Best Actress has been one of the best and most roller coaster categories of this season. But then, it usually is It’s always my favorite category and constantly provides the richest group of performances, drama and everything that a lover of the Oscars and actresses can offer. We get icons, legends, ingenues, breakthroughs and all that’s in between year after year and this year is no different.
Packed with biopics and actresses playing real-life people through impression or interpretation, there was a point this season where the Best Actress lineup could have been populated entirely by them. But we know from history that is extremely unlikely. Even 4/5 is unlikely; the last time it happened was 2009, the season Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side (more on that later). Three out of five, that’s more common but there’s no ‘rule’ to any of this. The year before, 2008, had just one.
This year ranges from Jessica Chastain commitment under layers of makeup and prosthetics to play televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker to Nicole Kidman as television comedy pioneer Lucille Ball despite looking or sounding nothing like her to Lady Gaga’s absolutely wild and unhinged performance as Italian murderess Patrizia Reggiani to Jennifer Hudson’s womb to tomb of legendary singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin to Kirsten Stewart’s experimental and shocking portrayal of Princess Diana, one of the most beloved figures in history. Every performance has its fans, its stans and a path to Oscar glory.
It’s no secret that Kristen Stewart in Spencer was my favorite performance of the year. Before I saw the film at Telluride it was one of those ‘so good on paper it’s going to win’ moments when it was announced. NEON did a spectacular job just giving us one photo at a time, whetting our appetite. Then a teaser where Stewart had but two small words (“They don’t”) and we finally got to hear her take of Diana’s very unique voice. Coming after Emma Corrin’s take on The Crown probably hurt Stewart a bit (ironically, they had the same dialect coach) but it was more than enough to build excitement. But, even as the overwhelming critics’ favorite, Stewart was stopped at the door by top circles like LAFCA, NYFCC and NSFC. Then the SAG snub came and it felt dire. Was the performance and film too weird? Jackie wasn’t. Black Swan wasn’t. Is there Twilight stigma attached to her, still? Maybe that out of context Variety headline about her not caring about awards did permanent damage.
Chastain’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye hit TIFF and was released quickly soon after. A box office disaster even by indie terms at $2.4M, the two-time Oscar nominee still earned great reviews and she is indeed, committed and fantastic playing a complicated woman in a film that maybe cuts her a bit too much slack.
Kidman, who won Best Actress 20 years ago for The Hours, has struggled to find the vehicle that was going to bring her a second win. She had a comeback nomination here with 2011’s Rabbit Hole (one of her best performances) and then one in supporting for 2016’s Lion but was never in the pole position for either. When it was announced she’d be playing Lucille Ball, people were genuinely confused. A biopic starring Cate Blanchett had been in the works, which people were largely keen on, was scrapped. A few dozen Debra Messing fans were irate that she wasn’t going to play her because she got to ape her in a bottle episode of Will & Grace once. Then the set pics of Kidman in hair and makeup came in and people were aghast. They were bad and they flooded the internet like a virus. I think the initial negative reaction ultimately worked in Kidman’s favor in the end as audiences (read: voters) probably went in with reduced expectations only to be impressed by her performance. She won the Globe (for whatever that is worth this season) in a bit of a surprise (many, including myself, expected this to be the coronation of Stewart’s reign this season) and the Globes’ history of the winner in this category is nearly unmatched compared to any other precursor. What shocked us all was the BAFTA snub. With another new rule this year on top of the new rules set last year, most expected Kidman to be an easy in as a top 2 choice by the acting chapter at large. But that was clearly not the case as she missed entirely.
Jennifer Hudson (Respect) has already won an Oscar for playing a singer (for supporting actress in 2008’s Dreamgirls) and tried her hand at it again, this time going for one of the most iconic singer-songwriters of all time, no small goal. Hudson doesn’t look a thing like Franklin and while she does her own singing, which is commendable vs just doing a lazy lip synch performance, she doesn’t sound much like her either. She, and the film itself, is a greatest hits of songs and biopic beats that are uniformly unremarkable but that doesn’t usually matter to voters. Much of the time they just want those greatest hits and don’t need a weird, interpretive version of someone they think they know. Hudson was largely blanked this season (maybe from that early August release) but nabbed a SAG nomination over the likes of Stewart and more.
Then there’s Lady Gaga. Oh Mother Monster. Ever since her success with 2018’s A Star Is Born, which earned her a Best Actress nomination and a win for Original Song, Gaga has clearly been angling for the role that would get her a win. It needed to be a huge character that she could sink her teeth, heels and claws into. She’ll be the first to tell you she studied the Strasberg method, went to Circle in the Square and studied method acting for 10 years before hitting it big as a musician. She got what she was looking for in House of Gucci; a role that allowed her to be over the top, embedded, deeply method and tossing in accents like drunk shopping late night on Amazon. And, it paid off. The film was one of the only true box office success stories of the fall and winter and a unicorn in terms of adult dramas, which the pandemic has all but destroyed. Haters be damned, she now stands in her tallest platforms above all contenders as the only lead actress to hit all precursors. Remember earlier when I mentioned Sandra Bullock and The Blind Side? This year, the Oscars return to 10 Best Picture nominees after a decade of a sliding scale. The first year of this expansion was 2009 when Sandra Bullock won Best Actress and her blockbuster hit The Blind Side landed in Best Picture. While this is clearly not an apples to apples comparison (Bullock was a far more established actress and had two huge hits that year), The Blind Side was derided by critics but loved by audiences and voting bodies alike. The same is happening for Gaga and House of Gucci.
So what does that mean for actresses not relying on real life people to base their performances on? Rachel Zegler played Maria in the new adaptation of West Side Story, a formidable task she was up for and won a Golden Globe for in the process. Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza), Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers), Tessa Thompson (Passing) and Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World) all found some success this season, either with critics or the industry, and some with both. Any one, or all of them, would be deserved choices. I have to come back to the history of biopic performances and how many slots they’ll realistically take up vs original creations. It’s no secret that voters like the idea of a biopic as a fast track to an Oscar. It can easily make someone who’s never been nominated go ‘I could do that, this could be my path.’ They love transformations and accents and makeup and everything that allows a performer to push even harder to disguise themselves and provide something completely different than what we’ve seen from them. But performances by actors without their roles benefiting from being a known entity get to provide audiences and voters with more of a ‘Hey, that’s me’ and see themselves on screen, not as actors giving a performance, but simply as people.
Here are my final 2022 Oscar nomination predictions for Best Actress.
1. Lady Gaga – House of Gucci (MGM/UAR) – GG, CCA, SAG, BAFTA
2. Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios) – GG, CCA, SAG
3. Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter (Netflix) – GG, CCA, SAG
4. Jennifer Hudson – Respect (MGM/UAR) – SAG
5. Kristen Stewart – Spencer (NEON) – GG, CCA
6. Alana Haim – Licorice Pizza (MGM/UAR) – GG, CCA, BAFTA
7. Penélope Cruz – Parallel Mothers (Sony Pictures Classics)
8. Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight Pictures) – GG, CCA, SAG
9. Renate Reinsve – The Worst Person in the World (NEON) – BAFTA
10. Rachel Zegler – West Side Story (20th Century Studios) – GG