For whatever reason, resentment often sets in when it comes to the Best Actress race, and that usually happens if it’s an actress the season hasn’t fallen in love with. Unlike men, women running in the Oscar race have to light an unwavering flame. It doesn’t matter all that much whether their performance is the best, though it helps if it’s universally acclaimed. With film critics, they resist the urge, almost always, to “give” their anointed prize to the presumed frontrunner. This is the case with the Los Angeles Film Critics this year, but it’s often true across the board. Why is it mostly women that get punished for daring to try to give an unequivocal performance? That’s not an easy question to answer. It does occasionally happen with actors, too, as with Gary Oldman when he was up for Darkest Hour. But usually and almost every year the same trend holds true: women (especially older women) are resented, at some point, for attaining their place in the race.
You’d think it would just come down to the best. It really never does, though. People pick winners because it makes them feel good doing so. If they don’t FEEL GOOD about their vote, they won’t mark it on their ballot. It’s been a recurring refrain throughout Oscar history that has endured in recent years: when a very pretty young women on the rise emerges in the Oscar race (Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson, Alicia Vikander) it is easy to get swept up in the first flush of love. It’s a blend of passion for the person, the character, the performance, and our overall fascination with the aura they project. But if an actress who has been around a while tries to reach for that tiara, they don’t have that benefit of the first flush of love. They can’t. Everyone already knows them. So what motivation do some voters have to “give” them the win?
The industry is a little different. In the Screen Actors Guild, and to an extent the Academy, they value veterans more than the first flush of love. Now that SAG is SAG/AFTRA, however, all bets are off. So far, it’s not been easy to get a read on their reasoning. But as long as an actress can tap into the general consensus and stir the first flush of love, infatuation will always trump veneration.
That’s not to say that those women that voters fall in love with (however briefly, for one season) didn’t give good, or sometimes even great, performances — but honestly, there are so many good performances that the thing that often separates a winner from a contender is that FEELING voters get when they check the name. THIS FEELS GOOD, they think. It seems that they rarely think: SHE DESERVES THIS.
Renee Zellweger began the race as the frontrunner, and as far as we know, she’s still the frontrunner. Her work in Judy is extraordinary. She embodies Judy Garland during her downfall with a lovely detailed portrayal. Zellweger changed her physical form to play the part, transformed her gestures and expressions, lost weight, and found within her the essence of a woman destroyed by the studio system, who never really knew how to function as an adult. She plays the part with gentle compassion and never simplified the depth of complexities of what made Judy Garland “difficult” and unpredictable as a performer. It is a showcase role, the kind of part any actor would dream of playing.
But if you notice, the critics haven’t gone all in for Zellweger, because of course not. I’ve been doing this a long time and one thing I can tell you that is consistently true throughout: they rarely award actresses who are deemed the frontrunner. It then goes back to the industry to reconsider and decide.
If it isn’t Zellweger, who are the top competitors?
With its massive showing in the SAG nominations yesterday, Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly has been lifted to give Zellweger some heat, though Theron, unlike Zellweger, has already won a lead actress Oscar, and the only one of the nominated actresses that hasn’t won is Margot Robbie.
The actors liked Bombshell so much they gave it three acting nominations plus a cast ensemble nomination. No other film in the race at SAG has three acting nominations. The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have two. Bombshell held back its reviews until after the ballot deadline, a strategy which could eventually catch up with the movie, seeing that the reviews are mixed. There will likely be some controversy around the movie when it finally opens. Although it has a strong #metoo theme, it also asks audiences predominantly on the left, at a moment in history when Fox News is clearly our enemy, to sympathize with these women who were not just part of the system but apologists for that system. Will that matter? Hard to say right now. But from the looks of it, Bombshell has swayed the SAG contingent to its side.
Lupita Nyong’o and Cynthia Erivo come into the Oscar race almost twenty years after the only black woman ever won Best Actress — Halle Berry in 2001. That’s an astonishing fact, and one that, if it catches fire, could produce the kind of “that feels good” vote that can often drive an outstanding contender through the race. Nyong’o has already won two major critics awards, is the lead actress in Jordan Peele’s Us, which made $175 million at the box office, the only film in the top five money-making movies of the year that is original, not part of a franchise. Lupita Nyong’o is undisputed focus of the film’s impact. Not just that, but she’s written a really wonderful book this year that was on The NY Times Bestsellers list called Sulwe, and also told her story about Harvey Weinstein to the New York Times.
The only problem for Nyong’o is whether or not hers might be the only nomination for Us at the Oscars. Judy could have this problem too. Harriet will have Best Song, Bombshell will have more than one, and Marriage Story will have a Best Picture nomination. Do voters like the movie overall? Horror has never been an easy sell to Oscars, relegated to the fringe along with comedy and sci-fi. Will that matter? She plays two totally different characters, has previously won Supporting Actress in a Best Picture winner, and is beloved for her talent, style, and grace. She is a threat to win without a doubt.
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman, an American hero who escaped slavery and then returned to risk her life to help free imprisoned slaves with the Underground Railroad. Harriet earned an A+ Cinemascore and was recently praised by Hillary Clinton on the Howard Stern show. Harriet was made for $17 million and has earned $41 million so far. It is directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons. Harriet, shockingly, has a 73% RT score but a whopping 97% audience rating with 11K ratings. By contrast, Us has a 93% Rotten Tomatoes score and a 59% audience ratings.
So Film Twitter might likely have a fit that I have combined Nyong’o and Erivo in the same paragraphs here. But the cold fact is, that’s the reality we need to acknowledge about how votes are parsed within an industry of voters that are still predominantly white and male. While the work of these two actresses couldn’t be more different, both performances are top notch, extraordinary even. What about them will push the “feel good” narrative with voters will have less to do with the movies or the performances and more to do with what the choice might meas to the individuals holding their ballots. Will they thrilled to make history and honor the second black lead actress in Oscar history? Will they be blown away by Nyong’o’s dual roles? Will they want to pay tribute to Harriet Tubman’s legacy?
Then there will be the conversation about whether Nyong’o and Erivo will split their vote (because they’re both black and the mere mention of this mindset among voters will lead to accusations of racism, count on it, but there it is). We can’t know how that will go. These things will all factor into how the fate of these contenders unfold.
The only other actress in contention that keeps coming up is Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story. She will likely come into the race with two nominations — along with a supporting nod for Jojo Rabbit — and that gives voters the option of giving her a victory (if they really like the movie and the character) without awarding her in lead. On the other hand, if it comes down to this being the only award for Marriage Story, and they want to give the movie “something,” then they might want to award her. If you want to see just how good her performance is in this film, watch Lost in Translation, another movie about a wife who is being overlooked, then watch Marriage Story. You will see the evolution of an actress and a human being.
I still have Zellweger to win, even knowing that holding onto Glenn Close until the bitter end last year cost me a lower score from the 22/24 I ended up with. One of my two misses was for Close. I didn’t consider that voters would want to give The Favourite “something,” and even if I had thought that I would not have gone with Best Actress. That loss for Glenn Close last year should show you that the Academy never has qualms about doing that to a veteran actor. It’s an anonymous ballot and they vote for what makes them FEEL GOOD.
Suddenly it feels like the Best Actress race is less locked and more complicated than it first seemed when the season started. We’ll have to wait and see how it all shakes down. I do think Zellweger gave the best performance of the year, though there’s no question that all of these actresses did extraordinary work this year.