Unlike the Best Actor race, Best Actress is often about the person playing the role more than it is about the role itself. That often means an “it” girl arrives on the scene and delivers a performance good enough to win. It isn’t just about the performance. It can’t be. It’s also about her allure. Or a else a beloved actress transforms herself at last to finally win the Oscar she has so richly deserved for so long. Or a beloved actress simply transforms herself to an unrecognizable degree. There aren’t a lot of heroes saving the day in the Best Actress race. There are instead a lot of tragic figures, vulnerable women in need of being rescued or of rescuing themselves. Very few save the day for and all living things as they tend to do in the Oscar race. It’s Johnny Cash’s long suffering wife. It’s the Black Swan destroyed by ambition. It’s occasionally the mom who rescues the homeless kid and makes him a football star, and occasionally an Iron Lady or a Queen, but usually it’s a woman on a path to destruction who either sinks or swims. Either that or it’s the woman of the moment everyone falls in love with at once.
This year has really illustrated just how many powerhouses, shapeshifters and artists there are out there among women in Hollywood. There has been a steady shift towards more female driven material because there has been so little of it in the past decade. In a year where Nicole Kidman’s fiery incomparable performance in Destroyer is just a maybe, you know you’re dealing with a packed slate.
Kidman is on fire lately, and could get a double nod, along with Boy Erased, but it’s not about the performance. It’s really more about the narrative of the person behind the performance. Kidman doesn’t have that narrative this year. There are several who do. Glenn Close for one. Lady Gaga for another, and Melissa McCarthy still another.
When it comes to both actress and actor, there is always the eternal question between a naturalistic performance and designing a character, morphing oneself into another person entirely. Was Jennifer Lawrence playing herself in Silver Linings Playbook? A bit. Did it matter? Not really. Most still considered it a “good” performance, as in she made people believe in the story of her character and in the story of Jennifer Lawrence as rising star and the hottest thing in town.
Glenn Close seemed not to have gotten the memo that it’s not just about the performance. She’s been toiling away on the performances all of these years. It’s the work, actors always insist, and for the greatest ones, it is. There is no denying that the Oscar is still a good thing, both the nomination and the win. But to win, there has to be a kind of halo around you in a particular year.
Each of the strongest Best Actress contenders have their own “Oscar story” or narrative that will propel them through the season. For Close, it’s “how can it be that this brilliant artist hasn’t won an Oscar in all of these years?” Her role in Fatal Attraction continues to be a subject up for debate on women’s roles in film and culture. She turns herself inside out for a role and really should have won by now. Is this the last chance? For Lady Gaga it’s the unmasking but it’s also her evolution as an artist, a songwriter, an activist and now an actor. She does it without being as threatening as Streisand or Madonna ever were because she exudes a kind of humility. Her genius is in her songwriting and her performing as a singer and sometimes that can be, has been, enough to drive a win.
For Melissa McCarthy, she might have given the best performance of 2018 – and certainly delivers, to my mind, the most fully realized character of the year (thanks to the film being co-written and directed by a woman). She is in the “it’s time to take her seriously as an actress” stage of her career, which will likely open doors and lead to many more interesting roles for her. And then there’s Olivia Colman in The Favourite. She is already among the small handful of “favorites” by the critics and thus, will win her share of awards throughout the season of the critics awards, coming right up at the end of November and on through December. She is a character actress, who really shows what actors can do in The Favourite. It’s completely different from, say, her work in Tyrannosaur or The Lobster. As such, she is a force to be reckoned with on the level of her being just a brilliant actress who turned in a brilliant performance.
Winners for Best Actress aren’t plucked at random. Sure, there can be a Marion Cotillard pop up at the end of a season where one actress was already favored to win but Cotillard worked the red carpet day in and day out, showed up looking completely different from her role in La Vie En Rose, not to mention being drop dead gorgeous. And young. Usually, though, in the last decade, actresses claim the lead early on and never waiver.
Frances McDormand – Venice/Toronto
Emma Stone – Venice/Telluride
Brie Larson – Telluride
Julianne Moore – Toronto the year before
Cate Blanchett – early release
Meryl Streep – late release, in tight race with frontrunner Viola Davis
Natalie Portman – Venice
Sandra Bullock – November
An actress can overcome the frontrunner dominance of another – but it isn’t the rule, it’s the exception to the rule.
I would expect to see this year a divergent narrative form. If Lady Gaga starts winning critics awards, the race is over. If she doesn’t and another actress emerges as the critics darling – likely to be either Colman or more likely, Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, then we might see the split where we won’t know until the SAG awards whom the frontrunner is.
Cut to: the Golden Globe awards. Since it’s divided into two categories, and since A Star is Born is going up as drama – maybe Melissa McCarthy wins in comedy. You might see a pretty good match-up at that time for the two frontrunners. On the other hand, if Colman goes into comedy and wins, you’ll see a different kind of match-up.
Other strong contenders for drama will likely be Viola Davis in Widows. I fully expect a nod for Kidman at the Globes for drama. Julia Roberts will get in for Ben is Back at the Globes. And then for comedy, there could be room for Elsie Fisher to get in for Eighth Grade, which would be nice, along with, of course, a real threat to win, Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns. Blunt could get a double nod along with A Quiet Place as well.
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen Of Scots, Amy Adams in Vice and Felicity Jones in On The Basis of Sex are yet to be seen. Where will they play in the race?
What I see right now is an unpredictable Best Actress race, though I lean towards Lady Gaga. And still maintain that Glenn Close is her only real competition, at least right now. It would be difficult for voters – for actors especially – to look at that ballot and not choose Close at last, to win her well deserved Oscar. On the other hand, the heart wants what it wants and this is how the Oscars, and humans in general, roll.
Which five do you think will get in?