Nearly every year, this decade has had a crowded field of Best Actress contenders, where worthy performances were elbowed out of the Oscar lineup due to a high degree of competition. As each year passed, roles for women kept getting better and better, until this year, where the field read as noticeably thin. In fact, many pundits have found themselves scrambling to fill the final spots in their predictions because it seemed like the best choices all had some definitive weakness.
However, after three months, I believe the consensus has settled mostly on the following group of women…
I feel confident we’ll see a version of this list for Best Actress consistently throughout the major televised awards, plus or minus a few names. There are rumblings about a few other performances, but none that have a likely chance of sticking their landing well enough to make it to the Oscar lineup. The campaign for Lupita Nyong’o’s exquisite performance in “Us” has grown more prominent in recent weeks. In terms of her chances, Nyong’o is somewhere between the snub of Toni Collette for “Hereditary” and the successful nomination of Daniel Kaluuya for “Get Out.” She deserves to be nominated for her work, but I fear the horror genre bias and the early release date may hold her back. I would advocate for Nyong’o to go all the way. In a perfect world, she would be nominated for “Us,” along with Naomi Watts’s outstanding performance in “Luce.” Had “Us” been released for Halloween in October, she would be a lock.
Alfre Woodard’s performance in “Clemency” has been making the rounds since Sundance, yet Neon decided to release the film on December 27, which is especially bad timing with the condensed voting period. I fear she will suffer the same fate as Nicole Kidman for “Destroyer” and Annette Bening for “20th Century Women,” both terrific work by veterans in smaller films theatrically released too late to gain serious non-Golden Globes traction. The Oscars are a test of stamina and exposure. The only other candidate with the chance of making an impact is Awkwafina for “The Farewell.” Her performance fits the mold of a first-time nomination for a promising young actress, like Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.” The problem is, no one knows what to do with “The Farewell” overall. It found success in its summer release, but it has been slipping out of the conversation as bigger contenders make their way into cinemas.
For me, it’s not necessarily about who will be the nominees, but who is going to win. This is quite possibly the category with the most heated race to the finish line. Zellweger, Johansson, and Theron each have a hand to play in this game. Though “Harriet” was met with a tepid response at TIFF, Erivo has bounced back into a strong position to be nominated in the category due to the film’s relative box office success and the general goodwill toward the film and its subject; but winning for this film just doesn’t seem likely at this point. As for Ronan’s lauded performance in “Little Women,” it seems like enough to add another round of nominations to her resume, but it doesn’t feel like her time to win, mostly due to the film’s overall late arrival.
Renee Zellweger – “Judy”
As the season began, Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland in “Judy” was the one to beat. Emphasizing this role as her “comeback” to the industry, gives her a tangible storyline for this season, one that will likely resonate with voters. In addition to Zellweger’s special knack for working the room at For Your Consideration parties, her campaign was supposed to take her over the top for what is, on its own, a superbly accomplished work of acting art in “Judy.” It’s the type of physically and emotionally taxing performances that plays right into the Academy’s taste. It’s the biggest and most obvious performance in the bunch, which is always a plus. “Judy” as a film, though, is average at best, and this has drawn the ire of many people on Film Twitter to root against her. The perception may be skewed because Zellweger’s work would play better for the typical Academy voter than it would the average Film Twitter user. She’s still the horse I’m betting on, despite my doubts as the season has gone on.
Scarlett Johansson – “Marriage Story”
This is the performance for which most of Film Twitter seems to be advocating in their predictions. Johansson certainly has a lot of credibility in this race. She genuinely gives the best performance of her career and “Marriage Story” is one of the big dogs of the season, which will certainly land it a nominated for Best Picture. Johansson has become one of the most famous women in the business due to her work in the “Avengers” films as Black Widow and she is having a particularly wild year between “Avengers: Endgame,” “Marriage Story,” and “Jojo Rabbit,” for which she could get a Best Supporting Actress nomination. However, I’m very hesitant with Johansson. She may be popular within the culture, but I get the sense she isn’t the most popular within the Academy. She has never been nominated for anything in her entire career. Most of the praise for “Marriage Story” has leaned in the way of performances by Adam Driver and Laura Dern, and Noah Baumbach’s screenplay. This is on top of the fact that Johansson has been noticeably absent from campaign events, and even when she does promote her film, she tends to not communicate particularly well. “Marriage Story” could also be the film that everyone respects more than they love – the film that scores all the nominations but no wins.
Charlize Theron – “Bombshell”
No one in this category has had the month Charlize Theron has. Her calendar has been maxed out with screenings and Q&As for “Bombshell,” and red carpet events, such as when she was awarded Glamour Woman of the Year. If anyone competing for Best Actress has been in the public eye in a positive light, it’s been Theron. This is on top of her consistent presence felt throughout the decade from films like “Young Adult,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Tully.” Theron has a great story to tell in “Bombshell,” with the #MeToo women’s empowerment focus of the film, as well as her role as a producer. In addition, she physically transforms herself into Megyn Kelly, in a similar fashion to Christian Bale in “Vice” or Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour.” The problem with her precise work in terms of a win is two-fold. She lacks an obvious “Oscar moment” scene with hysterics and overt acting and many liberal Academy voters may be turned off from voting for her because she’s playing Megyn Kelly, a controversial personality as former Fox News royalty.
The narrative in September, and most of October was that we were likely to see Zellweger sweep through the season at the televised awards. That’s still on the table, though it’s not as simple anymore. For the life of me, I cannot see Johansson nor Theron sweeping all five awards. So, either the season will be clean and cut with Zellweger dominating or we’ll see different winners unfold at each of the televised shows.
If it does go the way of a divided season for Best Actress, here’s what I’m expecting…
1. Zellweger will win the Critics Choice and BAFTA awards. Looking at trends from the voters in each group and the styles of the performances and films, Zellweger looks golden on these fronts. Even if she’s essentially usurped down the road, I still imagine the Critics Choice will go for her because they often try to predict the Oscars in their wins and Zellweger’s performance is a very predictably Oscar-type of a performance. Even when Emma Stone won most of the season for “La La Land,” the Critics Choice picked Natalie Portman’s work in “Jackie,” and the parallels between what Portman and Zellweger do in depicting the real-life figures are uncanny. Zellweger is the “safe” choice and Critics Choice is nothing if not safe. As for BAFTA, it’s a matter of old-fashioned taste. Zellweger’s work is right up their alley, as they typically endorse establishment and old guard types of films and performances. Also, “Judy” has roots in London. It’s also highly improbable to imagine BAFTA voters taking a stronger interest in Johansson or Theron’s performances based on how they have voted in the past.
2. After seeing “Judy,” most pundits lunged to “Zellweger will inevitably win the Golden Globe.” I do agree with the sentiment. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association will most likely adore this performance. It’s right up their alley: a comeback of an actress playing a star, plus music, and every awards bait scene imaginable. The HFPA also likes Zellweger, who has already won three Golden Globes. However, I can’t seem to shake Johansson’s strong chance to win this award. She’s never won a Golden Globe despite being nominated four times. And I wouldn’t count out Theron, too. The HFPA, of all awards bodies, will take to “Bombshell,” and they’re historically known for being swayed by campaigns like the one Theron is running. If Zellweger is eventually toppled over as the frontrunner, it will be here at the Globes by either Johansson or Theron, even though her work in “Judy” obviously plays into the tastes of the HFPA voters. Everyone thought Lady Gaga was a lock to win the Golden Globe last year for “A Star is Born” for similar reasons many are predicting Zellweger this year.
3. As always, whoever wins the SAG award is best positioned to win the Oscar because of the guild-to-Academy crossover and a general sampling of actors’ tastes. I feel if anywhere, this is where Zellweger is most vulnerable. “Judy” is a smaller film and Zellweger has been on hiatus for almost a decade. She may not hold the same clout of popularity with Oscars as she did when she won back-to-back SAG awards for “Chicago” and “Cold Mountain.” Many of the events Theron has been headlining recently have been SAG screenings, so she’s working the crowds, which increases her chances. Also, “Bombshell” is going to connect with the SAG voters across the board. A win for Theron out of residual love for the film is entirely plausible. However, SAG has become, in my view, a popularity contest in recent years, due to SAG merging with AFTRA and the massive amount of people who vote for the awards. The most famous person wins. If that happens, then Johansson’s odds of winning shoot through the roof. She’s become one of the most prominent people in the industry. The “normal” people who vote for the SAG awards, not critically-minded film snobs, will vote for Black Widow.
What does this mean for the Oscars? Well, based on all this, I still think Zellweger is in the best position to win the Academy Award. Even if she loses the Globe and SAG to Johansson or Theron, she’ll likely win Critics Choice and BAFTA, and there’s still a clear path to the Oscar. Johansson would need to win both the Globe and SAG and have “Judy” become reviled and forgotten. “Marriage Story” will likely be a driving force with critics groups, however, and Johansson needs to be along for the ride. If the film wins Picture, Actor, and Screenplay with critics groups, but not Actress, that would be a huge blow to her momentum. Theron would need to continue her smart ground game and “Bombshell” will need to go on to be a huge hit at the box office, and possibly pick up a few major critics association prizes to be viable.
Who do you think is winning Best Actress? Check out our latest Oscar Predictions and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rcs818