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As if AwardsWatch wasn’t already the biggest fans of the Best Actress category (it’s always the heaviest trafficked and talked about section in the forums), the bench of this race is now so deep that there are now more contenders than slots to fill. Previous years have seen such a dearth of likely candidates that it almost becomes a chore to fill in a final five. Not this year.
Viola Davis (Fences), has been the frontrunner since Fences was announced but slowly her status is being chipped away by rapturous reviews of Emma Stone in La La Land and now Natalie Portman in Jackie. Where those two have the benefit of festival presence and their performance being seen, Davis definitely suffers from her film having no visibility and merely being “good on paper.” Much debate has been made even to it being a lead performance. So much so that unsubstantiated rumors have been floated that she could be pushed into supporting. I still maintain that Davis nor Paramount is going to let that happen but it’s obviously not out of the realm of possibility.
The announcement yesterday that Fox Searchlight would hold onto Jackie and release the film on December 9th sent the Gold Rush Gang (and I’m sure every Oscar pundit) scurrying to their Best Actress lists to reorg. Just one week after I posted the September Best Actress predictions Portman debuts at #3 on the news of the distribution. Here’s the side by side comparison:
When you look at the numbers, you’ll see something interesting; it’s not Emma Stone that took a hit, it’s Viola Davis. Granted, nearly everyone lost points as a result of Portman entering the race (Loving‘s Ruth Negga saw her numbers cut in half) but it’s that lack of visibility into Davis that is hurting her right now. Amy Adams, who has received raves for Arrival, stays solid with her point total and interestingly, Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) actually gained one. One of the more complicated factors to this race is that Paramount has Davis, Adams, and Streep. Adams is campaigning like crazy, so is Streep. Davis is set to win her second Emmy this weekend. All three are viable contenders for the studio but will they begin to favor one (or more) than the other?
What we do know right now is that in the very first head to head, Emma Stone bested Natalie Portman. Venice chose Stone as Best Actress (making her the first American actress to win there since Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven in 2002) but did find room to reward Jackie for its screenplay. It must be noted that Venice only allows one win per film so the behind the scenes debate as to what La La Land would get and what Jackie would get must have been heated.
But wait, there’s more! Not only do we have those performances in the running there’s also Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. She’s angling for an Oscar comeback and her film, which new Oscar-magnet A24 is releasing, is going to be the Centerpiece film at both New York and Mill Valley festivals next month. Isabelle Huppert, the French cinema legend, is pulling out all the stops with Elle (from Sony Pictures Classics) and showing up to multiple festivals and Q&As, a rarity for the elusive actress. After Charlotte Rampling’s nomination last year, it could absolutely happen. Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train is a very outside possibility but it seems that train has left the station. It might have never stopped, to be honest.
The trailer for Jessica Chastain’s gun-control drama Miss Sloane came out today and she’s a contender too. Hugely topical subject matter from a twice-nominated actress and you have Oscar Bait 101. The symbiosis of a gun-control film being released the same day as Jackie (December 9th) is almost too eerie. But with Portman having Fox Searchlight behind her versus Chastain with the untested EuropaCorp and the imbalance becomes clear.
Let’s take a look at two other factors that can come into play in this race: Best Picture correlation and real-life characters. Now, it used to be that Best Actor was the category most closely linked to Best Picture and with winners that played real-life people. It still is; seven of the last 10 winners there were real-life people and six of those were in Best Picture nominees. Looking at the same 10 years, Best Actress winners showed up in six Best Picture nominees but just three were playing real-life women. So we’re seeing Best Actress winners more and more coming from Best Picture nominees but not so much for playing real people.
So who’s playing a real person? Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep and Ruth Negga. Who is most likely in a Best Picture nominee? That’s obviously much more open to debate but if I use the Gold Rush Gang’s top 10 in Best Picture at the moment then we have La La Land, Arrival, Fences, Jackie and Loving (in that order). So it’s not getting easier, it’s getting harder. Negga is beginning to feel very vulnerable now; her reviews and that of her film, have largely been respectful but muted. Possibly too muted for this batch. One thing she has on her side though is that she’d be the only first-time nominee of the bunch when you look at the top contenders. Obviously, Huppert would be too but her chances are far less than Negga’s at the moment.
It would be impossible to talk about this race without talking about, well, race. After two years in a row of zero non-white performances being Oscar-nominated, the backlash and outrage that followed set the Academy upon a drastic and much-needed overhaul of its voting process and diversity of membership. 683 people were invited to the Academy this year, more than double the usual number. Many of those invitees were women and/or people of color, infusing a stronger representation of more than just ‘old white men,’ as the Academy’s reputation (and actual makeup) is.
This is one of the factors that has kept Viola Davis on top up to this point. Not exclusively, of course. She won a Tony for this role in 2010 in lead, and her role in the film has been expanded from the revival of the play. But we are still in a world where in 89 years only one woman of color has ever won Best Actress. It’s been 15 years since Halle Berry’s historic win and since then there have been just a few non-white nominees in this category, Viola Davis being one of them (for The Help). She lost to Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) that year, who the Academy thought needed a 3rd Oscar. A mere nomination for Davis here would be historic because it would make her the first black actress to be nominated in Lead twice. Like really, that’s never happened before. Ever. In 2016.
For Natalie Portman, her portrayal of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination has been lauded as one for the ages. Astonishing. Incandescent. Magnificently layered. The praise is undeniable but a second Best Actress Oscar in just six years? Of course, it’s happened before but when Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs) and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) did it their films were also Best Picture winners. Back in 1937 and 1938, Luise Rainer became the first (and still only) back-to-back Best Actress Oscar winner. Both of her films were Best Picture nominated but she did the reverse; her first win came from a Best Picture winner. Meryl Streep recently bucked that trend; her second Lead win (The Iron Lady) came from a non-BP nominated film. Looking at their male counterparts it seems as if the bar is higher for actresses for those second wins than it is for actors. Firstly, many more men have won two Best Actor statues than women have won Best Actress twice. Sean Penn won for Milk without a BP win (it was a BP nominee and Original Screenplay winner). Back-to-back winners Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy got their second wins for a Best Picture nominees (Hanks’ was the winner). Daniel Day-Lewis won both for films that lost Best Picture. Dustin Hoffman, however, won both of his in films that also won Best Picture.
So where does that leave us on September 13th? At worst, we now have a real race on our hands. At best, we potentially have one of the best Best Actress lineups in years filled with incredible performances by respected actresses. That’s just good for everyone.