With Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director seemingly mostly settled, that leaves Best Actress as one of the most competitive races this year. There are others, of course. The Screenplay categories appear to be competitive, as well as Animated Feature, and Documentary. This may or may not be true. The Oscars are still months away but at the moment, the consensus is with Nomadland and Chloe Zhao, along with Chadwick Boseman for Best Actor.
But let’s assume for the moment that our instincts are reliable, and that the most competitive category remains Best Actress. Here are the names I see floated around for the win, in alphabetical order:
Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix) – It seems, given the ridiculous and overblown smack down by the critics, and the recent tumultuous events, that this role and maybe this movie overall will be radioactive for Oscar voters. But there is no denying where Amy Adams went with this performance, not just gaining weight but truly inhabiting this character’s crazy world of addiction and erratic behavior. Adams is so versatile, and has done such good work, many assume she would have won by now. She has been nominated six times, once for lead and five for supporting.
Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) – The gold standard for portrayal of this icon has always been Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues. But Andra Day probably tops Ross’ performance with her version of the complicated, talented artist that the country wanted to crush for her outspoken expression of the song Strange Fruit, which was about lynching in the South and widely seen as the spark that helped unite the Civil Rights movement. Day is spectacular in the role – sultry, melancholy, rebellious and when she sings – what can I say. It’s wondrous. She has never been nominated for an Oscar.
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) – If Davis’ screen time was a bit longer she would have this in the bag. She transforms herself into the good trouble-making Ma Rainey, complete with weight gain and makeup to change her looks entirely. It is yet another great performance by Davis in a career of many. She recently won for Fences in Supporting but has never won for Lead Actress. In fact, only one black actress in all of Oscar’s 93 year history has won a lead Oscar: Halle Berry in 2001, twenty years ago. TWENTY YEARS AGO.
Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman (Netflix). The Best Actress winner from Venice gives a brilliant performance of a mother giving birth and then losing a baby in what appears to be real time. If you watched Season One of The Crown you will recognize Kirby as Princess Margaret. These two performances could be more different and often that is exactly the kind of thing that can lead to a win. This would be her first Oscar nomination.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Searchlight) – She probably isn’t going to win her third Best Actress award for this part, having just won her second for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and her first for Fargo. But the entire film is really on her face. It’s the collaboration of Chloe Zhao’s sensibilities and McDormand’s acting that makes it what it is. She has been nominated three times in Supporting and twice in lead, winning both.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (Focus) – Really and truly a career best for Mulligan in a film full of wit and style and much needed dark humor. Mulligan plays a character who shows a multitude of selves in her precipitous arc – it is a performance within a performance kind of thing as she must deceive people along the way. The film is controversial, to be sure, but most can agree that Mulligan is exceptional in the role. She’s been nominated only once in 2010 for An Education but has never won Best Actress.
Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit (Sony Classics) – Michelle Pfeiffer is another actress many keep waiting to see finally win, along with Amy Adams, but it looks like this won’t be the year for her as the film came out too early and it’s an extremely competitive year. But Pfeiffer is great, one of the best actresses in Hollywood who has yet to win an Oscar. She’s been nominated three times, twice for lead and once for supporting and not since 1989.
Kate Winslet in Ammonite (BBC, BFI) – Winslet gave yet another memorable performance in the Francis Lee film opposite Saoirse Ronan. The film does not seem to be catching any headwind but if the HFPA picks Winslet, as they often do, that gives the performance a chance to place in the Oscar race. Winslet has been nominated seven times, four for lead and three for supporting, and won 11 years ago for The Reader.
Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie (Netflix) – Clearly the pundits have gone all the way in for this movie as the predictions at Gold Derby seem to indicate. The film is an actor’s showcase and gives Zendaya much room to express herself in lengthy monologues. She’s stunning to look at throughout in the moody black and white chiaroscuro. Was a time when this role and this movie would be not quite what the Academy would go for: too young, too hip. But with so many new members it’s possible.
Other roles worth mentioning are of course Meryl Streep doing double duty with Let Them all Talk and The Prom. Sophia Loren in The Life Ahead, still very much in the conversation. And anyone else who might pop up unexpectedly at the Globes.
We’ve yet to see a number one consensus pick emerge. Voters are mostly split over at Gold Derby, with Viola Davis probably in the lead, followed by Zendaya for Malcolm & Marie, with Anne Thompson among those launching her to the top of their lists. I am the only pundit over there who has Day at the top of the list — I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe they haven’t seen the film or they don’t like it. I do not know. But either way, it remains a wide open race. Even if the pundits have united around a name that doesn’t mean that’s your winner.
Malcolm & Marie is a great work, with two very good performances in it. I don’t know if voters are going to opt for a young actress like Zendaya over Viola Davis – but both are Netflix and thus, neither is going to be particularly competitive against the other. It’s a Sophie’s choice scenario, especially when you include Vanessa Kirby from Pieces of Woman.
Anne Thompson does not have Carey Mulligan on her list, and has Zendaya, Davis, McDormand, Kirby and surprise surprise Kate Winslet for Ammonite.
Basically, this race is all over the place. We’re always going to back to our basic rules, however:
Likability of movie
Likability of star
Likability of role
Having all three is usually the golden ticket. You can have two out of the three, like Liability of role (especially), and Likability of star, without Likability of movie but in general, you want all three. Thus, it always helps if the film is well-liked across the board, especially with actors.
Things have changed in the past few years, where before the pattern was Best Actress contenders without a corresponding Best Picture nomination. In fact, before The Shape of Water won in 2017, no Best Picture winner had a Best Actress contender in it at all, let alone a Best Actress win since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. We still have not had a Best Picture winner with a corresponding Best Actress win since 2004. La La Land would have broken the streak.
2019-Renee Zellweger, Judy — Likability of Star, Likability of Role (probably not so much movie)
2018-Olivia Colman, The Favourite* — Likability of Role, Likability of Movie (Colman was relatively unknown)
2017-Frances McDormand, Three Billboards* — Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2016-Emma Stone, La La Land* — Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2015-Brie Larson, Room*–Likability of Role, Likability of Movie (Larson was unknown mostly)
2014-Julianne Moore, Still Alice–Likability of Star (they didn’t like the movie and the role was just fine)
2013-Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine–Likability of Star, Likability of Role (movie just so so)
2012-Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook* — Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2011-Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady–Likability of Star (they didn’t like the movie and the role was just fine)
2010-Natalie Portman, Black Swan* — Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2009-Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side*–Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2008-Kate Winslet, The Reader*–Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2007-Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose–Likability of Role (they didn’t know her and the movie had mixed reaction)
2006-Helen Mirren, The Queen* –Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2005-Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line–Likability of Star, Likability of Role (movie so so)
2004-Hilary Swank, Million dollar Baby+– Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2003-Charlize Theron, Monster–Likability of Star (serial killer and movie just so so)
2002-Nicole Kidman, The Hours* –Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
2001-Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball–Likability of Star, Likability of Role
2000-Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich* –Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
So you see you really need at least one of these things – to be a popular well-liked star, to deliver a highly praised, well liked performance and/or play someone, either in history or not, that people admire or like (Queen Elizabeth, June Carter Cash). Whether or not they like the movie too helps but it isn’t essential. If they don’t know the actress that is better than if they know but don’t really like the actress.
We can’t really decide this year’s contenders using this method until we see more clearly where the race is going. But if I had to do it with those named above right now I’d do it like this:
Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy – Likability of Star
Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday – Likability of Role
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Likability of Star, Likability of Role, maybe Likability of Movie
Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman – Likability of Role, maybe Likability of Movie.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland – Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman – Likability of Star, Likability of Role, Likability of Movie
Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit – Likability of Star
Kate Winslet in Ammonite – Likability of Star, maybe Likability of Role
Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie – Likability of Role, maybe Likability of Movie
When I don’t put down “Likability of star” that is only because the name is still a relative unknown. A great publicist can always boost the profile of an unknown star to make them likable, as was done with Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose and Brie Larson for Room.
So what do you think, Oscarwatchers? How about a poll?