Almost every Best Actress winner comes with an Oscar story.
It isn’t always the case that there is one frontrunner who wins everything, including Best Actress. Sometimes there is a surprise winner. Like Olivia Colman in The Favourite beating Glenn Close in The Wife, which was predicted by some people, like Gregory Ellwood. And then last year’s winner, Frances McDormand, winning her third Best Actress award was coming in an unpredictable year, given the patterns of history. But some were predicting her based on the strength of the Best Picture frontrunner, people like Scott Feinberg.
But for McDormand’s win alongside Best Picture for Nomadland you have to go back 17 years to 2004 to find a year where that happened, with Hilary Swank winning for Million Dollar Baby. And even then, Swank won the Globe and the SAG before going on to win the Oscar. McDormand won neither. She was, however, the only frontrunner nominated for a BAFTA after they made the unusual move to use a committee to select their nominees to ensure inclusivity, thus throwing off the pattern:
It’s extremely rare for the Best Actress winner to not have won either the Globe or the SAG or both. So McDormand’s win, especially last year, was definitely out of the ordinary if you look at the patterns of history. But the thing is this wasn’t a usual pattern simply because the Oscars were extended by months. Usually, they are held at the end of February. Last year, they were held at the end of April. The Globe and SAG winners did not have corresponding Best Picture nominations – but Carey Mulligan did for Promising Young Woman. That set up a vote-splitting scenario with, I imagine, the BAFTA contingent dominating one bloc. Clearly, they have much voting power in the Oscars – enough to hand Anthony Hopkins the win over Chadwick Boseman, and Adapted Screenplay over Nomadland.
We don’t call them the BAFTOSCARS for nothing. The BAFTA voters, especially in the acting branch, is a force to be reckoned with, but especially so, I imagine, when there vote-splitting going on for various reasons.
But in general, in the Best Actress race there is often one anointed winner early on. This year there two, at least if you go by the buzz online, which, given last year, might not be the best idea. Remember, this year is going to be an extended season, like last year, with voting not even starting until the end of January.
So, to that end, the two strongest — vis a vis Twitter and critics, anyway:
Kristen Stewart, Spencer Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
These two seem to be lighting the chatter up and are quickly taking their place in predictions across the board. Both are playing famous real life women. Stewart is playing a most beloved icon, Chastain not so much but there is room for redemption. Hudson also plays a beloved icon.
The Oscarati have mostly abandoned the idea of Jennifer Hudson as the frontrunner and defacto winner for Respect. I think their abandonment is premature but since I thought either Viola Davis or Andra Day would win last year and McDormand did, no one is going to listen to what I think. It’s hard for me to imagine actors not remembering her work and not just because she’s the only strong Black actress contender in the race, and not just because the film is written, directed, and about Black women overall, but because it’s good and her performance is still the best female performance I’ve seen this year. Again, that doesn’t matter as much as excitement, buzz, and hype.
Can either of these movies, or Respect, land in the Best Picture race with ten?
Even when someone loses the Oscar they still have an Oscar story. If they’ve been around a while, they have some kind of story — whether they have won one or not, how many they’ve won, whether they are overdue, whether they will never win and will be in line instead for an “Honorary Oscar.”
Here are a couple of recent examples:
Renee Zellweger turned into many great performances but somehow never won in lead. She had won in Supporting (Cold Mountain) but it looked as though her moment has passed. She also was hit with a bit of controversy when someone called her out for plastic surgery. That turned into a big story and before long, that was all anyone could talk about. But then she came back with Judy, a showstopper of a performance that helped marry the tragedy of Judy Garland with the recent exile of Zellweger, and an Oscar winner was born.
Natalie Portman had been acting most of her life, starting in childhood. She also had a lot of promise and eventually transformed herself into a neurotic ballerina in Black Swan. No one else was going to win that Oscar once people saw the performance. It was considered unequivocal.
Kate Winslet was always a bridesmaid and never a bride but finally turned in two strong performances in one year – The Reader and Revolutionary Road. She won in both categories at the Golden Globes. Her time had come at last to win.
It really comes down to something very simple and Sally Field really put it best when she said:
It simply comes down to this: how much they like you and how much they want to see you win. A publicist’s job is to figure out the best way to do that. When it comes to surprise wins like McDormand and Colman – there is clearly something else at play. But when one frontrunner dominates the season that is usually the reason why.
Of the three early contenders, the strongest Oscar story is Chastain’s, who has delivered an array of strong performances throughout her career but is still sitting on just two Oscar nominations, one for Zero Dark Thirty and one in Supporting for The Help. Chastain’s Oscar story is mostly that is she is so overdue for an Oscar win. But it’s also going to be how much this movie meant to her personally and how she worked so hard to bring it to the screen. She is also lending much sympathy and compassion to Tammy Faye Bakker, which is, I think, a heroic thing to do when she could easily do the opposite.
Kristen Stewart is still a bit of an ingenue who would be, and likely will be, heading into the Oscars with a first-time nomination. There are plenty of actresses who won with their first Oscar nomination in Lead and Supporting. Brie Larson for Room, Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose. It happens. Stewart’s “Oscar story” is that she worked hard to finally be recognized as a serious actress and now she is ready to take her career to the next level. It really is the great leap forward that she has taken in her career with this role that is the kind of thing that often wins Oscars. This, as opposed to people like, say, Meryl Streep whom everyone already knows is one of the best there is – so they are not as surprised when they turn in a brilliant performance. But with Stewart no one really saw it coming (some did, but in general).
Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar story would be that she came from nowhere, American Idol, and won an Oscar for Dreamgirls. Now she’s back doing extraordinary work as Aretha Franklin. But it’s really her personal connection to Franklin that should and will be her Oscar story – that she was hand-picked by the legend herself to play the part. She learned how to play piano just to be able to play her. Her story is also uplifting. By the end we see a success story, triumph over adversity, which wasn’t the cast last year with the tragic stories of Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey. That also matters. That’s probably also true with Chastain in Tammy Faye. It is bittersweet with Stewart in Spencer.
Lady Gaga’s Oscar story is that she was considered a favorite for A Star is Born but did not win. She is also breaking into acting from singing. Here, she will be playing a smart ass, which gives her a chance to be more like herself on screen than in A Star is Born. There is a thing about her that people love to see her as the DIVA – and this might be the best showcase for that.
Queen for a Season
With or without an Oscar Story, one thing that often happens during the run-up to the Oscars, though not always, is for a Best Actress contender to be “glammed up” and set loose on the red carpet, on talk shows, at parties. One of the ways this helps a winner, like Natalie Portman or Brie Larson or Marion Cotillard or Charlize Theron is that they can compare their glamorous selves with the characters they played. For actresses, voters don’t know well that can really boost their profile for the simple reason that a pretty woman in a great dress can still make headlines, as we’ve just seen in the past few days at the VMAs and the Met Gala.
That is, I think, another reason why younger women tend to dominate the Oscars, or at least good-looking women do. And that isn’t necessarily to do with “the Patriarchy.” Women and all types of gender identities love to look at pretty. Pretty is eye-catching for humans. It just is. We can lecture and scold all we want but this is a reptilian brain thing. Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar run had a lot to do with just how charismatic and pretty she was for a season. Probably this is controversial to say — Twitter call-out worthy (go for it) but it’s hard to see it differently if you follow this race. Everyone knows it’s true whether they say so out loud or not. There are always exceptions to every rule, of course, and sometimes it doesn’t matter. And “pretty” is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but there is a reason publicists will have their contenders out there, dressed up in their finery. People look, people see, people remember.
All three of the women I’ve just mentioned, Stewart, Chastain and Hudson are very much out and about, breathtakingly gorgeous.
But it doesn’t always drive a win. Olivia Colman did none of this the year she won for The Favourite. She did some publicity but she didn’t really glam and go that route. Glenn Close is also an actress who has never really done that. Sometimes making it about it the work wins. Sometimes it doesn’t. Those sexy photo shoots you see on magazine covers come Oscar time? Well, that is what that is about.
A Best Actress winner can often get there because of complete transformation. Clearly, that isn’t all of it or Viola Davis would have beat McDormand last year. But Kristen Stewart becoming Diana such that her own personality disappears, Jessica Chastain’s face disappearing behind the makeup for Tammy Faye. Nicole Kidman perhaps turning into Lucille Ball, Jennifer Hudson becoming Aretha Franklin.
Charlize Theron gained thirty pounds, Nicole Kidman wore a fake nose, Hillary Swank learned to box, Marion Cotillard looked exactly like Edith Piaf. Meryl Streep had been nominated so many times but had only won one Lead Actress Oscar in 2011. Then she transformed into the Iron Lady and won her second. She still trails McDormand and Katharine Hepburn.
It doesn’t always turn in a win, however. Renee Zellweger didn’t win for gaining and losing weight for Bridget Jones’s Diary, for instance. But it added to her “Oscar Story” cred overall as an actress.
The Globes Effect
The Hollywood Foreign Press has a separate category just for Musical/Comedy performances and this year you might see all five slots for both Picture and Actress going to musicals. It could look something like this:
Best Actress Musical/Comedy
Jennifer Hudson, Respect (she could go in either category but could win in this one)
Haley Bennett, Cyrano
Rachel Zegler, West Side Story
Marion Cotillard, Annette
Kaitlyn Dever, Dear Evan Hansen
Best Actor Musical/Comedy
Peter Dinklage, Cyrano
Anthony Ramos, In the Heights
Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Ansel Elgort, West Side Story
Max Harwood, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Best Picture Musical/Comedy
West Side Story
In the Heights
Dear Evan Hansen
I don’t know if these will be on the Globes list or if there will be a list at all this year. I do know that no other group outside of the guilds has as much power to push people into the race as they do.
And again, we still don’t know what Best Actress is going to look like overall. I’m still waiting to see Jodie Comer in The Last Duel, though we do not know if that is a leading or a supporting performance. But given her work in Killing Eve, and her strong notices out of Venice I think she is worth considering.
There are two more performances seen at Telluride that are coming in strong:
Caitriona Balfe who is the heart and soul of Belfast. She could be swept up in love for the film.
Haley Bennett in Cyrano. She is definitely lead and sings throughout. I suppose there is a small chance they could run her in the supporting category.
Olivia Colman for Lost Daughter wowed the critics in Telluride playing a complex character, a mother who never really wanted to be a mother.
Penelope Cruz just won Best Actress in Venice for Parallel Mothers, putting her in a strong position for a nomination.
Emelia Jones is wonderful in CODA, where she plays a hearing woman in a family of non-hearing people. But she also sings and must find a way to pursue her dreams without losing her connection to her family.
And then of course, Frances McDormand is back in the Tragedy of Macbeth, alongside Denzel Washington, directed by Joel Coen. She seems like a sight-unseen lock if there ever was one.
Both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson has some buzz coming into the race for Passing, directed by Rebecca Hall.
I do think it’s too early to call the Best Actress win. We have some intel but the end to this story has not yet been told. The critics will ring in. The guilds will ring in and then the Academy will ring in. I suppose, given the state of some of these actresses, the Twitter wars might have some impact on how it goes but we’ll have to wait and see if those erupt or not.
One thing to consider is that in a competitive year you are going to see some vote splitting. That makes it all much harder.