Best Actor is often the strongest link to Best Picture in the Oscar race. [Puts on sociologist’s hat] The reason is that males are the default protagonists. Men like to watch men, and women do too. The same is not true for women as central characters. Women often hate other women and men often hate women. In general, it is the rare male who can inspire that same kind of irrational hate. [Takes off sociologist’s hat, puts on Oscar blogger hat].
The frontrunner for Best Actor right now appears to be Anthony Hopkins in The Father. It’s quite something to watch a really good actor deliver such a complex, deeply layered performance as an old man who is in severe cognitive decline. I just went through this with my own father and spent an entire year visiting him. So much of it rang true to me and I imagine if I could have seen it from my dad’s perspective it would have looked a lot like this movie. And it isn’t just Hopkins that makes this one of the best films of the year, it’s the writing, the directing, and the entire ensemble cast, especially Olivia Colman as his daughter. Where Hopkins was charming as the Pope last year, in The Father he showcases what he can REALLY do as an artist with his eyes and his face and his body.
I once heard a director describe what it was like to work with Hopkins — it might have been Jonathan Demme who directed The Silence of the Lambs. He said that Hopkins had such a professional relationship with the camera lens — his eyes always knew how to play to the lens to transcribe his internal emotional life. He got it that the connection is the eyes. And if you can nail that relationship — eye and camera lens — you can nail the performance. Humans are always searching the eyes for what people are feeling and Hopkins has mastered it.
His main challenger, as of a few days ago and right now at least, appears to be Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — moved from Best Supporting into Best Actor. But not many if any people have seen the movie, so predicting him now is bouncing off the idea that he’s a beloved actor who died much too soon and that this role and performance should be good enough to earn him the prize. And that might be the case. In supporting, it would be a slam dunk but going up against Hopkins is a tough one.
Other potential names that will compete include Sacha Baron Cohen and/or Eddie Redmayne for The Trial of the Chicago 7 (they do not seem like lead performances to me, however and in my opinion Frank Langella is the standout). If this was an actual contest of good work, Joe Keery would be considered for Spree. But I am not holding my breath on that one. There are other performances coming and still films we have not seen. This story also isn’t told.
For Best Actress, Frances McDormand appears to be at least one of the frontrunners, until we see The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Respect, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Once we do, we’ll have a better idea of this race. Also coming in strong, Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman, Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of Woman, Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit, Kate Winslet for Ammonite, among others.
All eyes will be on the Best Director race with such an abundance of films this year directed by women. Last year’s uproar over no woman being nominated means that this year there will be a hard push to get a woman in.
The problem is, of course, as with last year’s Best Director race, if there are too many choices it will be harder to narrow them enough to build a consensus. By the time critics got around to Greta Gerwig for Little Women as their consensus pick, it was much too late as there were many different choices last year for women. That will be the same this year. So, people will say “That’s sexist! Why does there only have to be one woman?” And answering that question is tricky. You have to indicate whether you want the honest answer or the answer that will placate people who want things to not be the way they are.
The honest answer: voters pick the movies they like and most of the time those movies are directed by men. You can figure out why that is however you want — whether it’s that men are more visual, supposedly, with notable exceptions, or whether they make movies men like more and since there are more male voters they respond accordingly. Whatever it is — if you ask them to pick their five favorites 95% of the time they’re going to pick movies directed by men. Unless you specify that they have to adjust their preferences for a different reason, which is entirely possible.
The other answer would be: The Academy and industry and film critics and audiences are deep-down too sexist to take women seriously.
After doing this a long time I have seen films directed by women that have risen to the level of best — Jane Campion’s The Piano, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, etc. But if you have a year where there are ten or twenty films by women and they’re all pretty good but none has risen to the level of greatness — well, then if you want one to be chosen for the sake of breaking ground for women then you have to settle on a consensus pick.
Four films, so far, are directed by women and are good enough to make it in. The question is, how many will? Does the Best Actor rule apply here? I would list them as:
Nomadland – Chloe Zhao
One Night in Miami – Regina King
On the Rocks – Sofia Coppola
Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell
This would be a great year to have a separate category for women but there is no way anyone will go for this. It sits on the “popular film category” island as totally off limits. But I don’t see why. There is a chance that one or two at most will likely make it into Best Director and why not afford more women that opportunity?
Of these, Zhao is the most likely to earn a spot. But it will be interesting to see how critics weigh Nomadland and One Night In Miami. I suspect they will try to boost one or the other but I do not know which one that will be at the moment. I also would watch out for Promising Young Woman which is an incredible debut feature. It’s creepy and unique and honestly, it haunted me for days after I saw it.
There are more films by women coming down the pike — Respect, directed by Liesl Tommy; I’m Your Woman, directed by Julia Hart; and there was already The Glorias, directed by Julie Taymor. In general, though, at least for now these seem to be the strongest.
Our job is to find Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director (at this stage). Best Picture is the tree and the other categories are branches. Best Actor and Best Director have the most influence on Best Picture, but every so often, Best Actress does too.
With that, here are the very early predictions for Best Picture:
Nomadland – Best Actress, Best Director
Mank – Best Actor, Best Director
The Father – Best Actor, maybe Director
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Best Actor, maybe Director
News of the World – Best Actor, maybe Director
One Night in Miami, maybe Director
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Supporting Actor
And perhaps some of these:
Promising Young Woman
On the Rocks
Da Five Bloods
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Gary Oldman, Mank
And then two from among:
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Tom Hanks, News of the World
Delroy Lindo, Da Five Bloods
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Trevante Rhodes, the United States vs. Billie Holiday
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of Woman
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
And then one of the following:
Jennifer Hudson, Respect
Amy Adams, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Colman, The Father
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Michelle Pfeiffer, French Exit
Kate Winslet, Ammonite
David Fincher, Mank
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Florian Zeller, The Father
And two from:
Paul Greengrass, News of the World
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Regina King, One Night in Miami
Spike Lee, Da Five Bloods
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7
The bottom line: We know nothing right now. Next to nothing. We might have a vague idea of what each other thinks but that’s about it. There are many different narratives taking shape but they are simply driven by people like me. As of yet, there is no there there. But hey, what else are we going to do with our time?