Over the course of Oscar history, 12 leading ladies have scored the Best Actress trophy as the only nomination from their film. This year, not one but two tour de force turns are in contention to emerge the 13th performance to achieve this feat.
Should Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) or Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) emerge triumphant, they will mark the first Best Actress winner since Julianne Moore (Still Alice) in 2014 to prevail as the only recognition from their picture.
Over the earliest years of the Oscars, it was common for leading ladies to receive their film’s only bid and triumph on the big night. The second-ever Best Actress winner, Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928), was the lone nominee for her film, as were the victorious Marie Dressler in Min and Bill (1930), Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory (1932) and Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935). Given the fewer number of categories in this era, it was hardly a rarity for acting contenders to find themselves the lone representations of their productions.
Following that remarkable run, it would take more than two decades for another actress to achieve this feat as Joanne Woodward prevailed for her turn in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). She would be followed in the next decade by Sophia Loren in Two Women (1961) and later by Jodie Foster in The Accused (1988), Kathy Bates in Misery (1990), Jessica Lange in Blue Sky (1994), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) and, most recently, Moore.
A common thread among several of these winners is an overdue narrative. On her fifth career bid, Moore was overwhelmingly seen as due for an Oscar win. Likewise, after four losses in Best Actress, there was strong sentiment on her fifth bid that it was time for a leading victory for Lange. Davis’ first win was widely viewed as a consolation for her having been snubbed the year prior for Of Human Bondage (1934) and by the release of Coquette, Pickford had graced more than 200 short or feature films.
While such a narrative is not present with Day or Kirby, both contenders are very much in the running.
Though Day missed with both the SAG and BAFTA Awards, she scored a key win at the Golden Globes, taking home the Drama Actress prize. Of the past 10 winners in that category, seven have gone on to take the Oscar. Day also portrays a real-life figure – and an entertainer at that, which has struck Oscar gold for the likes of Renee Zellweger in Judy (2019), Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2017) and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (2005) in recent years.
For her part, Kirby has not scored a major precursor win. What she has achieved, however, unlike fellow nominees Day, Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), is, alongside Frances McDormand (Nomadland), emerged with nominations at each of the Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards. This is indicative of broad, widespread support and, with three Oscar nominees on the sidelines, she’s very much a threat to triumph at BAFTA. Of the past 10 Best Actress BAFTA winners, a whopping nine have also taken the Oscar.
In an awards season brimming with uncertainty, do not dare underestimate either of these powerhouse turns for the Oscar win.