Picture it, Los Angeles 1969.
A young actress in her first lead role, a musical biopic. A veteran legend and two-time Oscar winner. “It’s a tie!” exclaims Ingrid Bergman. Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) and Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) had both been announced as the winner of Best Actress, the first and only occurrence of such a tie in this category. Hepburn, a Hollywood recluse and whom never appeared at the Oscars for any four of her wins, was decidedly not there, presumably lounging in her Connecticut home in a comfortable pantsuit. Enter Streisand, in a pantsuit of her own; an Arnold Scaasi number with flowy bell-bottoms, white-cuffed sleeves and collar decorated with a black bow. She entered an ingenue and left a star.
Now, I’m not saying that we’re going to see a tie this year but if there was any year since then that it could happen, it’s this one. Not only do we not have a clear frontrunner, all four precursors have gone to four different actresses. Not since the supporting actress race of 2007 have we seen this kind of split and it’s made for an exciting season. After all, how many times do pundits and Oscar watchers alike complain about rubber-stamped races and predictable outcomes? Well, now you’ve got what you always wish for; the most open race of the year as at least four of the five nominees has a claim to the crown in a year that also gave us the first time in nearly 50 years that we have two Black nominees in Best Actress.
When I say ‘four of out five’ I am, regrettably, putting Vanessa Kirby on that outside #5 spot. Despite being one of only two of the nominees to successfully navigate the wild precursor season and hit all four (Golden Globe, Critics Choice, SAG, BAFTA), she’s the only one to not win one. That’s not to dismiss her riveting performance in Pieces of a Woman in a miscarriage story of raw and palpable grief that I would like to Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. It’s a star-making turn even as Kirby had already cemented her up and coming status with her roles in The Crown and Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday) grabbed her first lead role as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday and never let go. She shocked when she won the Globe over her Oscar competition here but for a film that woefully underperformed everywhere and sits at terrible 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, her path is a very difficult one. Day only secured a Critics Choice nomination and missed SAG and BAFTA, the latter of which she didn’t even longlist for, so we can’t use the solid history of Golden Globe winners here to bolster her case. Who knows what the box office for the film would have been like had we not been in a closed-theater pandemic but it probably wouldn’t have been a Funny Girl-sized hit but it could have been, we’ll never know. Still, Hulu and Day’s team did a great job getting her to present awards at everywhere from BAFTA to various guilds right as final Oscar voting kicked off. One big feather in Day’s cap: she does all her own singing and mimics Holiday’s very specific and unique voice startlingly well.
Two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand disappears into her role as Fern in Nomadland in a way that few, if any, name actors could have done. Immersing herself with real nomads like Linda May and Swankie, she never feels like she’s outside of this tribe. In typical McDormand fashion, she hasn’t showed up to any awards events so far, not even logging on for to Zoom for it. Hepburn-level realness there. Does McDormand’s recent win in this category hurt her at all? It didn’t hurt Hepburn who had won the year before The Lion in Winter and McDormand is actually in better shape as she’s in the Best Picture frontrunner this year. She was in the runner-up last time with 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and her first win, for 1996’s Fargo, was also a Best Picture nominee as well as the Original Screenplay winner. If you look at some of the anonymous Oscar ballots anecdotally, there doesn’t seem to be too much mind paid about her recent win. A woman of few but very powerful words when it comes to giving a speech, her commentary on the state of film and women and people of color in both the awards realm and film would once again set the town on fire.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman continues to step so far outside of her comfort zone, or rather the audience’s comfort zone for her, almost the opposite of what Frances McDormand does in many ways. Both of them give the most critically-acclaimed performances by a lead actress this season, ending in a tie for the most wins (23). For Mulligan, since her first Oscar nomination for 2009’s An Education, she’s an actress who has quietly built a legacy of performances that anyone would envy. Whether it’s her outstanding supporting turns in her 2011 films Drive and Shame to her Oscar-worthy turn in 2018’s Wildlife, Mulligan is sneaky. She’s creating a canon of such breadth that in just a few years we’ll look back on it with wonder. As Cassie in Promising Young Woman, Mulligan turns the tables and isn’t the woman being protected but the protector and defender. She’s Ryan Gosling in Drive this time. While some liken the film and even her performance to 2019’s Oscar winner Joker and Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix, there’s also hints of Natalie Portman and her Oscar-winning turn in 2010’s Black Swan. Mulligan is near the ‘perfect’ age of for a Best Actress winner (the average age as consistently been around 30, Mulligan is 35) and Oscar voters respond to women and trauma when it comes to Best Actress winners: see Portman, Charlize Theron, Marion Cotillard and Halle Berry just to name a few. While it’s true that Mulligan’s precursor run – she only has Critics Choice – is a huge negative (she really should have been able to snag the Globe or SAG), she’s in a Best Picture nominee with a Best Director nomination and the likely Original Screenplay winner. Her position, outside of McDormand, is the strongest of the five in that regard.
Sometimes it pays to stick with you gut, your instinct and your original predictions.
I had Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) as my #1 from my very first predictions last summer and then for seven months straight: July, August, September, October, November, December, January. Since I’ve not wavered from Chadwick Boseman since November, I had to look at the history of two lead performances from the same film and what it took to make that happen. First, you obviously had to be in a Best Picture nominee. Second, you needed either a Best Director and/or Film Editing nomination. Every duo that had accomplished this had done that in a field of five. I looked at Ma Rainey‘s director George C. Wolfe, a pillar and icon in the theatre community, and thought there could be a path for him. Editing, maybe less so but it wasn’t needed if Wolfe could get in. That become less likely very quickly I had to look at this possibility with a bit more scrutiny. Right at this time, Mulligan was rising and rising fast. Her film wasn’t niche and she wasn’t going to be a lone nominee, it was becoming a formidable player across the board. I dropped Davis down to #2 for February and replaced her with Mulligan, which I don’t regret for a second, I was reading the race in the moment (she returned to the top spot in the last Frontrunner Friday from April 9.). When Ma Rainey missed Best Picture (and Adapted Screenplay) it gave me serious pause. It was already going to be difficult to get those two lead wins but how were they going to do it without BP? No film in history has ever done that. But then I thought; well, this is like no other year in Oscar history. We already saw record-breaking nominations for women and people of color. We know that several stats will break this year with winners and that more history will be made, so why not this? Viola Davis is arguably the most respected and revered actress working today and she imbues blues legend Ma Rainey with grit and strength and bravado. She has already made history at the Emmys. She’s made history at SAG. She’s the most-nominated Black Actress of all time and the only to ever earn two Best Actress Oscar nods. She came close to winning with The Help. I believe it is her time.
The best part of this Best Actress race is that regardless of who the winner is, they will not only be richly deserving but impossible to predict with clarity. I may get it right, you may get it right, but neither you nor I will have any bragging rights in doing so. No precursor this year is going to speak louder or be stronger. Passion and narrative will drive this victory and we’ll all be winners no matter the result.
The 93rd Oscars will be held on April 25 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and the Union Station in Los Angeles.
Here are my ranked final Oscar predictions in Best Actress.
- Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) – BFCA, GG, SAG
- Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (Focus Features) – BFCA, GG, SAG
- Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) – BAFTA, BFCA, GG, SAG
- Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) – BFCA, GG
- Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (Netflix) – BAFTA, BFCA, GG, SAG