Winning an Oscar comes down to two things: the performance and the Oscar story. A good publicist will create an Oscar story if there isn’t one already. Though people might think that it should only be about the performance, it isn’t. It can’t be. Why? Because to know a great performance is to know the performer. Sometimes just knowing the performer and wanting to see that person win is enough, even without a great performance to go along with it. But most of the time, it is knowing the performer and knowing how and what that performer did with the role to bring it to the screen that pushes a contender across the finish line.
However, last year’s Best Actress winner won because of the performance, not because people knew her or because of her Oscar story. Olivia Colman did not have an Oscar story. Glenn Close did (boy, did she ever). So clearly it isn’t always about just the Oscar story. There are other factors.
What is an Oscar story? It is the hero’s journey — my new favorite descriptive phrase that I’m now introducing into our discussions here. While the hero’s journey in Hollywood is almost exclusively applied to male heroes, it works for women too:
A lonely hero who is trying to find him[her]self. A sudden and unexpected journey, promising adventure and peril. A test of character, strength, and skill. An ultimate battle that tests the hero’s resolve. A triumphant return home.
The hero’s journey can describe so much in terms of Hollywood – what defines success and what drives the Oscar race. What it is: that idea of someone triumphing at last, the more unlikely the better. The end result: it feels GOOD when they win. The Oscar story is often that journey. How good did it feel to watch Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win Best Director? REALLY REALLY GOOD. How good did it feel to watch Halle Berry become the first (and still only) black actress to win Best Actress? REALLY REALLY GOOD.
It doesn’t feel good if there is no journey involved, or if you don’t care one way or the other if that person triumphs. This is why, I figure, the so-called “pretty boys” have a hard time winning for Best Actor but can win as Best Director. Or why someone who has won a lot might not feel like someone fun to vote for (e.g., Steven Spielberg for “Lincoln”). When industry voters vote, they are voting with their hearts. Always. Either for sheer love of the thing, or because they’re responding to the call to action, the hero’s triumph at last. It’s human nature and unavoidable.
Does Renee Zellweger have an Oscar story? YES.
- Lonely hero trying to find herself: Zellweger was plucked from obscurity to star opposite one of the biggest stars in the world, then must confront sudden fame and live up to early promise.
- A sudden and unexpected journey: Challenges herself in unexpected ways to play a wide variety of roles: gains weight for “Bridget Jones”, sings and dances for Chicago, and roughs herself up for “Cold Mountain,” eventually winning a Supporting Actress Oscar.
- A test of character, strength, and skill: Takes time away to live her actual life. Briefly returns and is attacked by a small-minded hive mind that punishes women for ways they keep themselves looking young. Humiliated on a big and loud stage, becomes almost a punchline.
- An ultimate battle that tests the hero’s resolve: She takes on the role of Judy Garland – the most difficult role of her career to play an actress in decline. Physically matches Garland’s voice, mannerisms, and inward trauma.
- A triumphant return home: She is, at last, a success – should she win the Oscar, she will have returned home triumphantly.
The Best Actress race this year will have several narratives running, and the outcome, at this moment, is not certain, especially since last year Glenn Close seemed to have it sewn up. Olivia Colman had something that Close didn’t have. She had a Best Picture nominee behind her with a lot of nominations – acting, writing, you name it. It only won Best Actress, but that is a lot of clout heading into the race. While it’s always been true in the era of the expanded ballot that the Best Actor winner has a corresponding Best Picture nomination, it has become truer in the Best Actress race lately, as in:
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards”
Emma Stone, “La La Land”
Brie Larson, “Room”
Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”
Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
Best Actor during the same period:
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”
Jean DuJardin, “The Artist”
Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”
Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
Still, Best Actress hasn’t matched with the Best Picture winner since — wait for it — “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004. With Best Actor, it’s as far back as “The Artist,” 2011. The reason being in the era of the expanded ballot, voters prefer to spread the wealth. And one way to do that is to give out different prizes to the top movies. Additionally, for Best Picture, the preferential ballot is in play, which is different from every other category.
Renee Zellweger is very likely not going to be in a Best Picture nominee. So which actresses might challenge her that might also be in Best Picture contenders? We don’t really know what films are going to be in the Best Picture race at the moment, or how many of them will have Best Actress nominees. Here is how that number has gone since 2009 when they expanded the ballot:
2018 – 3/5
2017 – 4/5
2016 – 1/5
2015 – 2/5
2014 — 1/5
2013 — 3/5
2012 — 4/5
2011 — 1/5
2010 — 3/5
2009 — 3/5
Once you look at it like that, you see how limited the overlap is between Best Actress nominees and Best Picture. At the most, we’re talking 4/5.
For potential Best Picture nominees, we have:
“Marriage Story” features a strong performance by Scarlett Johansson. That film seems like it could hit all of the top nominations, particularly since not many of the strongest bets out of Telluride had leading roles for women.
Possibly Cynthia Erivo, who will play Harriet Tubman in the eagerly anticipated “Harriet,” which will be seen this month at Toronto. That could have Best Picture heat, but it is too soon to tell.
Awkwafina in “The Farewell” might also be in the running for a Best Picture/Actress nomination.
Saoirse Ronan seems a fairly strong bet for lead in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” which also seems like a contender for Best Picture at this point.
Charlize Theron could be in play for Best Actress in “Bombshell” which, if good, could also be in play for Best Picture.
Lupita Nyong’o has a strong shot at a nomination for her performance in “Us.” Jordan Peele’s follow up to “Get Out” was also a hit at the box office, and with a critically acclaimed dual role by Nyong’o, seems a strong bet for a nod. No black actress other than Halle Berry has won in the category – not before, not since. Nyong’o is already an Oscar winner, which helps her chances getting in here.
Alfre Woodard gives a strong central performance in “Clemency,” which won the Sundance Jury Prize this past year.
It is just too soon to know how it will play out in terms of Best Picture, and whether or not “Judy” will be in play in that category this year. If so, Zellweger will have a much better shot at dominating the whole season, which she can still do with or without a corresponding Best Picture nomination. If anyone is going to beat her, they’re going to have turn in a performance as fully realized, as emotionally devastating turn as this.