A chaotic Best Actress race finally reached the finish line Sunday night, with Frances McDormand taking home her third acting Oscar for Nomadland. With this, she is now one of only seven actors to win three or more Oscars for acting, joining Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman, Daniel Day-Lewis and Walter Brennan. Being part of such an elite group is a big deal, and proof that when the Oscars like you, they really like you.
In the process, McDormand defeated tough competition — Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman,and Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Awards prognosticators were all over the place in predicting who would win the Oscar, considering the precursors were split between four of the five nominees (sorry to Vanessa Kirby truthers). McDormand’s competition had compelling narratives to win, so why was it she who walked away with her third Best Actress Oscar?
In a race without a clear frontrunner to rubber-stamp, it is unlikely that McDormand won a majority of the votes. The votes were probably evenly split between all five performers, leading to a plurality win in the end. What likely gave McDormand the edge over her competitors is the film she was in. Nomadland was in the no.1 position all season long and considering it also won Best Director for Chloé Zhao and Best Picture, for which McDormand won another Oscar as a producer, there were enough voters that clearly loved the film. In a race where Mulligan was the only other Best Actress nominee whose film was nominated for Best Picture, it’s possible that she and McDormand had an advantage over Davis, Day, and Kirby.
Yet, McDormand’s victory also perpetuates a glaring pattern of Black actors being passed over in the lead categories. In their respective films, Davis and Day gave performances that are very much in the Academy’s wheelhouse, playing real-life singers and modifying their appearance like recent winners Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody and Renée Zellweger in Judy. They also won key precursors, with Day winning the Golden Globe and Davis winning at the SAG Awards, indicating that they were in the hunt to repeat at the Oscars. An Oscar victory for either of them would have meant another Black woman had finally won Best Actress, joining Halle Berry’s historic win in 2002 for Monster’s Ball. Davis could have become the first Black actress to win multiple Oscars, following her 2017 Supporting Actress victory for Fences. But even with a diversifying membership of the Academy, Berry now enters another year as the only Black woman to win the lead prize at the Oscars in 93 years.
Ultimately, McDormand is one of the most respected actresses in the industry, the kind of no-frills performer that can get away with not shaking hands and kissing babies on the awards circuit. If anything, one could argue that they respect her more for not playing the game. She prefers to let the work speak for itself, fitting given the working-class sensibilities of all three characters she’s won Oscars for — police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, embittered mother Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the wandering Fern in Nomadland. Her win for Nomadland is a rare example of a subtle role winning Best Actress, a performance that features many scenes of her listening empathetically to the stories of those she meets along the road, haunted by the loss of her husband and the life she had before. There is quiet defiance in her performance, one that doesn’t rely on speechifying or crying or transforming but still gets the audience to feel what she’s feeling. Her win is as much a credit to her as it is to Zhao’s understated screenplay. One can only hope that Black actresses and other POC can be afforded the same opportunities to play nuanced leading roles and earn the recognition they deserve.
Courtesy of AMPAS/ABC