This year’s Best Actress race is suddenly very competitive. For a while there, it looked like there was one solid frontrunner, Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer. She still may be the frontrunner. But one thing we now know: it won’t be a cakewalk. Although many pundits have all but ignored Jennifer Hudson in Respect, as time goes by it might not be as easy. Voting doesn’t even start until the end of January, which will at least cut into some of the heat and hype of a season.
Then there’s Nicole Kidman, whose performance in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos is the stuff that Oscar wins are made on. Not to get too ahead of ourselves here, but had Kidman not already won for The Hours, she’d easily be looking at her first win. She might be looking at her second, but it is still too soon to tell. There are a few movies left to see — among them is Nightmare Alley, which will have Rooney Mara in lead and Cate Blanchett in supporting. There is also West Side Story with Rachel Zegler.
Best Actress is generally about three things:
- Likeability of role
- Likeability of actress
- Likeability of movie
It isn’t necessary to have all three, but it surely helps. One of the ways publicists help boost unknown actresses is by making them more well-known and thus likable, as was the case with previously-unknown actresses like Alicia Vikander, Brie Larson, and Marion Cotillard. If they are well-known already and beloved, that isn’t something publicists have to work on. With Best Actor, it’s slightly different: likability doesn’t matter as much but it can still make a difference. This is partly due to the level of difficulty for men than for women, because the kinds of parts they get are often much more complex, physically challenging, and transformational. Still, let’s never forget how hard Jeff Bridges had to work to close the deal with Crazy Heart.
Closing the deal (“ABC — Always Be Closing”) is an icky part of the process many do not want to engage in, but are forced for various reasons. The first is that there is pressure to win not only for one’s own career, but also for the success of the movie overall. Another reason is not wanting to appear indifferent to the privilege of winning. Neither Anthony Hopkins nor Frances McDormand campaigned last year and still pulled in wins just based on the strength of the three rules of likability.
By contrast, their competitors didn’t have all three. Chadwick Boseman had likability of star but not likability of movie. Likability of role was probably evenly balanced but surely no one hated it. Viola Davis had likability of star but ran into the same problems — did they like the character? Not sure. Did they like the movie? No, they did not. With Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, it seemed she had likability of star for sure, likeability of movie — probably, since it had a Best Picture nomination. But likability of role? That one was more iffy.
Closing the deal often means relentless campaigning and interviews with journalists and sycophants whose main goal is to be in close proximity to famous people. I’m sure a little of that can be fun. But a lot of it has to wear on one’s soul after a while. They are in a catch-22 of whether to go through it and maybe win, or skip it and salvage a tiny piece of their dignity. Then again, no one is really judging them harshly. It’s just a matter of how they come away from it. Does it make them sick to their stomachs, or do they just see it as part of the job.
I’ll never forget Jared Leto popping his head into the press the year after he won his Oscar and saying, “Hey, you guys miss me?” That was a funny moment of awareness that is perhaps one way to handle it — just make it fun and funny. George Clooney is also a master at this. But the one thing you never want to be is desperate. Voters can smell desperation from a mile away. They can sense desperate desire to win by how people work the circuit, and they can sense the desperation in their performances. It’s a delicate dance between wanting to win and playing to win, but still acting slightly above it all so that people still respect you in the morning.
This is only to say that in a competitive year like this one, it might come down to how people campaign. It also might not come down to that. But it does seem as though the fancy screenings are back in play, whereas last year they were absent due to COVID. It all had to be done via Zoom, which hurts contenders whose charisma and charm can be major influencers when it comes to voting. It isn’t just critics and bloggers and pundits and journalists who like rubbing up against fame — it is also Academy voters. Inviting them up to the Ross House in the Hollywood Hills for a catered meal above the glittering basin of Hollywood, sitting them down in a private screening room with plush leather seats where they can then stand a few feet away from the most famous people in the world? Well, that can have an impact.
And now that’s all back, apparently. I’ve been invited to a few of them (though I’ve not yet attended any). It’s not a total free-for-all yet. Some of these parties require not just vaccines but PCR tests to attend. That’s not going to be every Academy members’ cup of tea, I can pretty much guarantee that. But the early part of the race is getting placed in the Golden Globes and Critics Choice lineups. If they can get there, they have a chance of getting into the big show. That requires slightly less in terms of numbers of voters to influence.
But let’s go through the contenders for Best Actress, shall we?
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Liesl Tommy’s Respect
It was just a few months ago that Jennifer Hudson brought to life her mentor Aretha Franklin. Not only did she learn how to play the piano to play Franklin, but no other actress COULD play Franklin for one obvious reason: no other actress could sing like Franklin. Hudson takes the role from the very beginning of the preacher’s daughter’s life, through the destructive forces of abusive men and alcoholism through to the triumphant end, singing at the inauguration of the nation’s first black president.
Not only is it a story that needed to be told, but it’s a story told by the only person who could have told it, the only actress who could have played it. That is why, in her infinite wisdom, Aretha Franklin hand-picked Hudson to play her. To deny a nomination for Hudson is to deny the great Franklin’s wish. Only a group of fools would do something that stupid. I’m not calling my fellow pundits fools, nor am I calling the industry fools — but I’m just saying, ignore this work, this performance, this moment at your own peril.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer
Hudson brought Franklin back to life in full color to give us a glimpse into the mind and talent that, quite simply, broke the mold when it came to being one of the greatest singers this country has ever produced. Likewise, Kristen Stewart has delivered one of the strongest and best performances of the year as Princess Diana. At first, it seemed like an unlikely casting decision, but once you see Stewart become Diana, you understand it. She shares with the tragic heroine something elusive — something that is hard to define. Stewart understood it and she brings it to her performance so that we can see it.
Both Respect and Spencer need, or would greatly benefit from, Best Picture heat. If they’re going to be competing with Nicole Kidman (whose Being the Ricardos will definitely have it) it would help for them to also have it, especially with ten slots for Best Picture. Ten slots means a more expanded race than before. Prior to Kidman’s arrival, Stewart definitely stood out as the top contender, especially given that she has never even been nominated for an Oscar whereas both Jennifer Hudson and Nicole Kidman have and both have also already won. Still, it might come down to not just likability of star and role, but likability of movie overall. In an expanded ballot era, voters like to split up the major category wins among the Best Picture contenders. They are less likely to award winners whose movies weren’t nominated.
In 2009 and 2010 with ten Best Picture nominees, both Best Actress winners (Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side and Natalie Portman for Black Swan) had Best Picture nominations.
Nicole Kidman in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos
The only reason Kidman isn’t at the top of the list right now is that there is not enough intel on how voters will respond to the movie overall. A few select star-packed screenings isn’t enough. We need to see how the movie plays overall, whether SAG goes for it as expected (it could come in leading the nominations with all of the categories in play — Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress, and Cast). Where does it go at the Globes? Does it go in Musical/Comedy, and if so is Kidman up against Hudson? Who comes out the winner there? All Oscar wins are built on momentum. Whether it’s traveling under the radar momentum (word-of-mouth), or its visible, obvious momentum (sweeping the precursors).
Kidman gives easily one of her best performances as Lucille Ball. It helps that Sorkin put her at the center of the film as the smartest person in the room. Roles like this are rare for any actress because so few writers can write like Sorkin does. We want to pretend like just anyone can make movies, but the truth is only a few people can really make them well. Sorkin is among a small handful of writers who are in a league of their own — it’s probably an inconvenient truth but it’s a truth all the same. So, Kidman is helped by having a great script, as are all of the actors in the film. This is where, in my opinion, she could have the advantage over every other contender. She is starring in, without a doubt, the best written script that will come anywhere near the Best Actress lineup. Sorkin’s only real competition in Original Screenplay is Kenneth Branagh for Belfast, a film just as beautifully written as Being the Ricardos. Sorkin has never written a film with such a strong female role and it was definitely worth the wait.
Olivia Colman in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman, like Frances McDormand, comes in with Oscar cred. That means we know the Academy likes them, really likes them. So all that’s left is likability of role and movie. In the case of The Lost Daughter, I imagine it is probably more a film critics will love than Academy members, but you never know. One thing we do know is that the Academy is dominated by actors and Gyllenhaal is an actor, and a popular one — which means she’ll have support in the industry for this film. It’s not clear where it will land overall, but if it’s a Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress nominee, it could land in the Best Picture race too.
Colman is, of course, brilliant. She always is. Here, she plays a prickly woman who just isn’t built to be a mother. She didn’t want kids, hated raising them, and grapples with this throughout the movie. If you can stand that rather abrasive aspect (I barely could), then you will appreciate just how good of an actress Colman is. Every scene is a master class in depth and complexity of character. You might not like who she is in this movie but you can’t help but marvel at what a genius Colman is.
Lady Gaga in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci
Lady Gaga is what you’d call a natural talent. Because of her extraordinary fame as singer, she may not be seen by some as an actress in the traditional sense, but she has a fierce screen presence. More importantly, she has red carpet presence. Who would not want her at their show? It’s like that line in As Good as it Gets, “…If you make her laugh, you got a life.” Well, if Gaga is invited, you have a show. Without her, you have a far less showy show. That makes me think the “likability of star” is going to be a major driver here. She’s good in House of Gucci, but the movie is not entirely about her (though it should be). She is better in the funny/campy/bitchy territory than when she must do the slightly more difficult serous scenes, but overall she’s fun to watch and even more fun to watch on the red carpet.
Frances McDormand in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth
McDormand is coming off her third Best Actress win. So far she is three for three: nominated for lead three times, won three times. Here, she plays the legendary role of Lady Macbeth opposite Denzel Washington. She is as good as you’d expect her to be, though her part is probably more suited to the supporting category, given a competitive year like this one. But they are probably not going to run her in that category. In this case, you have likability of star (gee, ya think?) but the jury is still out on likability of movie. Likability of role could go either way. It’s a great part that any actor would love to play, but is she likable or is she diabolical? Either way, given McDormand (and Joel Coen’s) status in the industry, one can’t count her out.
Jodie Comer in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel
Jodie Comer is eventually and inevitably going to be a very big star. She is well-known for those who watch Killing Eve but others might not quite know her yet. The Last Duel is a showcase of very good acting across-the-board, but it’s also a film that will likely take some time to find its audience. I have no doubt that it will ultimately be remembered as one of the best films of 2021. That doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk for Oscar, or that Comer gets in. In The Last Duel, each of the actors plays three versions of themselves in the story. Comer must navigate playing herself through the eyes of two other characters. Her gift is in how little she gives away. If you’ve seen her in Killing Eve, you already know her range since she is required to manage different accents, personas, and identities. That makes her work here not nearly as difficult. If she is boosted by, say, the Golden Globes, she might have a shot.
Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers
As Almodóvar’s muse, Cruz delivers one of her best performances and has already won Best Actress in Venice. I have not yet seen the film, ahem, but from what I’ve heard she knocks it out of the park. As with all of this year’s contenders, it will come down to how much she wants to campaign. I imagine it won’t hurt that Javier Bardem looks like he could be earning a Best Actor nod for Being the Ricardos — the two of them could be quite the publicity team.
Jessica Chastain in Michael Showalter’s Eyes of Tammy Faye
Chastain was a stronger contender earlier in the year before the other performances dropped. It’s possible she still makes it in. All she would need would be a Globe nom or a SAG nom to get in. She is covered in makeup and prosthetics and plays Tammy Faye Bakker from her early days on through to the end of her life. In some ways, it is the role of a lifetime. Chastain is unrecognizable in the part. But the movie itself isn’t great and that probably makes it slightly more difficult for her to win in such a competitive year. It is a compassionate and sympathetic portrait, especially given how it could have gone, with Chastain mocking Bakker. But she never does.
Tessa Thompson in Rebecca Hall’s Passing
Last but certainly not least is Tessa Thompson in a moody slow burn of a film about black women in a white world “passing” for white. Like Gyllenhaal, Passing is Hall’s directorial debut, so, given that, it is pretty good. I imagine it will be a strong contender in critics awards. It might end up at the BAFTAs, maybe the Golden Globes. Or perhaps the SAG awards. Maybe it gets in as a surprise Ensemble nominee. Either way, this is one that I will keep in sight to watch for how well it does in the race. At the moment, it feels like the category is much too crowded, but you never know.
While we can’t know what the ultimate lineup will be, it does seem like there are (at least to my mind) three contenders for the win:
Kristen Stewart, Spencer
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Jennifer Hudson, Respect
But in a couple of weeks, we’ll have our first big awards announcements with the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics. Then we should have a better idea which way the wind blows.