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Best Actress Shaping Up to Be Most Competitive in Years

It was already a packed Best Actress race even before the season officially began. Early contenders included Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris, Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, Ruth Negga in Loving, and Alicia Vikander in the The Light Between Oceans. Coming up, we’ll see Viola Davis, heading for her first major nomination since 2011 in Denzel Washington’s Fences, Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals and Arrival, Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers, Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane, and Rachel Weisz in three movies — including lead roles in Complete Unknown and Denial. Add Marion Cotillard in Allied, Rebecca Hall in Christine, Sally Hawkins in Maudie.  Then there is Molly Shannon in Other People, Michelle Williams in Certain Women, Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures, Jennifer Connelly in American Pastoral,  Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train, and Rosamund Pike in A United Kingdom, Rooney Mara in Una, and now, Natalie Portman in Jackie.  That’s all before we even get to the current frontrunner, Emma Stone in La La Land.

Here is a little quick and dirty information every Oscar watcher needs to know: the reason people like me like often grouse about the relative dearth of Best Actress contenders is not because there aren’t plenty of roles available to women who want to work. There are plum roles for women on television, in premium channel movies, and in films distributed through Netflix and Amazon. There are plenty of roles in movies that screen in the art house circuit and produced by independents. These are challenging roles, great performances that go ignored every year, so we’ll often hear some critic say something to the effect of, “I don’t know why everyone is complaining that there aren’t good roles for women.” Here’s the problem, though. The most significant arena where great roles for women are absent — not always, but far too often — is among the prestige studio films vying for Best Picture. That matters in terms of Oscar race clout because the Best Picture category — and the Best Director category — represents the power in the film industry. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but there’s no question that it does. So what I tend to look for is how many films in the Best Picture race are about women and feature leading roles for women.

So last year, if we’re being really honest about it, there was really only one film with a story centered on a woman, and that was Brooklyn. It was 100% a film about an Irish immigrant girl coming to America to start a new life. The narrative began and ended with her.

Two other films last year offered brilliant performances with women front and center, but their spotlight was shared with a significant male partner in each film. Mad Max: Fury Road is about Max’s encounter with Charlize Theron as the badass Furiosa. Despite her dominance, the film was still called Mad Max: Fury Road. And Room was really more about the young son’s point of view, albeit with very strong and important support by Brie Larson as his mother. The women are essential to the story, but in essence both those films are mainly about the world seen through the eyes of the male characters.

But we’re not going to complain about that because we can’t. We simply do not have the luxury of complaining. We have to take what we get.

In 2014, there were no films at all that had a woman at the center of the plot. Even though The Theory of Everything provided an opportunity for a Best Actress contender — really, that movie was about Stephen Hawking. In 2013, Philomena and Gravity offered up two films with females at their center, and in 2012, there was Beasts of the Southern Wild and Zero Dark Thirty.

The best recent year for films about women (and even directed by women) was 2010, the last time the Academy allowed for a solid ten nominees for Best Picture. That year we had Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Black Swan all nominated for Best Picture, which is quite remarkable.

Having a solid ten nominees for Best Picture meant that the Academy could break out of their comfort zone and nominate lots of different types of films — including a exciting array of female-driven projects. But once the Academy reduced the number of nominee slots on the ballot back down to five, it became that much harder for films by and about women to break through. Women who appear in Best Picture contenders in the past few year are mostly cast as love interests, wives, supporting characters who help move the lead male towards his character arc.

Even if there are a wide variety of films starring women this year, how many of those will break through to the Oscar race?

Generally speaking, there are three ways into the Oscar race.  The first and most important is to be a big star in town with a lot of friends. Having the buzz about you is always helpful in a town ruled by insiders. Being young and beautiful helps. The second way is to be in a popular movie, like The Theory of Everything, though of course being young and beautiful helps here, too. The third way is to deliver a performance so remarkable it cannot be ignored. Obviously, to have all three is the best way in, but having one or two factors in your favor always helps.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to help anymore is being a veteran who has never won an Oscar. But that can only take you so far — perhaps because there is so much competition and the Best Actress race has always favored the young. You really need to have that situation paired with another thing — like being featured in a Best Picture contender, or nailing an extraordinary performance. Look at how Lily Tomlin was ignored for Grandma, for instance, or even Jane Fonda for her knockout supporting role in Youth.

Here is the problem for all of this year’s contenders: Oscar voters will only be selecting from the small pile of movies that they will watch. Most voters probably won’t even watch all the movies mentioned above. They have a short amount of time to work their way through their screener pile, and they aren’t going to watch something that got middling reviews or didn’t make money or doesn’t have any major stars in it or has really rough subject matter. As a further limitation, since they watch most of their screeners around the holidays, they usually want to see movies that make them feel good.

That they chose to nominate Rachel McAdams last year, who was perfectly fine in Spotlight but by no means exceptional, shows how little of the screener pile they actually get through. They watched that movie, they liked her in it, so they marked her down. If they had watched everything, I suspect their choices would not be as narrow as they’ve been in the shortened season, since about 2004.

Buzz makes all of the difference, and occasionally the critics can mobilize to get a contender recognized. Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Rampling are recent examples. To understand this, we have to think like many Oscar voters — or rather, leave the thinking to the voices guiding them. They want people to tell them what to watch or who has the most buzz going in to help them winnow down the massive pile they have in front of them. If one person is already beginning to win acclaim, there is a good chance that performance will be recognized by Academy members.

If you’ve done this long enough, you’ll be able to skim through the list of names and know instinctively which ones have a shot and which ones don’t. Occasionally you’ll be surprised when you see that the one you thought had a shot, didn’t, and vice versa.

It is still too early to make that call because the critics haven’t begun handing out their honors. But this year there has been a noticeable shift in the film criticism community. Gone are many of the old timers I’ve spent the last two decades with, and in their place are less experienced critics who seem to have less in common with Oscar voters than their veteran predecessors. That makes me wonder how their influence will shape this year’s race, knowing that they tend to like movies that are often far too daring and obtuse for your average industry voter.

At this stage of the game, there are a few I feel ready to write off because I’ve seen their work, but for the most part, it’s best to keep an open mind. Here is how I see it shaking out:

  1. Actresses who are big stars with a lot of friends in town:
    Emma Stone, La La Land
    Viola Davis, Fences
    Amy Adams, Arrival
    Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
    Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
    Natalie Portman, Jackie
    Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
    Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
    Rooney Mara, Una
    Amy Adams, Nocturnal Animals
    Jennifer Lawrence, Passengers
    Sally Field, Hello My Name is Doris
  2. Films with Best Picture buzz that might propel their lead actresses to a nomination:
    Emma Stone, La La Land
    Viola Davis, Fences
    Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
    Amy Adams, Arrival
    Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
    Marion Cotillard, Allied
    Ruth Negga, Loving
    Jennifer Lawrence, Passengers
    Rosamund Pike, A United Kingdom
  3. Exceptional performances that don’t rely on traditional star-power or a movie’s mainstream popularity:
    Sally Hawkins, Maudie
    Molly Shannon, Other People
    Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper
    Michelle Williams, Certain Women
    Isabelle Huppert, Elle, Things to Come
    Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann

Here’s how I would currently predict this category, without having seen everything:

  1. Emma Stone in La La Land
  2. Viola Davis in Fences
  3. Ruth Negga, Loving
  4. Amy Adams, Arrival
  5. Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
  6. Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
  7. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
  8. Rooney Mara, Una
  9. Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
  10. Natalie Portman, Jackie

As you can see, there are way too many names already; thus, it’s going to be a hell of a year. Generally speaking, we’re never this lucky. Best Actress is usually not this crowded. But happily this is not one of those years.