This year’s Best Actress race is the most unpredictable and competitive in years. That makes it nearly impossible to predict. Let’s count the ways.
If Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman win on the 25th, it will be the first year that the Best Actor and Best Actress winners both appeared in a film not nominated for Best Picture since Denzel Washington won for Training Day and Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball, two decades ago. Before that, in 1974 Art Carney won for Harry and Tonto and Ellen Burstyn won for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In 1947, Ronald Colman won for A Double Life and Loretta Young won for The Farmer’s Daughter.
When was the last time two lead actors won for the same movie that wasn’t nominated for Best Picture? Never. It has never happened. Two actors have won from films nominated for Best Picture, like Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt from As Good as It Gets or Jack Nicholson and Louis Fletcher for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But never for a film that isn’t nominated for Best Picture, especially in the era of the expanded ballot.
Viola Davis has in her favor that she won the SAG award for Best Actress. As long as there has been a Screen Actors Guild award, no actress has ever won the Oscar without winning either the Globe or the SAG first.
Best Actress usually isn’t as competitive these days as it once was in decades past. It is further complicated by the fact that two black actresses are up for the win. Halle Berry is the first and still the only black actress to win in all of Oscar history. Anyone who wants their vote to help represent progress might find their intention split with another voter who chose someone else for the same reason. The more competitive the race, the more likely it is for unpredictable splits to occur.
Some are imagining that Carey Mulligan is the Adrien Brody of this year. Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar because there was a three-way split. That year, Jack Nicholson won the Golden Globe for About Schmidt and Daniel Day-Lewis won the SAG for Gangs of New York. Neither of those movies were liked very much. About Schmidt did not have a Best Picture nomination, though had there been an expanded ballot it would have. Still, because the date was extended back then, as it is now, there was time for The Pianist to rally and win Director, Screenplay, and Actor in a last minute shocker. That meant Chicago still won Best Picture and Supporting Actress but did not win Director nor Screenplay.
There are those Oscar years where three strong performances are neck and neck among voters and the actor we might least expect tips the balance to pull ahead of the other two, like Adrien Brody. What are some other examples of that? Here are a few that stand out when quickly scanning Oscar history. No doubt, there are more because these often revolve around popularity of the time, not necessarily what remains popular in the future.
1936 — Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas and Greta Garbo in Camille lose out to Luise Ranier in The Good Earth (who won her second back-to-back Oscar after winning the previous year in The Great Ziegfeld.
1940 — Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Best Picture winner) lose to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle (interesting to note, Fontaine lost in 1940 but won the following year for Suspicion)
1950 — Bette Davis, Anne Baxter in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard lose to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.
1954 — Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, and Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina all lose to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
1961 — Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s lose to Sophia Loren in Two Women.
1962 — Betty Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses, and Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth all lose to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.
1977 — Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, Shirley MacLaine/Anne Bancroft for The Turning Point, and Jane Fonda for Julia all lose to Diane Keaton for Annie Hall.
1985 — Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams, and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa all lose to Geraldine Page in Trip to Bountiful.
1987 — Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, Meryl Streep in Ironweed, and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction lose to Cher for Moonstruck.
2012 — Emanuelle Riva in Amour and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty lose to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook.
Andra Day, if she wins, would win for a film with no other Oscar nominations at all. That can happen but it’s rare. Less rare lately but still mostly rare:
1928/1929 — Mary Pickford, Coquette
1930/1931 — Marie Dressler, Min and Bill
1931/1932 — Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet
1932/1933 — Kate Hepburn, Morning Glory
1935 — Bette Davis, Dangerous
1957 — Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
1961 — Sofia Loren, Two Women
1988 — Jodie Foster, The Accused
1990 — Kathy Bates, Misery
1994 — Jessica Lange, Blue Sky
2003 — Charlize Theron, Monster
2014 — Julianne Moore, Still Alice
What Day has going for her is that she won the Golden Globe over Frances McDormand (BAFTA), Viola Davis (SAG), and Carey Mulligan (Critics Choice). The only other time the four have gone up against each other was at the Critics Choice where Carey Mulligan prevailed. More often than not the Globe winner, from one or the other category, goes on to win the Oscar.
Day has history working slightly in her favor in that the last (and only other time) two black actresses are nominated in the same year and one of them was playing Billie Holiday (Diana Ross).
Carey Mulligan is up against the Globe/SAG stat, meaning her win would have to totally break precedent. What she has going for her, however, is that she’s in a Best Picture nominee.
In the Best Actor category, Chadwick Boseman has won the Globe and the SAG. His death has a major impact here in the states and not as much of an impact in the UK, which is why Anthony Hopkins won in Best Actor for The Father. But here’s the thing: Boseman is not starring in a Best Picture contender. The only actor who has won without one in the era of the expanded ballot is Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart. He was up against Jeremy Renner, who starred in the Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, and George Clooney, who was also in a Best Picture nominee, Up in the Air. Clooney, especially, was a strong frontrunner heading into the race. If you used the Best Picture contender logic there you would have chose Clooney to win. Bridges had both the Globe and the SAG but he, like Boseman, lost the BAFTA to a British favorite, Colin Firth for A Single Man.
Like Boseman, Bridges had an “urgency to win” aura around his nomination. He was beloved, he was overdue and he was giving his all in his last remaining months. In general, though, where Best Actor is concerned, Best Picture is a reliable predictor for a win.
If Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman both win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, they will become the first co-stars to win the lead acting categories without a Best Picture nomination.
If Andra Day wins, she’ll be the first to win with a Globe and Oscar without a SAG nomination in all of SAG’s history.
If Carey Mulligan (or Frances McDormand) wins, she will be the first since SAG began to win the Oscar without winning either the Globe or the SAG.
If Frances McDormand wins, she’ll join only Katharine Hepburn (who has four) for having three or more Best Lead Actress wins (Meryl Streep has two).
If Chadwick Boseman wins, he’ll join just two actors with posthumous Oscar wins: Peter Finch for Network (lead) and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (supporting).