Heading into 2022, what drives the Best Actress race will be, as usual, “the narrative.” Last year’s narratives, or Oscar stories, were kind of all over the map and ended up collapsing by the end. Had the Oscars been held in late February, rather than late April, it’s hard to say how they would have turned out. There was a strong desire among many observers to break Halle Berry’s record of being the only black actress to win an Oscar in Academy history but there were two rivals for that milestone, Viola Davis and Andra Day, not one. Carey Mulligan’s popularity was another factor. In the end, Frances McDormand, who had strong support from the BAFTA contingent, prevailed to collect the prize.
Some people will say things like, “Well we knew it would be McDormand since Nomadland was winning Best Picture.” But for an actress to win without winning the Globe or the SAG would be nearly unprecedented, a long shot. After she won the BAFTA it seemed safe to assume to she might win the Oscar but there were different nominees at the Oscars than at BAFTA (because BAFTA’s were jury selected). Either way, there COULD have been a narrative for McDormand but there really wasn’t; not even Meryl Streep has won three Best Actress Oscars. McDormand was already going to win an Oscar for producing. It does not seem right that Viola Davis hasn’t won a lead Oscar at all. But it is what it is and it turned out to be what it turned out to be.
That means that Frances McDormand may or may not have a narrative heading into this year, where she will no doubt give probably the performance of her career in Macbeth. It will probably run circles around her subdued work in Nomadland. But then the question will become, does she win four to tie to with Katharine Hepburn?
Erik Anderson, over at AwardsWatch, keeps a fairly handy list of various potential names that may or may not be included in this year’s Oscar race. As of May of 2021, he has compiled the following list of hopefuls. I have bolded those I think probably have the best shot – though this is sight unseen and completely unreliable and based on absolutely nothing but a hunch (* = won a Lead Actress Oscar):
- Chante Adams – Journal for Jordan (Sony Pictures)
- Caitriona Balfe – Belfast (Focus Features)
- Melissa Barrera – Carmen (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Halle Berry* – Bruised (Netflix)
- Cate Blanchett* – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures) – lead or supporting?
- Sandra Bullock* – Untitled Nora Fingscheidt aka Unforgiven (Netflix)
- Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight Pictures)
- Jessica Chastain – The Forgiven (Searchlight Pictures)
- Jessica Chastain – The Good Nurse (Netflix)
- Jodie Comer – The Last Duel (20th Century Studios) – lead or supporting?
- Marion Cotillard* – Annette (Amazon Studios)
- Penélope Cruz – Official Competition (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Ana de Armas – Blonde (Netflix)
- Ana de Armas – Deep Water (20th Century Studios)
- Lou de Laage – The Mad Woman’s Ball (Amazon Studios)
- Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog (Netflix) – lead or supporting?
- Beanie Feldstein – The Humans (A24)
- Lady Gaga – House of Gucci (MGM/UA)
- Leslie Grace – In the Heights (Warner Bros)
- Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM)
- Angelina Jolie – Those Who Wished Me Dead (Warner Bros)
- Emilia Jones – CODA (Apple)
- Nicole Kidman* – Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios)
- Jennifer Lawrence* – Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
- Jennifer Lawrence* – Red, White and Water (A24)
- Lesley Manville – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (Focus Features)
- Rooney Mara – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures) – lead or supporting?
- Melissa McCarthy – The Starling (Netflix)
- Frances McDormand** – The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24) – lead or supporting?
- Thomasin McKenzie – Last Night in Soho (Focus Features) – lead or supporting?
- Florence Pugh – Don’t Worry Darling (Warner Bros)
- Margot Robbie – Untitled David O. Russell aka Canterbury Glass (20th Century Studios)
- Saoirse Ronan – Untitled Tom George Murder Mystery (Searchlight Pictures)
- Amanda Seyfried – A Mouthful of Air (Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions)
- Kristen Stewart – Spencer (Neon)
- Tilda Swinton – Memoria (Neon)
- Anya Taylor-Joy – Last Night in Soho (Focus Features)
- Tessa Thompson – Passing (Netflix)
- Odessa Young – Mothering Sunday (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Rachel Zegler – West Side Story (20th Century Studios)
Jennifer Hudson has a strong shot at claiming the early lead in this race but that’s because she has a strong narrative heading into it. The other narrative that jumps out at me is that Jessica Chastain is doing that Jessica Chastain thing with three roles heading into the year. When she has a year like that it makes it harder because she competes against herself. Either way, though, she is on the list of those who have outstanding careers but have not yet won an Oscar. That’s certainly true of a few others on the list who could use momentum from their careers to push through to a win – like Saoirse Ronan, Rooney Mara (but she’s likely supporting for Nightmare Alley).
There are, of course, actresses who have won in Supporting but not yet in Lead, like Tilda Swinton, Penelope Cruz and Angelina Jolie.
But the Oscars are only sometimes about finally awarding someone who is overdue. Sometimes they are about the hot new thing. I can see a few of those on this list, including Margot Robbie, Jodie Comer, Tessa Thompson, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ana de Armas. But the one with the strongest newcomer status would be Rachel Zegler, depending on how good West Side Story is.
Everything that will happen in the Oscar race with every category, including Best Actress, will depend on Shit Storm Season. It’s like Hurricane Season – you have to keep a sharp eye on the gathering storms. Which of them will matter, what category they are. The Golden Globes, for instance, had a Category 5 level Shit Storm on their hands this year. There wasn’t much they could do except seek shelter and brace for impact. Now we are surveying the damage and they’re going to lose a year of their influential telecast.
Whether or not you think the Shit Storms are valid or unavoidable or whatever else, there is no denying what they are and how they impact the Oscar race. Most people don’t feel comfortable criticizing the gathering storms so they either stay quiet or they fight alongside them because we know that cancelling the Golden Globes, adding new members of color is going to fix racism in Hollywood. To me, it is misplaced and punishes the wrong people but no one is asking me. And they shouldn’t ask me. I am but a mere cog in the machine.
Each of the performers attached to films that become debris in fast moving powerful Shit Storms such that their trajectory can be disrupted. That has always been true but it’s especially true now. The Ellie Kemper thing is a good example of that. Anything ever done in the past, any movie ever made, any star or director anyone worked with will become a struggle session to approve or deny their status. Doesn’t that sound fun?
There is always the chance that people stop paying attention to Twitter. Maybe this year contenders will be free to compete on their performances alone. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. No Oscar Watcher following along so far, however, would believe that we can predict this race or any other without also anticipating Shit Storms and damage control.
So far, the skies look pretty clear. The ocean looks relatively calm. That’s the good news.
This is how Erik ranks his early predictions for Best Actress:
1. Cate Blanchett – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures)
2. Lady Gaga – House of Gucci (MGM/UA)
3. Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM)
4. Rachel Zegler – West Side Story (20th Century Studios)
5. Frances McDormand – The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24)
6. Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
7. Margot Robbie – Untitled David O. Russell aka Canterbury Glass (20th Century Studios)
8. Halle Berry – Bruised (Netflix)
9. Marion Cotillard – Annette (Amazon Studios)
10. Ana de Armas – Blonde (Netflix)
It is too early to call, as no one has seen any of these yet. Erik is quite bullish on Nightmare Alley and has been for some time. I guess if you put Searchlight together with Bradley Cooper and Guillermo Del Toro you can’t lose. While I think this movie is likely to be great, my guess is that audiences will be in need of something uplifting in 2022. That would have more impact on Best Picture, not Best Actress. So it’s theoretically possible Blanchett could win. She’s always great. But she’d be winning her second Oscar, which is slightly more of a hurdle than someone winning their first.
This past year was extremely rare in that Best Picture and Best Actress were locked. That hadn’t happened since 2004 with Hilary Swank and Million Dollar Baby.
Best Actress, at the moment, could go to anyone and in any direction. Still, this would be my rankings:
- Jennifer Hudson – Respect
- Rachel Zegler — West Side Story
- Frances McDormand – The Tragedy of Macbeth
- Cate Blanchett – Nightmare Alley
- Ana de Armas – Blonde
- Emelia Jones – CODA
- Jessica Chastain — in either Tammy Faye or The Good Nurse
- Jennifer Lawrence — Red, White and Water
- Nicole Kidman — Being the Ricardos
- Tessa Thompson — Passing
How about you, Oscar watchers?