We haven’t had such a heated Best Actress contest in a while. The two strongest performances at the moment are Emma Stone in La La Land and Natalie Portman in Jackie. The energy and buzz around the Oscar race wants it to be down to these two for whatever reason — probably because both are beloved movie stars with their own backgrounds in the industry and with the Oscars. There remains the question as to whether Viola Davis will be campaigning in the supporting category. The reason that matters is because Viola Davis might win in either category — but she seems like a much easier winner in the supporting category (assuming all goes well with Fences). That was the problem for Davis with The Help in 2011. Her role was on the border between lead and supporting. Even though she was the narrator and focal point of the movie, Emma Stone seemed to be the lead and Davis supporting. But Octavia Spencer was also supporting and ended up winning. This is a difficult question and we won’t know the answer until the puzzle pieces begin to come together. What we do know is that Best Actress is crowded, and it’s crowded with two frontrunners right now.
The way I measure likelihood of a nomination is usually based a few factors.
1) Star power – A big star is more likely to get the film seen and more likely to be nominated. A popular actor and a big star usually have first priority if they’re starring in a film that is Oscar worthy.
2) Critics rallying behind – This is especially important, as we saw when Marion Cotillard bumped Jennifer Aniston, and Charlotte Rampling’s nominations last year.
3) Youth and buzz – A hot young up-and-comer like Alicia Vikander or Jennifer Lawrence can be a powerful cocktail for mostly male, mostly middle aged Oscar voters. It’s something to consider, but it isn’t everything.
4) Being attached to a Best Picture nominee or a film that got close to Best Picture- Meaning, it has a powerful Oscar strategist behind it and it gets enough nominations to be “in the conversation.”
5) Is the part or the character likable? – This isn’t a dealbreaker, but it certainly helps if you fall can in love with the character. Love overrides almost all other emotions.
Before we get into the other contenders, let’s take a look at Emma Stone and Natalie Portman in terms of stats. Since I have not yet seen Jackie I can’t talk about tone or narrative of one film versus the other. What I can talk about is Oscar history.
Emma Stone has the edge, I would think, heading in for two reasons. 1) She’s the star and driving force of the current Best Picture frontrunner, La La Land, and 2) she’s never won an Oscar before.
Natalie Portman could win but might not for two reasons, 1) She’s not starring in what is a Best Picture frontrunner, and 2) she’s won an Oscar fairly recently.
Let’s first look at the connection between Best Actress and the driving force and center of the Best Picture frontrunner.
Here are the Best Picture/Best Actress winners over the years:
1933 – Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
1936 – Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld
1939 – Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
1942 – Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver
1975 – Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1977 – Diane Keaton, Annie Hall
1983 – Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
1989 – Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy
1991 – Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs (2nd Oscar for lead)
1998 – Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love
2004 – Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby (2nd Oscar for lead)
Just for curiosity’s sake, here are the Best Actor winners matched with Best Picture — a longer list:
Best Actor/Best Picture
1933 – Clark Gable, It Happened One Night
1944 – Bing Crosby, Going My Way
1945 – Ray Milland, Lost Weekend
1946 – Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives (2nd Oscar for lead)
1948 – Lawrence Olivier, Hamlet
1949 – Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men
1954 – Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
1955 – Ernest Borgnine, Marty
1957 – Alec Guiness, Bridge on the River Kwai
1958 – Charlton Heston, Ben Hur
1964 – Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
1966 – Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
1967 – Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night
1970 – George C. Scott, Patton
1971 – Gene Hackman, The French Connection
1972 – Marlon Brando, The Godfather (2nd Oscar for lead)
1975 – Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1979 – Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer
1982 – Ben Kingsley, Gandhi
1984 – F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus
1988 – Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (2nd Oscar for lead)
1991 – Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs
1994 – Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (2nd Oscar for lead)
1999 – Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
2000 – Russell Crowe, Gladiator
2010 – Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
2011 – Jean DuJardin, The Artist
12 times in the past 20 years, so just a little over half of the time, a Best Actress winner was at least in a Best Picture nominee, and of those only once has a winner won for her second Oscar — Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby, winning just five years after her first Oscar.
8 times in the past 20 years a Best Actress winner was not in a Best Picture nominee, and of those only once has a Best Actress winner won for her second lead Oscar, and that’s Meryl Streep winning for the Iron Lady.
So a Best Picture nomination seems to give a nominee a slight edge both in terms of winning a first or a second Oscar. In total.
So here’s the bottom line: Emma Stone has the edge to win her first Oscar for a starring role in a Best Picture frontrunner, where she is a breath of fresh air that will blow through the Oscar race. She has the edge, stats wise, and she has the edge in that it’s very difficult to emerge from a film where you fall in love with the lead performance and not give that performance the win.
The case for Natalie Portman would be that hers is, perhaps, the more difficult and challenging role. It could have more political importance in an election year that might elect a woman president. That could impact the Oscar race. The critics might rally around Portman and not Stone, given that Jackie probably has more high-art street cred. Portman as Jackie might be a more interesting choice for them, given that they figure La La Land is going to be an Oscar juggernaut across the board.
Then we get to a potential spoiler and in this case, at least right now, that seems to be Viola Davis for Fences — assuming she is placed in the lead category. Davis in Fences will be a formidable challenger because it will likely be a Best Picture nominee. Jackie, by the way, might also be a Best Pic nominee. We just can’t know that yet. I’m going to bet, though, that Fences has the slight edge since it’s 100% actor driven — both because an actor directed it and because the writing is a feast for actors to perform. You don’t get much more powerful than Denzel Washington and Viola Davis leading a cast of actors. Viola Davis is already long, long, LONG overdue for an Oscar and should have won in 2011 for The Help, even if Streep was also overdue, given that she’s the single most lauded actress in Oscar history. But also helping Davis will be the #oscarssowhite hashtag. Actually, it will both help and hurt. How it hurts is that there can sometimes be resentful grumblings or backlash whisper campaigns, as their was in 2011, that voters should not vote out of “obligation” but rather according to which actress “deserves” it. (Note: these two factors do not have to be mutually exclusive.)
After we move past Emma Stone, Natalie Portman and perhaps Viola Davis, we then have a much longer list of actresses that might get the last two slots. Those performances are formidable and this will be one hell of a Best Actress race. Let’s go through the most likely contenders first:
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins – In any other year, this would be a slam dunk nomination, and it might still be. There is always the chance, though, that Academy members might think — in a competitive year like this one — that Streep’s 20 nominations are enough (for now) and perhaps it’s time for another actress to take that slot. On the other hand, this film is right in the Academy’s wheelhouse, and likely headed for many nominations, including Best Supporting Actor and perhaps even Best Picture. Streep can’t be underestimated.
Amy Adams, Arrival – Adams carries the entire film, which admittedly might be tough work for some Academy members to stay with and understand. Those who get it will be deeply moved by the film and her brilliant performance, which is unlike anything Adams has ever done. She’s also earning raves for her work in Nocturnal Animals, and it never hurts to show off versatility in the same calendar year. Obviously Adams would do better if Arrival were also a Best Picture nominee, which is might be, but she could also get in without it.
Ruth Negga, Loving – Although this is a performance with few words, Negga’s work in Loving is brilliant nonetheless. As the wife of a white man, thrown in jail while pregnant, a mother of small children, who becomes the driving force behind changing archaic laws that forbid a white man bedding down with a black woman, Negga virtually disappears into the character. You really can’t take your eyes off her. Some have continued to say she might also be put in the supporting category, and perhaps she might be. But for now, she’s still considered lead.
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane – Although the film has not yet been seen, early word is that the film and Chastain are great. Here is another film that might play into election season, but especially since it deals head on with gun violence. It’s possible that the documentary Newtown might also be nominated the same night, which would help bring awareness to the cause of gun control.
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures – Here is one performance that could be helped by also being featured in a Best Picture contender. Henson is already Oscar nominated but if the film is beloved enough, it could pull her through, along with other performers.
Emily Blunt, Girl on the Train – Blunt is always fantastic, even in lesser movies. Although the film has not yet been reviewed, Blunt brings the necessary ingredient of being a popular, big star. What that means is that people will, at the very least, be motivated to see the film. If they see it and like it, she could be in.
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women – Bening is heading into the race the same year she has a supporting part in a Warren Beatty film, which might make things interesting. Word is she’s great in this, and beloved enough in the industry that she will be seriously considered for a nomination. It’s hard to say without having seen the film.
Rooney Mara, Una – Although Una is going to have a slightly tougher road, partly because of the subject matter but also because it won’t be a Best Picture contender, Mara’s performance is off-the-charts great. Mara continues to grow as an actress and has a supporting role in Lion, which is likely to be very popular with Academy members. Her performance in Una is complicated, deeply moving, upsetting and beautiful. It’s hard to make a case for people to see it, however, as it is difficult subject matter that is hard to shake.
Rebecca Hall, Christine – This is another complex, dark portrayal about a complicated, suicidal television journalist whose crisis put her way ahead of her time. Based on a true story, Christine is really about thwarted ambition. Hall’s performance is one of the best she’s ever given — and she’s almost unrecognizable.
My five right choices now would probably be:
Emma Stone, La La Land
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Viola Davis, Fences (unless supporting)
Amy Adams, Arrival
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Next tier would be:
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Ruth Negga, Loving
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Emily Blunt, Girl on the Train
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures