By Reza Mardian
For those who had been closely following the race, the 93rd Academy Awards had very few surprising winners, one of them was the Best Actress winner. After Renee Zellweger gave her remarks on each of the nominees’ performances, she opened the envelope. She announced that the Oscar had gone to Frances McDormand from “Nomadland,” who had just won the BAFTA a few days earlier. It was McDormand’s second Oscar of the night after winning just a few minutes earlier for producing “Nomadland” to a Best Picture win, her third in the lead actress category, and her fourth overall Oscars, including the producing win. The exciting part was that this year’s Best Actress race was in the least predictable category of the year and definitely over the last decade.
Usually, there’s always a trend where the Golden Globe, SAG, Critics Choice, and BAFTA award go to the same winner as if each of those groups were helping us to predict who was going to be the eventual Oscar winner. Renee Zellweger’s recent portrayal for Judy Garland in “Judy” had just done this last year. Before that, Frances McDormand herself had done it with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” winning all four major awards prior to the Oscar. When Olivia Coleman won her Oscar for her role in “The Favourite,” she may not have won SAG and Critics Choice, but she won Golden Globe (in the Comedy-Musical category) and the BAFTA. At the 91st Academy Awards, people saw the race between Glenn Close in “The Wife” and Olivia Coleman for “The Favourite” despite Close’s precursor lead. Nobody really knew who would win the best actress this year because it wasn’t a proper sweep of the season, which rarely ever results in an Oscar loss (“Inception” losing Best Production Design to “Alice In Wonderland” is the last time such a loss occurred).
Andra Day had won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in the Drama category for her stunning debut performance in the critically mixed “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Carrey Mulligan in the “Promising Young Woman” was critics’ group favorite, winning almost every critics prize, including the Critics Choice Award and the Independent Spirit Award. Viola Davis’ portrayal of the legendary Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won her a 5th individual SAG Award, whose voters overlap with the Academy. And despite being nominated at every significant award show, Vanessa Kirby’s emotional performance in “Pieces of a Woman” went home empty-handed despite starting the season winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice International Film Festival, beating Frances McDormand, who was also at the same festival for her work in “Nomadland.”
So how did Francess McDormand win the Oscar after winning her second one only three years ago? Many Oscar pundits thought such a recent win would hold her back from winning again so soon. Why would the majority of the Academy vote for her even with her barely campaigning with the press like the other nominees? During a year where there were no in-person events or much campaigning to speak of at all from anyone, this was a year, more than ever, where individual performance and a film’s ability to be seen by the voters mattered most. We need to take a look at the overall performances of these nominees, their movies, and how the Academy perceived their campaign narratives.
Vanessa Kirby – “Pieces of a Woman”
The unforgettable opening birthing sequence alone was probably the reason why she won Venice and was nominated throughout the award season. Yet, many would argue, the rest of the film was not as powerful as that opening scene. It also didn’t help that her co-star had abuse allegations surface during the film’s campaign. Netflix was wisely able to avoid it hurting Kirby, but it resulted in the film having a lower profile than most. As a result, Kirby became the film’s only nomination, making it more challenging for voters to prioritize the film in their screener pile when they have so many other films to watch before voting.
Andra Day – “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
The Academy loves transformative performances and actors portraying real people. Renee Zellweger won her second Oscar last year for portraying Judy Garland in “Judy” (2019), and Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” (2011). Day’s transformation was widely praised, considering she adjusted her voice to be very similar to Billie Holiday. Even though this was her film debut performance, those who are familiar with her due to her music knew how much of a transformation this was for her, and she absolutely knocked it out of the park. Her surprise Golden Globe win pushed her deeper into the conversation and is most likely why she was able to secure the Oscar nomination. It was here when the narrative of a Black actress possibly winning Best Actress for the first time since Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” (2001) showed up. However, Day’s film was pretty divisive with critics and audiences. Many found it tough to sit through due to the poor filmmaking, and as a result, the film received no other nominations making it, once again, hard to get noticed by the voters.
Viola Davis – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Viola Davis’s film performed better compared to Day’s or Kirby’s. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was praised early on, and Davis was a constant presence throughout the awards season. Not only was she nominated at the Golden Globes, SAG, and Critics Choice, but many were cheering Davis on to become the second Black actress to win the Oscar in the leading category due to her extensive body of work and industry goodwill compared to newcomer Day. Did this hurt both actresses in the end? That’s up for debate, but there are so many other factors to consider. Davis won the SAG award, where all of the individual film winners were people of color for the first time in the award show’s history. She was constantly on every magazine, at every virtual event. She became the center of the conversation late in the race once she got the wind in her sails from the SAG win. Critics started predicting her as the frontrunner, especially given the fact she beat Mulligan fair and square at the SAG awards. However, she suffered from two major problems. One was how many perceived her role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as more of a supporting role due to her screen time and how she was overshadowed by Chadwick Boseman both in the film and narratively, as his performance was the one that Netflix pushed for harder than her’s throughout the season (Boseman also, would sadly and shockingly go on to lose the Oscar to Anthony Hopkins in “The Father“). And the other major blow was the film underperforming on Oscar nomination morning, missing nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.
Carrey Mulligan – “Promising Young Woman”
Carey Mulligan was the indie and critics darling throughout the season for her unconventional and fiery performance in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut “Promising Young Woman.” She had won the most awards of the year, and her character, Cassie, was a very complex and original character who inspired a ton of conversation and debate. However, not winning the Golden Globe and the SAG award did send a message: she’s good, but maybe not winning material even with the film garnering five Oscar nominations, including the Best Director and Best Picture. The narrative set around this film was never the actress and the character. The focus was mainly on Fennell and her bold script that ignited passionate debates amongst those who saw the movie. Some people really hated the character and the script, while others praised them. I do believe that because of its nominations for Picture, Director, and Editing that enough voters saw the film and probably gave her a lot of votes, but clearly, there wasn’t enough to get her the win, just like it didn’t happen at the Golden Globes or SAG.
Frances McDormand – “Nomadland”
Which leaves us with Frances McDormand. Critics claimed that there was no way McDormand would win another Oscar so soon after “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” However, people really loved “Nomadland” (obviously), and she was the face of that film both in front and behind the camera as an actress and producer. Among the Best Picture nominees, the producers of “Nomadland” didn’t overly campaign, which enabled an organic conversation to happen throughout the season for the film as it continued to build word of mouth since its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion and the TIFF Audience Award soon after that. It became easy to convince Academy members to watch a film that became so thematically relevant to many during the pandemic. And among other Best Actress nominees, Fern (the character portrayed by McDormand) received more sentiment and relatability as a character drifting into unknown territory, not knowing where life will take her next. It was a welcome contrast to her forceful performance as Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and quirky performance in her first Oscar-winning role as Marge in “Fargo,” solidifying that she is one of the most versatile and respected actresses of all time.
The narrative set around McDormand was weaved in the very fabric of “Nomadland” itself. One amazing aspect of Chloe Zhao’s directorial achievement was her ability to place McDormand, a trained actress, with untrained non-professional actors and make the experience completely seamless, highlighting Fern’s relatability and garnering our empathy even more. Through Fern, we saw how other characters such as Swankie and Linda Mae decided to take on the nomadic lifestyle and continue their lives despite all the crises and uncertainties in America today. A vote for McDormand was also a vote for Swankie, Linda Mae, and other real-life nomads, the nameless people of America, some of whom are at peace with their lives while others are continuing on day to day, trying to get by.
Hindsight is 20/20, and when looking back on how everything unfolded, we can see how the most contentious and exciting Best Actress race of our lifetime, where any of the nominees could win, finally settled on one. Did McDormand need to win? Probably not but when taking into account all factors, from narrative, performance, the film’s accessibility, the pros and cons each nominee had, it now makes sense. Who do you think deserved to win Best Actress? Are you satisfied with the outcome of this unpredictable race? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Reza and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rezamardian13