Last night, the Screen Actors Guild threw an exciting wrench into the Best Actress race in the best way possible. Viola Davis won Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, her sixth career SAG award and her second lead win in this category. What that win did is make for the most open Best Actress race in years.
The season kicked off first with the Golden Globes where Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) and Frances McDormand (Nomadland) were the favorites but then we were all blindsided by Andra Day’s win for The United States vs. Billie Holiday. While a traditional winner, Day was such a late-breaker that the only other nomination she earned was at Critics Choice and she wasn’t a factor in the critics’ awards races at all the way that Mulligan and McDormand were. Without a Screen Actors Guild or BAFTA nomination (she didn’t even make the longlist there) is there a path for Day and her breakthrough lead debut? Well, yes and no. The Globe to Oscar correlation is pretty spectacular. For the last 20 years, the Golden Globe winner for Best Actress in either Drama or Musical/Comedy has gone on to win the Best Actress Oscar. The one time that didn’t transpire was Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. She lost the Globe to Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom) but she bounced back at SAG. The 2008 Kate Winslet year is an ongoing asterisk in this statistic but it’s clear had she been in lead at the Globes and SAG with The Reader instead of Revolutionary Road that she still would have won. It was simply her time. Although Day’s film received mediocre reviews and she’s its only nomination, she did all her own singing, her performance was universally praised and it hits all the peaks and valleys that Oscar voters love in their biopics. Looking at recent winners like Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody and Renée Zellweger in Judy, your film’s reception is far less important than an audience being moved or impressed by a biopic performance.
Early in the season, late summer 2020, I had Davis and her co-star Chadwick Boseman pegged as our Best Actress and Best Actor winners. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was surely going to receive Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay nominations and director George C. Wolfe had traction in director. All of these things needed to fall in place because, historically, for a film to win the two lead categories it needed them. Then none of those things transpired and while Boseman has remained the locked and loaded frontrunner, Davis began to move down my list. It was looking less and less like It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Network (1976), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and As Good As It Gets (1997) with each passing day. Add to that, only two films have ever won two acting awards without a Best Picture nomination: The Miracle Worker (1962) and Hud (1963), but both of those wins were in lead and supporting. Davis’s SAG win is substantial though. She’s only the fourth person to win a lead SAG with less than 30 minutes of screentime, joining Frances McDormand ( 1996’s Fargo), Annette Bening (1999’s American Beauty) and Benicio Del Toro (2000’s Traffic). Through all of this, Davis is the most awarded actress of the nominees and one of the most respected in the industry. She has carved out many firsts in her career (she was the first Black actress to win the Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy) and her reputation is unimpeachable. SAG’s correlation with the Oscar isn’t quite as strong as the Globe’s but they are often tied together. 15/20 SAG winners went on to Oscar gold. The ones that did not missed out to the Golden Globe winner. In the cases of Julie Christie/Marion Cotillard and Glenn Close/Olivia Colman, all won the Globe in different categories.
It can’t be overlooked that this is not only an exceptional year due to the pandemic or that BAFTA made dramatic changes to their voting processes or the extended eligibility for this year’s Oscar race. It’s that this is only the second time in the 93 years of the Academy Awards that two Black women have been nominated for Best Actress in the same year. The last time was 48 years ago when Cicely Tyson (Sounder) and Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues) were nominated. It also can’t go without saying that it’s with great irony that both Day and Ross played jazz legend Billie Holiday in their feature film lead debuts. Tyson and Ross lost to Liza Minelli in Cabaret that year (who came in with the Musical/Comedy Globe) but there’s no such competition like that for Day and Davis this year.
For Carey Mulligan, SAG was her last stand. As she’s not nominated for BAFTA, she now goes into the Oscars with just a Critics Choice win, not the best precursor. Critics Choice is really just the added benefit value when someone is sweeping their category, something that is not happening here. Mulligan is now in company with Julianne Moore (2002), Anne Hathaway (2008, in a tie), Natalie Portman (2016) and Lady Gaga (2018, in another tie), all of whom lost their Oscar bids. What does benefit Mulligan in this split year is that she’s in a stronger film than any of the women on that list. With director, screenplay and editing nominations, Promising Young Woman remains a top 3 contender.
Frances McDormand just picked up her 2nd Best Actress win four years ago but the Academy isn’t shy about handing out trophies to recent winners as Tom Hanks and Katharine Hepburn would be able to attest to. In fact, Hepburn might be McDormand’s closest comparison and might do something that even Meryl Streep hasn’t been able to do: win a 3rd Best Actress Oscar. Obviously the biggest benefit for McDormand is that she’s in the Best Picture frontrunner with a locked Best Director win and likely Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography too. A few weeks ago I posited on Twitter that Nomadland could simply sweep all six of its categories. McDormand went into the televised awards season as the critics’ leader, just ahead of Mulligan, so a win wouldn’t come out of left field. But now having lost both the Globe and SAG, it does seem like the industry isn’t rushing to reward quite so soon. But there’s still BAFTA but will her subdued performance impede her? In a very split field, she’s in the strongest film and that might be all she needs.
Speaking of BAFTA, the only other Oscar nominee there besides McDormand is Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman). Kirby has been the most consistent contender for nominations right alongside McDormand and are the only two to have earned all four: Golden Globe, Critics Choice, SAG and BAFTA. Could Kirby benefit from a home court advantage at BAFTA next week and keep this wild race afloat? Maybe, but unlike in some years past where the BAFTA winner can hold the key in a split race (Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton), she’s her film’s only nomination and that seems like a hill to high to climb.
Let’s take a look at years when the Globes and SAG have split and who ended up winning the Oscar.
2011 – GG: Meryl Streep; SAG: Viola Davis
2008 – GG: Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road; SAG: Meryl Streep [Kate Winslet, The Reader]
2001 – GG: Sissy Spacek; SAG: Halle Berry
1999 – GG: Hilary Swank; SAG: Annette Bening
1996 – GG: Brenda Blethyn/Madonna; SAG: Frances McDormand
1995 – GG: Sharon Stone; SAG: Susan Sarandon
1994 – GG: Jessica Lange; SAG: Jodie Foster
Pretty close, with SAG winning four times vs the Golden Globe winner prevailing. When you dig into each of those races you can derive enough narratives and reasons for who ended up triumphing at the end. Lange hadn’t had a lead win, while Foster had two. Sarandon was on her 5th nomination in a much stronger film. McDormand was in a stronger (and more American) film than Blethyn and Madonna wasn’t nominated. Swank beating Bening has been one that’s supplied Oscar talk for the ages but Swank’s breakthrough was undeniable even in the face of her competitor being in the eventual Best Picture winner. Berry became the first, and still only Black Best Actress winner whereas Spacek was a previous winner here. The Kate Winslet year has been examined and explained. The Streep vs Davis year was a fascinating one as Davis was in The Help, a massive hit that won three SAGs, was Best Picture nominated and won Supporting Actress. She had been nominated three years prior for Doubt (with Streep) but this was her SAG breakthrough. Yet she couldn’t get past Streep’s real-life portrayal of Margaret Thatcher and Harvey Weinstein’s shockingly audacious campaign of ‘Meryl Streep hasn’t won an Oscar in 29 years!’ that actually worked.
The last battle these competitors will face will be at the Film Independent Spirit Awards three days before the Oscars where Davis, McDormand and Mulligan are all nominated. The Oscars and the Spirit Awards have aligned quite a lot in the last decade and in Best Actress seven of those 10 years although their timing has no impact on Oscar voting. But Spirit Awards voting on winners is open to the public, all you need is a Film Independent membership so it’s less industry than even the Globes. But it will still be interesting to see where they go here, whether it’s with an Oscar nominee or a more left field choice.
As pundits, and even more casual viewers, we always bemoan predictable races with rubber stamped winners. Well, now we have a real race and we won’t know the winner until Joaquin Phoenix says “and the Oscar goes to…”