girl on a Train, Ruth Negga for Loving, Annette Bening for 20th Century Women (he has given it a “wishful thinking” notation), and Rosamund Pike for United Kingdom.
Nathaniel has a second tier of maybes, which includes Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins, Amy Adams for Story of Your Life, Jessica Chastain for the Zookeeper’s Wife, Sally Field for Hello My Name is Doris, Emma Stone for La La Land. Then we have Alicia Vikander for The Light Between Oceans, Charlize Theron for The Last Face, Jennifer Lawrence for Passengers, Michelle Pfeiffer for Beat-Up Little Seagull, and Marion Cotillard for Allied.
The Best Actress race generally depends on a few key factors. The first is how popular the actress is. Who gets in and who doesn’t is often measured by which one the industry most loves. And if they can’t have love, they’ll settle for sex appeal. The new normal, as Lynda Obst calls it in her excellent book, Sleepless in Hollywood, has mostly selected out older actresses — and let’s face it, actresses of color. The younger and the fresher they are, the more likely to be given top choice of scripts. Jennifer Lawrence, Alicia Vikander and Margot Robbie seem to be the hottest names right now.
The next factor is how overdue the actress is. The Oscar race, though, does worry itself with actresses who have paid their dues and — provided they aren’t up against one of the freshest faces of the moment — those seasoned pros can campaign towards a win. They all have to campaign hard, whether hottest thing in town or overdue veteran. Note that Mark Rylance was able to pull in a win without campaigning in the least bit. Such a thing can rarely ever happen for women. I can’t think of a recent example of any actress or supporting actress who did not win without hard campaigning. The closest example I can think of is Tilda Swinton who won for Michael Clayton in 2007 against Ruby Dee for American Gangster, and Cate Blanchett for I’m Not There. Two years later, Mo’Nique won for Precious without campaigning.
The priorities do dictate that white women who have been acting a long time are seen to have earned “overdue” status, whereas women of color do not seem to merit the same sort of urgency. Viola Davis winning her first Oscar up against Meryl Streep, who was winning her third is a perfect example of that, but there are many many more.
But Viola Davis not winning in 2011 actually helps her have a better shot this year, provided she isn’t overtaken by a hot up-and-comer, which, as we know, is very likely. Why? Because only one black actress has won Best Actress in 87 years of Oscar history. That puts any black actress headed for a possible win in the long shot category. This is a truly horrifying state of affairs and one that doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon. Best Actress is so competitive because there are fewer and fewer roles for women past the age of 25. It’s a lot easier for white actresses because they are given an array of roles to play. Black women, by contrast, like Viola Davis in The Help, are expected to carry the burden of both black audiences and white audiences. Are they playing a role that’s insulting to the black community? Are they playing a stereotype? Are they forwarding the civil rights movement with their work? Was their part written by a white screenwriter? Was it directed by a white filmmaker? If she can jump all of those hurdles, she then has to pass muster with the many film critics who will deem the film good or worthy, and thus, her win good or worthy. It can’t be too preachy or too emotional. It has to appeal to white men between the ages of 28 and 55. And they have to like her.
Finally, the third major factor in determining a nominee or a winner — once you get past well-liked veteran and/or hottest thing right now — you arrive at how well-liked a certain film is and whether it has won over the critics. While Charlotte Rampling is a well-liked veteran, a formerly hottest thing, she also had the benefit of starring in a critics darling last year, the wonderful 45 Years. Had Rampling played the same part in a film directed by, say, Tate Taylor there is no way she would have been considered. The closer a film is to being loved by critics or loved by the industry, the better chance the actress has for getting a nomination.
There are so many great actresses currently without Oscars. Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening, Jessica Chastain and Amy Adams are all considered overdue by now. For them, staying in the conversation keeps them powerful enough to land plum roles and negotiate deals. But for most women, actually winning an Oscar doesn’t seem to really translate into power or better roles in Hollywood. Rather, they are sort of like career toppers. Jennifer Lawrence winning an Oscar didn’t do much for her already thriving career. Nor did it really seem to help Halle Berry or Charlize Theron. They still have to negotiate and compete with younger and younger actresses who keep walking through the door. If Margot Robbie and Alicia Vikander are hot today, in a couple of years we’ll all be talking about other people. Winning an Oscar for an actress is kind of like staking your claim on a career that mattered.
When I look at Nat’s list, my mind immediately goes to a few names for a variety of reasons. I’ll list them here in order of likelihood for a nomination, not the win.
- Viola Davis for Fences. This will be put in my wishful thinking category because the cynic in me says forget it. But I’m rooting for her – I am sure she will knock it out of the park as she always does.
- Emily Blunt for Girl on a Train. This is showcase role for her and if the film is anywhere near as good as the book (despite the fact that she does not look pudgy at all), she’s in.
- Alicia Vikander for The Light Between Oceans. Unless this film bombs there is no way the hottest thing since sliced bread isn’t getting a nomination. I’ve not seen the industry fall in love so fast and so hard since, well, Jennifer Lawrence.
- Jennifer Lawrence for Passengers. Sometimes it seems like there is only one actress in Hollywood and her name is Jennifer Lawrence. She’s very good in everything she does — but this one will depend on how good the movie is overall. It might truly suck and if it does, forget it.
- Jessica Chastain in the Zookeeper’s Wife, or Emma Stone for La La Land are my own best guesses for who might have the best shot.
As far as who might win, without knowing anything about the movies at all — just going on where they are in their careers right now and how popular they are — I’d have to go with either Viola Davis for Fences or Emily Blunt for Girl on the Train. Like Nathaniel, I would love to see Michelle Pfeiffer finally win an Oscar but it’s just too hard to know whether her film will hit or not. Buzz is a strange and elusive thing. Blunt and Davis both have it.
Loving and Allied are two films that could definitely be considered, both in terms of Best Picture and Best Actress. Right now, the Best Actress race looks very thin compared to the many male-driven films that populate the year’s release schedule. There are probably plenty of films yet to be revealed and perhaps with some of those we will be able to build a much longer list.