As it’s early in the year, we have a lot of ‘lead or supporting?’ questions lingering in the air, as we often do. Namely, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Nightmare Alley. When the pair were nominated as lovers in Todd Haynes’ 2015 film Carol, Blanchett went lead and Mara went supporting despite the latter having more screen time and as the film’s entry point. She was nominated in lead at the Golden Globes and also won the Cannes Best Actress prize. In the past, it wasn’t difficult to earn double lead nominations from a film (in either lead category) but we haven’t had two lead actress nominees from the same film since Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in 1991’s Thelma & Louise so actors and publicists have been weary to attempt to push for it.
Kirsten Dunst in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a potential category toss-up. Based on Tom Savage’s 1967 novel about two ranch brothers torn between the same woman, the film could be more centered around Benedict Cumberbatch’s character Phil, a nasty homophobe, than Dunst’s Rose or Jesse Plemons’ George. There are echoes of Giant and Brokeback Mountain here, which could plunk Dunst into an Elizabeth Taylor/Michelle Williams size of a role. I’m willing to say she could find herself in lead but will cover my bets at the moment and highlight her here and in supporting actress.
Frances McDormand just won her third Best Actress Oscar, something even Meryl Streep hasn’t been able to accomplish, and she’ll be right back in the mix with The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by husband Joel Coen (without Ethan for the first time), who helmed her first win. What I’ve heard about the film has been phenomenal (black and white lensing, 4:3 ratio, very different than previous Coen efforts) but there might be some settling on a category for McDormand here. That said, she was able to beat that argument with her Fargo win and the amount of clout and industry respect she’s accrued since then, she can do whatever she wants.
Once again, Netflix is going to have its hands full with contenders in all categories and Best Actress is one of them. On top of Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog mentioned above, at TIFF last year they picked up Oscar winner Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised, which she also stars in as a former MMA fighter struggling to regain custody of her son and restart her athletic career. They have Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, based on the highly fictionalized book of the inner life of the Hollywood bombshell by Joyce Carol Oates and from director Andrew Dominik. They picked up Rebecca Hall’s Passing out of Sundance, which stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as two Black women in the 1920s who pass as white and the privilege that affords them. Oscar winner Sandra Bullock in the Untitled Nora Fingscheidt aka Unforgiven and Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in Adam McKay’s star-studded blockbuster Don’t Look Up plus Oscar nominees Jessica Chastain in The Good Nurse and Melissa McCarthy in The Starling and Riley Keough in The Guilty also highlight the Netflix list and we’re only in May.
A holdover from last year that was high on my list until the film was pulled due to theatrical closures, Rachel Zegler in West Side Story should be a major contender as the film is across the board. Inevitably the film will be met with the very high bar comparison to the 1961 version that won 10 Oscars but potentially in Zegler’s favor is that Natalie Wood, who played Maria in that version, wasn’t nominated. I think this actually gives Zegler the upper hand as earning a nomination will be purely performance-based rather than a bar to hit from a previous winner or nominee.
No Best Actress chart or conversation this year would be complete without Oscar winner Lady Gaga looking to score her second nod in this category. We’ve all seen the daily images of Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci with Gaga in more wig and costume changes than Madonna in Evita and in a story of such drama and intrigue that it’s bound to be a big player this season.
Last season we saw two Black women nominated in Best Actress in the same year for the first time since 1972. This year has the potential for that not be an anomaly but it doesn’t look great. We have the aforementioned Berry (still the only Black Best Actress in 93 years of Oscar) and Thompson but the most likely contender is another holdover from last year, Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect. Already an Oscar winner for a musical performance, Hudson was high on prediction lists until the film was pulled, as many others were, because of the pandemic. The film’s release was an odd trek; originally planned for August 2020, MGM moved it to February 2021 in hopes that the pandemic would have possibly run its course. That ran them up against Andra Day in The United States vs Billie Holiday, which was sold by Paramount to Hulu in late December 2020. With Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, there became a logjam of famous Black female singer biopics/stories bunched up together. Ultimately, MGM gave in and pulled Respect, which is now back to an August release. As it would pan out, Day and Davis would both be nominated, becoming only the second pair of Black Best Actress nominees ever in a single year.
Looking at some of the films that have yet to secure U.S. distribution and we might find some very strong contenders. Martha Plimpton as the mother of a child killed in a shooting in Mass could be a player if a good indie studio picks it up and gives it the right platform release. Two-time Academy Award winner Maggie Smith reprises her West End stage role of Brunhilde Pomsel, the infamous secretary of Nazi Joseph Goebbels, in A German Life from newly minted Oscar winner Christopher Hampton’s play. Smith played Pomsel in the one-woman play based on a series of interviews she gave to a group of Austrian filmmakers when she broke her silence shortly before her death at age 103. I’ve also heard great things about Noomi Rapace in Lambs, which should appear at Cannes this summer.
Here is my first take on Best Actress contenders for the 2022 Oscars, with and alphabetized list of likely contenders then a ranked list.
- Chante Adams – Journal for Jordan (Sony Pictures)
- Caitriona Balfe – Belfast (Focus Features)
- Melissa Barrera – Carmen (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Halle Berry – Bruised (Netflix)
- Cate Blanchett – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures) – lead or supporting?
- Sandra Bullock – Untitled Nora Fingscheidt aka Unforgiven (Netflix)
- Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight Pictures)
- Jessica Chastain – The Forgiven (Searchlight Pictures)
- Jessica Chastain – The Good Nurse (Netflix)
- Jodie Comer – The Last Duel (20th Century Studios) – lead or supporting?
- Marion Cotillard – Annette (Amazon Studios)
- Penélope Cruz – Official Competition (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Ana de Armas – Blonde (Netflix)
- Ana de Armas – Deep Water (20th Century Studios)
- Lou de Laage – The Mad Woman’s Ball (Amazon Studios)
- Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog (Netflix) – lead or supporting?
- Beanie Feldstein – The Humans (A24)
- Lady Gaga – House of Gucci (MGM/UA)
- Leslie Grace – In the Heights (Warner Bros)
- Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM)
- Angelina Jolie – Those Who Wished Me Dead (Warner Bros)
- Emilia Jones – CODA (Apple)
- Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios)
- Jennifer Lawrence – Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
- Jennifer Lawrence – Red, White and Water (A24)
- Lesley Manville – Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (Focus Features)
- Rooney Mara – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures) – lead or supporting?
- Melissa McCarthy – The Starling (Netflix)
- Frances McDormand – The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24) – lead or supporting?
- Thomasin McKenzie – Last Night in Soho (Focus Features) – lead or supporting?
- Florence Pugh – Don’t Worry Darling (Warner Bros)
- Margot Robbie – Untitled David O. Russell aka Canterbury Glass (20th Century Studios)
- Saoirse Ronan – Untitled Tom George Murder Mystery (Searchlight Pictures)
- Amanda Seyfried – A Mouthful of Air (Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions)
- Kristen Stewart – Spencer (Neon)
- Tilda Swinton – Memoria (Neon)
- Anya Taylor-Joy – Last Night in Soho (Focus Features)
- Tessa Thompson – Passing (Netflix)
- Odessa Young – Mothering Sunday (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Rachel Zegler – West Side Story (20th Century Studios)
My ranked Best Actress predictions for May 2021
1. Cate Blanchett – Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures)
2. Lady Gaga – House of Gucci (MGM/UA)
3. Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM)
4. Rachel Zegler – West Side Story (20th Century Studios)
5. Frances McDormand – The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24)
6. Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
7. Margot Robbie – Untitled David O. Russell aka Canterbury Glass (20th Century Studios)
8. Halle Berry – Bruised (Netflix)
9. Marion Cotillard – Annette (Amazon Studios)
10. Ana de Armas – Blonde (Netflix)
Films currently without distribution or possibly unfinished in time
- Yalitza Aparicio – Presencias (TBD)
- Bérénice Bejo – Shake Your Cares Away (TBD)
- Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter (TBD)
- Charlbi Dean – Triangle of Sadness (TBD)
- Virginie Efira – Benedetta (TBD)
- Thomasin McKenzie – Joika (TBD)
- Martha Plimpton – Mass (TBD)
- Noomi Rapace – Lambs (TBD)
- Maggie Smith – A German Life (TBD)
- Tilda Swinton – Three Thousand Years of Longing (MGM)
- Tang Wei – Decision to Leave (TBD)
- Shailene Woodley – Misanthrope (TBD)
- Elsa Zylberstein – Simone, the Odyssey of the Century (TBD)
This article has been edited. A previous version of this article referred to Joyce Carol Oates as a Hollywood bombshell. Copy editing is fun, folks!