As we head into the final stretch of the Oscar game, you see a lot of people believing they have the race all figured out. But all you have to do is look at the shortlists announced yesterday to see how unpredictable the race can still be. That is never more true than in the Best Actress race. There are some names that are rising in the last act that may or may not make the cut.
But before we get there, let’s look at a stat. Since 1994, no Best Actress winner has won without both a Globe and a SAG nomination. That means our winner is going to be someone on this list, most likely:
Cate Blanchett, TAR
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere
Olivia Colman, Empire of Light
Viola Davis, The Woman King
Margot Robbie, Babylon
Ana de Armas, Blonde
Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Menu
Emma Thompson, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Lesley Manville, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
Might someone not on this list get in for nominations? Absolutely. But the winner is most likely, with a 99% chance, on this list.
That gives us a good starting point. The Best Actress nominees are not usually tied to Best Picture the same way Best Actor usually is. The winner can often be from a Best Picture nominee, but not always. It helps because with the expanded ballot, voters like to spread the wealth among the 10 Best Picture contenders. If they really like a movie, like The Favourite, and it isn’t going to win anything else, it might just take Best Actress. Olivia Colman did when she beat Glenn Close for The Wife, which did not have a Best Picture nomination.
Best Actress has matched Best Picture just once in the era of the expanded ballot, Frances McDormand for Nomadland. By contrast, Best Actor has won with Best Picture twice, The King’s Speech and The Artist, but then never again. Voters spread the wealth with the big prizes, which is why films don’t sweep anymore. Should the Academy shrink Best Picture down to five (which they should absolutely do if they want to save themselves), then we’ll see more sweeps happening again, with one movie winning the lion’s share of the major awards.
In the era of the expanded ballot, between 2009-2021, eight times has the Best Actress winner starred in a Best Picture nominee (or winner). Five times, the Best Actress winner did not come from a Best Picture nominee (or winner).
For Best Actor, 12 times the Best Actor winner came from a Best Picture nominee (or winner) and only once from a non-Best Picture nominee (Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart).
There is such a strong disconnect simply because films have traditionally revolved around the central male hero. And probably will again once voters stop voting like they’re making a hostage video. Their natural inclination tends to be toward films about a boy or a man — just as box office tends to be stronger when there’s a male protagonist.
Our potential Best Picture nominees this year are a mix, I’d say, of women and men:
Everything Everywhere All at Once, female lead
The Fabelmans, male lead
Banshees of Inisherin, male lead
Avatar: The Way of Water, male lead (ish)
Top Gun: Maverick, male lead
Women Talking, female lead
TAR, female lead
Elvis, male lead
Babylon, female lead
All Quiet on the Western Front, male lead
The Woman King, female lead
Glass Onion, male lead
RRR, male lead
Till, female lead
She Said, female lead
Nope, male lead
Bardo, male lead
For the past two years, women-led films have won Best Picture, though that breaks with the Oscar’s typical history favoring films where men are at the center of the story. The question is will this be a year with another female-led film winning? And is that film going to be Everything, Everywhere All at Once, and if so, does Michelle Yeoh also win, matching the Nomadland pattern?
Usually, a Best Actress winner either wins for the movie, or she wins because voters like her, they really like her. Jessica Chastain won last year because it was her time. She won the same way Julianne Moore won for Still Alice, or Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady. When it’s time, it’s TIME. But that circumstance is usually more about the actress herself than the role. Not always, though. When Brie Larson won for Room, or Jennifer Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook, a lot of that was due to how much people loved those movies, and loved those characters. In Larson’s case, she wasn’t yet that well known.
What usually has to happen if the actress is not known to voters is that the publicist has to squire them around from party to party, late night talk shows, magazine covers, etc. They have to be everywhere all at once. That was certainly Marion Cotillard the year she won for La Vie on Rose. So much of what drove that win was seeing her actual flawless appearance, compared to how she looked in the guise of Edith Piaf.
If they win for the movie that usually means the movie isn’t going to win. If The Fablemans is the Best Picture winner, then that means Michelle Yeoh or Cate Blanchett will likely win BA. If another movie wins Best Picture, like The Banshees of Inisherin, then Michelle Williams could be the big win for The Fabelmans.
That Everything Everywhere missed out on makeup and visual effects on the shortlists could mean it doesn’t have as much broad support throughout the Academy as some thought it might have had. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t win Best Picture.
We measure Best Actress by three things:
Likability of Actress
Likability of Role
Likability of Movie
Ideally, you have all three but the trifecta is not 100% necessary, if the actress is beloved enough to pull in a win (like Jessica Chastain last year).
Cate Blanchett in TAR – What’s remarkable about this performance is how much information Blanchett has packed into the brain of her character. We know immediately that she’s a world-class conductor from the film’s bravado opening monologue. Field uses that monologue to show how in her own head she is, and in a way, how out of touch she is with everything else. She has insulated herself in her work. She is comfortable with her place in culture and in her industry, and then of course, it all collapses. Blanchett is, as usual, just brilliant in scene after scene, as we watch this powerful person inadvertently orchestrate her own fall from grace. This would be her third Oscar win overall, and second win for Best Actress. Likability of actress, check. Role and movie still up in the air.
Michelle Yeoh in Everything, Everywhere All at Once plays a woman whose life has mostly passed her by. She gets another chance to relive various dreams she had once via the multiverse. Throughout the adventure, the central storyline is her strained relationship with her daughter. Yeoh brings her experience as a martial arts expert to help create a character whose life is suddenly and perhaps miraculously upended. A win for her would be a win for the film, but it would also to pay tribute to her legacy and long, fruitful career. Likability of actress, check. Role and movie still up in the air.
Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans – It’s quite a feat to bring Steven Spielberg’s legendary mother to life. To do this, Williams completely disappears in the role. She plays a woman who never really outgrew her childhood but seemed to always float in a kind of a dream state. She was born out of time, probably meant for a different era when women weren’t necessarily supposed to stay home and raise kids. Williams plays her as though she’s acting in her own fairy tale. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. Likability of Actress, Check. Likability of Role, no doubt. Likeability of Movie, probably.
Olivia Colman, The Empire of Light – It seems that every time Colman takes on a role she outdoes her last performance. That is certainly true of her brilliant work as a woman grappling with serious mental health issues while working at a movie theater. It might be true that Sam Mendes tries to tell too many stories in Empire of Light. It wrestles with being a coming of age film about someone who discovers movies and the story of a woman whose life is ultimately saved by them. His heart seems torn between these two themes. Each could be their own separate movie. Colman is great at keeping her emotions simmering just beneath the surface until they finally explode. Likability of Actress, check. Of role? Probably. Of movie? Not yet known.
Danielle Deadwyler, Till – To date, only one Black actress has won Best Actress in all 95 years of Oscar history. That remains, for the virtue-signaling crowd, quite the stat. History will be made one day. It is just a matter of when. Without a Globe nomination, Deadwyler’s chances to win put her in the longer shot territory. But we’ve seen stats broken too. She is masterful in the role, showing her gradual evolution from grieving mother to activist. It’s the kind of role that anyone can connect with and relate to, which means she has a very good chance of getting in for a nomination, at least.
Margot Robbie, Babylon – The “It Girl” of today plays the “It Girl” from a century ago in Damien Chazelle’s wild ride, Babylon. Robbie has the kind of face audiences just want to stare at because she is so beautiful. She continually wants to prove that she is more than a pretty face and tends to dive into roles that disrupt that veneer. This role is certainly at the top of that list in terms of everything she does in this movie, from grabbing a rattlesnake and then running around in circles with the snake dangling from her neck to projectile vomiting in the face of — I think — William Randolph Hearst. Crazy-eyed, unpredictable, and sometimes really funny — it is a strange performance. It’s hard to know what voters will make of the movie or the performance but Babylon did quite well on the shortlists, which seems to indicate broad support. She is the kind of star you want at your show, too, so that helps.
Ana de Armas, Blonde – Speaking of stars you want at your show, de Armas is another “It Girl” who plays another legendary “It Girl,” Marilyn Monroe. If Elvis and Marilyn both walk into the Dolby next year… that would be an echo of our past like no other. Like Babylon, it’s a role that takes courage. She did not flinch playing the roughest scenes. It’s hard to know what voters will make of it but so far she seems to be picking up steam.
Viola Davis, The Woman King – With a Globe nomination as her calling card, Davis is well-positioned to enter the race. It would help if The Woman King overall was landing here or there. It landed on the shortlist only in Original Score, where it might have been expected to show up for hairstyling and makeup. Maybe that matters, maybe it doesn’t. Davis is a powerhouse in the role of warrior. She is beyond overdue for a Lead Actress Oscar, as the only woman to have won the SAG twice only to lose the Oscar to an actress winning her third. Is this finally the movie to bring it in?
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Menu
Emma Thompson, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Lesley Manville, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
Rooney Mara, Women Talking
Zoe Kazan, She Said