Way back in 2001, it suddenly became apparent, now that there were blogs like mine covering the Oscar race, that in all of Academy Awards history no black actress had won in the lead actress category. Halle Berry was up for the Oscar that year. She was up against Sissy Spacek, who had already won already for Coal Miner’s Daughter. Some of us started making noise about the history of the Academy: the path for black actresses in Hollywood and why it was so rare to even get a chance to play the kinds of parts that won Oscars.
At some point, the story got big enough that voters started to notice and pay attention to the process of winning awards. It was about power in the industry and about opportunity. It was also about box office, at least for a while. The Oscars and the film industry overall had been in a long conversation about race for decades, and that has continued in the years I have covered them. Hollywood has always been about power and the money, and so too were the Oscars for much of their history.
The market usually decided who got to sit atop the pile way back when. If you could open a movie you could get the good parts. Things began to really change for women overall once Hollywood began to change. At some point, the Best Picture race simply stopped even having films led by women: in fact, no film has won Best Picture and Best Actress since Million Dollar Baby in 2004. It’s been rare recently for a Best Picture winner to have a Best Actress nominee — the Shape of Water being the one exception in the past decade.
But even rarer than that is a Best Actress winner who is not white. It might sound crass to say it that way, but there is no plainer way to say it. It is rare because competition is fierce. Before this year and the few years that have preceded it, where critics seemed to have made a conscious decision to focus on a more inclusive slate, it was (as everyone knows) mostly the hero’s journey on repeat. The hero’s journey has been such a staple for Best Picture that there haven’t been many exceptions to that rule. Chicago was one recent example of defying it.
We’ve done this a few times on this site but let’s go through them again:
(Nominated for/won Best Picture and Best Actress)
2019: Parasite — no Best Actress nominee but a very balanced ensemble — central male hero.
2018: Green Book — Best Actor, Supporting Actor Winner — central male hero.
2017: The Shape of Water — Best Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor — central female hero.
2016: Moonlight — Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress — central male hero.
2015: Spotlight — Best Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress — mostly male cast.
2014: Birdman — Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress — central male hero.
2013: 12 Years a Slave — Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress winner — central male hero.
2012: Argo — Best Supporting Actor — central male hero.
2011: The Artist — Best Actor winner, Supporting Actress — central male hero.
2010: The King’s Speech — Best Actor winner, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress — central male hero.
2009: The Hurt Locker — Best Actor — central male hero.
2008: Slumdog Millionaire — central male hero.
2007: No Country for Old Men — Supporting Actor winner — central male hero.
2006: The Departed — Supporting Actor — central male hero.
2005: Crash – Supporting Actor — mostly male cast.
2004: Million Dollar Baby — Best Actor, Best Actress winner, Supporting Actor winner — central male hero.
2003: Return of the King — mostly male cast.
2002: Chicago — Best Actress, Supporting Actress winner — central female hero
2001: A Beautiful Mind — Best Actor, Supporting Actress Winner — central male hero.
2000: Gladiator — Best Actor Winner, Supporting Actor — central male hero.
1999: American Beauty — Best Actor winner, Best Actress — central male hero.
1998: Shakespeare in Love — Best Actress winner, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress Winner — both male and female heroes.
1997: Titanic — Best Actress, Supporting Actress — both male and female heroes.
1996: The English Patient — Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress winner — both male and female heroes.
1995: Braveheart — central male hero.
1994: Forrest Gump — Best Actor winner, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor — central male hero.
1993: Schindler’s List — Best Actor, Supporting Actor — central male hero.
1992: Unforgiven — Best Actor, Supporting Actor winner — central male hero.
1991: The Silence of the Lambs — Best Actor Winner, Best Actress Winner — female hero.
1990: Dances with Wolves — Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor — central male hero.
1989: Driving Miss Daisy — Best Actress Winner, Best Actor, Supporting Actor — female hero mostly?
1988: Rain Man — Best Actor Winner – central male hero.
1987: The Last Emperor — central male hero.
1986: Platoon — Supporting Actor x2 — central male hero.
1985: Out of Africa — Best Actress, Supporting Actor — central female hero
1984: Amadeus — Best Actor winner — central male heroes.
1983: Terms of Endearment — Best Actress winner, Best Supporting Actor winner — female heroes.
1982: Gandhi — Best Actor winner — central male hero.
1981: Chariots of Fire — Best Supporting Actor — central male heroes
1980: Ordinary People — Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor winner — central male hero.
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer — Best Actor winner, Best Supporting Actress winner — central male hero.
1978: The Deer Hunter — Best Actor, Supporting Actor winner, Supporting Actress — central male hero.
1977: Annie Hall — Best Actress winner, Best Actor — male and female heroes.
1976: Rocky — Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor x2 — central male hero.
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Best Actor winner, Best Actress winner, Supporting Actor — central male hero.
1974: The Godfather Part II — Best Actor, Supporting Actor winner, Supporting Actress — central male hero.
1973: The Sting — Best Actor — central male hero.
1972: The Godfather — Best Actor Winner, Supporting Actor x3 — central male heroes.
1971: The French Connection — Best Actor winner, Supporting Actor — central male hero.
1970: Patton – Best Actor winner — central male hero.
You can keep going back through Oscar history and you will find this basic truth holds. Most of the time male-driven movies win and much of the time they are driven by a central male performance that often wins Best Actor. But what you can really see beyond any doubt is that right after Million Dollar Baby, movies with Best Actress nominees stopped winning Best Picture.
The reason for that, I think, is that Hollywood mostly stopped making movies with strong female roles or revolving around women. At that point, the Best Actress race generally involved women who were in “smaller” movies that either they produced for themselves or were the only good thing about the movie, like The Iron Lady.
So, if Nomadland wins Best Picture, it will be (as you can plainly see) a rarity in the history of the awards race. For a film about a singular female hero to win Best Picture, where no other major story arc is present, is practically unheard of.
Here is the recent history of Best Actress:
Nominated for/won Best Picture
2019— Renee Zellweger, Judy
2018 — Olivia Colman, The Favourite
2017 — Frances McDormand, Three Billboards
2016 — Emma Stone, La La Land
2015 — Brie Larson, Room
2014 — Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2013 — Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
2012 — Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
2011 — Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
2010 — Natalie Portman, Black Swan
2009 — Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
2008 — Kate Winslet, The Reader
2007 — Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
2006 — Helen Mirren, The Queen
2005 — Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
2004 — Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
2003 — Charlize Theron, Monsters
2002 — Nicole Kidman, The Hours
2001 — Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball
2000 — Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
1999 — Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry
1998 — Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love
1997 — Helen Hunt, As Good as It Gets
1996 — Frances McDormand, Fargo
1995 — Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
1994 — Jessica Lange, Blue Sky
1993 — Holly Hunter, The Piano
1992 — Emma Thompson, Howards End
1991 — Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs
1990 — Kathy Bates, Misery
1989 — Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy
1988 — Jodie Foster, The Accused
1987 — Cher, Moonstruck
1986 — Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
1985 — Geraldine Page, Trip to Bountiful
1984 — Sally Field, Places in the Heart
1983 — Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment
1982 — Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
1981 — Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
1980 — Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter
1979 — Sally Field, Norma Rae
1978 — Jane Fonda, Coming Home
1977 — Diane Keaton, Annie Hall
1976 — Faye Dunaway, Network
1975 — Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1974 — Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
1973 — Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class
1972 — Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
1971 — Jane Fonda, Klute
1970 — Glenda Jackson, A Woman in Love
I typed all of this out to see the visual pattern of just how rare Halle Berry’s win was. As the frontrunner, Sissy Spacek was in a strong Best Picture contender with In the Bedroom. Most people had predicted her to be the winner on Oscar night, along with Russell Crowe for A Beautiful Mind. Instead, both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington for Training Day, another film not up for Best Picture, would win. It was an historic night and Halle Berry made sure that the moment would count.
The other thing to note about the history of Best Actress is how few Black actresses are nominated at all. Take a look at 1972 where you had Cicely Tyson for Sounder alongside Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues. No one was going to beat Liza Minnelli that year. Hers was an iconic role for all time. There is no getting around that. But it is kind of interesting that 1972 was not all that different from 2020/2021 in terms of what political currents were running through culture and the arts: to have two black actresses nominated for lead in the same year was historic and unheard of.
Here is the history of black Best Actress nominees:
1954 — Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
1972 — Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues; Cicely Tyson, Sounder
1974 — Diahann Carroll, Claudine
1985 — Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
1993 — Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got to do with It
2001 — Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball
2009 — Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
2011 — Viola Davis, the Help
2012 — Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
2016 — Ruth Negga, Loving
2019 — Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
2020 — Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
So far we seem to have one strong frontrunner in Carey Mulligan, who is the central character who drives the plot in Promising Young Woman. Mulligan’s performance is so many things at once. She plays a character playing multiple characters in order to fool other people to make them think about their past, specifically to make them remember her friend Nina’s rape. One of the best moments she has, among many, is when she is laying on the bed at the beginning of the film and looks up at the ceiling to signal to the audience that what you’ve been watching isn’t real. She isn’t the poor drunk girl picked up at the bar. She is perfectly sober and angry. “I said … WHAT are you doing?”
Mulligan is brilliant throughout, playing a woman whose life has been ruined by the heartache and grief she can’t overcome. She uses everything, specifically the power of her sexuality that she knows she can pull like a trigger, but also knows she has to come down off the ledge and try to have a normal life. Her internal struggle is visible throughout the film as she bobs in and out of real life and her make-belief revenge fantasy.
Her main competition seems to be Andra Day for The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Yes, if you’re keeping track this is the second time in Oscar history that two Black actresses were nominated in the same year and one was playing Billie Holiday. Day is mesmerizing in the role, captivating in both the singing and acting scenes playing the iconic and tragic singer who was both on top of the world and trying to navigate through a still very racist and segregated country. Like so many black artists of the time — including Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis who is also nominated for lead — they were loved but not quite enough to be considered as having equal rights.
Both of the roles, Carey Mulligan’s and Andra Day’s, are women who interface with men and sexuality throughout. Both are looking for Mr. Right and both always end up with Mr. Wrong. Both women are putting themselves in situations to be abused. Only Andra Day’s Billie Holiday manages to find one man to trust by the end. But it is interesting to compare the two roles in terms of their relationships with men.
Day’s scenes are more graphically sexual than any other performance by a female I’ve seen this year. The reason this is noteworthy is that sex has mostly been absent films overall of late, even if it flourishes on TV. For Day, she had to navigate not just being one of the greatest singers in American history, but a drug addiction to heroin, health problems, and abusive men. This is what we’ve known about Billie Holiday’s life, in addition to having help launch the Civil Rights movement with Strange Fruit. She has always been thought of as a tragic heroine and, thus, is deeply loved across the board.
Mulligan’s character puts herself in potentially dangerous, life-threatening situations, almost to convince herself of the idea that, yes, all men are potentially rapists. She is almost daring them not to be and once they green light their behavior, maybe even daring them to end her life even. She too is a tragic figure in that she can’t continue with her life. Emerald Fennell uses the beautiful visual metaphor of a broken heart necklace that Mulligan and her best friend each wore to signify how broken Mulligan’s character still is now that her friend is dead. She can’t put herself back together and never does. Her Cassie will be a cinematic icon for all time.
That brings us to the question of how this Oscar race is going to go. Clearly, Mulligan’s film has the momentum heading into the race, now having won the Writers Guild Award and picking up a lot of word-of-mouth. It seems like a lock that Original Screenplay is going to Fennell.
Still, Mulligan did not win at the Golden Globes. She lost to Day. Day is not nominated at SAG and neither is nominated at BAFTA. That means the only Best Actress win we will see will be whomever wins the SAG. There, it appears likely that Carey Mulligan could win. On the other hand, Viola Davis is nominated there too, along with Chadwick Boseman and an ensemble nomination for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. If it doesn’t win any of these awards, does it go home empty handed?
If Viola Davis somehow shocks and wins Best Actress, then you have Andra Day vs. Viola Davis vs. Carey Mulligan. The only one of the three that has a Best Picture nomination is Mulligan.
Needless to say, if Frances McDormand wins Best Actress (her third), she will make Oscar history as the first woman to win Best Actress in a film directed by a woman that focuses exclusively on a female character as its protagonist.
Voters who are looking to finally make history with only the second Best Actress win for a black actress might split their votes between Davis and Day, which would then give Mulligan the advantage. While again, 2021 might see this concept as crass, or even racist to say (and of the 2300 words I have written here they may highlight this one paragraph to prove something) — but the comment is less about the actors and more about how people vote on awards when they want to use their vote for good rather than just picking what they like.
I do think Best Actress is a bit of a cliffhanger this year, though a quick glance at Gold Derby’s predictions shows me that the majority, by far, believe Mulligan will prevail. While I too think that is likely, I also think it’s potentially likely that only the second time in Oscar history that multiple black actresses are nominated might shift votes in one direction or another.
The one thing we don’t have this year that is essential to winning Oscars is the ability to campaign FOR the Oscars with in-person events that build buzz. We don’t have much to go on except the work itself.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.