This year’s Best Actress race has proven itself to be the single-most competitive acting race since the Best Supporting Actress race in 2007, nearly thirteen years ago. The two races actually mirror one another in an eerie way. It is, really, the only blueprint we have as a point of comparison to solve the mystery of who is winning Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year.
The Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress in 2007:
Saoirse Ronan – “Atonement”
Cate Blanchett – “I’m Not There” (won the Golden Globe)
Ruby Dee – “American Gangster” (won SAG)
Amy Ryan – “Gone Baby Gone” (won the Critics Choice)
Tilda Swinton – “Michael Clayton” (won BAFTA and eventually the Oscar)
In 2007, each of the major televised awards before the Oscars went to someone different, and that is how the race for Best Actress has panned out this year. No one candidate this year will win more than one major award before the Oscar ceremony. Golden Globe, SAG, and Critics Choice have already been handed out, and none of the winners from those ceremonies are on the shortlist to compete for the BAFTA win. Therefore, whoever wins the Oscar is only going to have one of these wins. This is a pretty radical notion that makes trying to predict the eventual Oscar winner is nearly impossible.
Not that you need a reminder, but here are the 2021 Best Actress nominees and their corresponding wins:
Andra Day – “The United States v. Billie Holliday” (won Golden Globe)
Carey Mulligan – “Promising Young Woman” (won Critics Choice)
Viola Davis – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (won SAG)
Frances McDormand – “Nomadland” (could win BAFTA)
Vanessa Kirby – “Pieces of a Woman” (could win BAFTA)
Back in 2007, the BAFTA winner was the key to predicting the Oscar winner. However, it is not so this year. BAFTA is not a reliable indicator this year because of the controversial manner in which 7-12 BAFTA members decided the roster of nominees in jury committees. That is why so many big contenders are missing from the BAFTA lineups this year. Frances McDormand and Vanessa Kirby are the only two nominated at BAFTA and the Oscars. And yet, if you asked me out of the Oscar five who is the least likely to win the Oscar, I would say those two.
My money says Kirby will be victorious at BAFTA, considering her British roots, respect from the London theatre scene, and her general recent rise to stardom from “The Crown.” She reminds me of Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan winning for “An Education” in 2009. It will be an innocuous win in terms of its impact on the Oscar race. Kirby’s film “Pieces of a Woman” is still a divisive feature, difficult to watch, and riddled in real-life scandal. Kirby is also the only nomination for the film that should have, at the very least, received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for veteran Ellen Burstyn. Though, if she wins the BAFTA, there may be an outside shot, even if the politics around Kirby’s film itself hurts her as a contender overall.
However, if Frances McDormand wins the BAFTA for “Nomadland,” that could be the answer for the Oscar. “Nomadland” is the Best Picture favorite and is likely going to win most of (if not all) the Academy Awards for which it is nominated. With no clear frontrunner in Best Actress, McDormand could easily be swept along in the general sentiment for the film. The answer could be that simple. Nonetheless, I have serious doubts about McDormand winning a third Oscar for such a subtle performance only three years after her second Oscar win for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Had she not won for that film, or had she lost for “Fargo,” and this opportunity would be her second win, McDormand winning this year would be a no-brainer. But accomplishing a third competitive Oscar for actors is rare and only arises in the rarest of situations. It could happen, but it is not very likely or a task easily obtained. Especially when McDormand would win an Oscar as a producer if “Nomandland” does, in fact, win Best Picture.
Therefore, that leaves Day, Davis, and Mulligan from which to choose. And like McDormand, none of them have a perfect narrative or an easy path to win. Please note: a performance from a Best Picture nominee is historically more likely to translate into an Oscar win or if a performance has “steamrolled” through the season. It is rare for a performance from a non-Best Picture or a film without any other nominations to win the Oscar without winning all of the televised precursors.
“Promising Young Woman” received its credibility by earning nominations across the board in every important Oscar category, including Best Picture (a major plus). It is the frontrunner to win Best Original Screenplay (another major plus). Emerald Fennell’s film has the most organic passion and popularity of any contender here. Mulligan’s character is unique and culturally significant. On paper, Mulligan looks like the obvious choice.
However, Mulligan could not find a win with either Golden Globe or SAG voters, and because of the jury system at BAFTA, she is not eligible to compete for the win there. It is a real shame because had there been a traditional nomination voting this year, Mulligan would have probably not only gotten into the lineup but may have won the award handily. Therefore, Mulligan just simply has not materialized in the competition of televised awards and is left with no options to create any momentum during the prime voting period. Winning an Oscar with only a win at Critics Choice feels unlikely. Perhaps Mulligan’s character, Cassie, just does not fit the mold of typical Best Actress winners, which is part of the problem with her awards campaign.
On the other hand, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” lacked the passion to accomplish what seemed like surefire Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations with the Academy. Yet, Davis is the only person who has won with actual voters who crossover in the Academy. Her SAG win and seal of approval from the actors is massive. Some have tried writing this win off as having little value on the Oscar race because Davis has a history of winning at SAG most of the time when she is nominated for both film and television. She has won five individual awards at SAG.
Therefore, many have compared Davis winning for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” to Denzel Washington’s win for “Fences” in 2016. Washington is seen as having won based on his popularity with the acting community, and as a one-off considering Casey Affleck won all of the other three televised precursors and eventually the Oscar for “Manchester by the Sea.” I would buy this argument more if there was one solidified rival to Davis who has beaten her consistently at the other award shows. Example: had Mulligan won the Golden Globe and was eligible to win at BAFTA along with the Critics Choice, and she only lost SAG to Davis, then this theory makes sense. But that is not the world we live in. There is no default in Best Actress this year. Therefore, Davis’ SAG win feels more significant and more advantageous than it did for Washington back then (and many people still predicted Washington for the Oscar based on just the SAG alone).
Perhaps a blind spot held by pundits about Davis’s performance is that it is the type of work that appeals to the industry and actors. Davis’s performance has been specifically unpopular with online pundits, many citing her work as middle-tier among her filmography and some having the audacity to say Davis belongs in Best Supporting Actress for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Davis produces something physically transformative and emotionally thorough in the adaptation of August Wilson’s legendary play. She has the opportunity to show commanding anger and give indignant monologues. She makes intriguing choices that actors would appreciate, such as when Ma speaks, she avoids eye contact with the other characters in the film. She also curates a specific narrowed voice delivering her dialogue, both of which fit the time period’s culture and the character’s backstory. There is a lot of overt detail to her performance to which actors would be drawn too.
So, maybe Davis won the SAG because her work in the film appeals to actors, not simply because the voters are “biased” in favor of her? It is entirely possible that voters simply voted for her because she is Viola Davis, the legend. However, there is an equal chance that she won because they love the performance. It reminds me of how Oscar voters were attracted to Olivia Colman’s bombastic work in “The Favourite.” Actors could be seduced by Davis’s undisguised, blustering work in the same way that it is both out of step of the campaign narratives and the Film Twitter perception of the race.
Another issue with Davis possibly winning the Oscar is that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” did not receive a Best Picture nomination. But it received five nominations total, so there is clearly wide respect within the Academy for the film that a Best Picture nomination would typically represent. Chadwick Boseman has been a steamroller for his magnetic work in the film for Best Actor. He will almost assuredly win the Oscar, along with his undefeated precursor run thus far. Many people argue against the idea that both the Best Actor and Best Actress winners would come from the same non-Best Picture-nominated film. It would be unprecedented for both Boseman and Davis to win without their film being nominated in Picture, Director, or Screenplay. The particulars of these stats may not matter in the bigger picture, given the circumstances. Doesn’t it make more sense that Boseman, as the Best Actor frontrunner, helps Davis in Best Actress, rather than hurts her, whether the film has a Best Picture nomination or not?
However, I would answer that challenge of “Davis and Boseman cannot both win for a non-Best Picture film” by asking, “What is the answer then?” Sure, His and Her Oscars would be historic and unprecedented. But stats break. Is it more likely that Andra Day wins? After “The United States v. Billie Holliday” was met with very mixed reviews, and Day was snubbed by SAG and BAFTA? And no: Regina King is not a point of comparison. King stood on the backs of nearly every single critic group to overcome the failings of Annapurna’s campaign of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It is a false equivalency. Additionally, a lesson many have taken to the grave since Glenn Close lost for “The Wife.” Lone Best Actress nominees do not typically win unless they win every single precursor. The only nomination “The United States v. Billie Holliday” has is Best Actress. Even a similar performance in Renee Zellweger in “Judy” last year had an additional below-the-line nomination in Makeup/Hairstyling, and Zellweger was a steamroller who won 5/5 of precursors.
Day upsetting Mulligan and winning the Golden Globe is undeniably the biggest asset to her campaign. Because the Golden Globes have an iron-clad record with overlapping the Best Actress winner at the Oscars, it is a convincing argument to make and perhaps a safe one to fall back on in such an unwieldy race. Day’s performance also checks off many of the boxes typical Best Actress winners have: suffering, crying, moments of strength, and tragedy.
However, I dug a little deeper in thought about this. Maybe the Golden Globes has such an unbroken record simply because there are two categories, so usually, the Oscar winner and runner-up get rewarded because the Hollywood Foreign Press has two awards for Best Actress: Drama and Comedy/Musical. So, hypothetically, it is easier for the Golden Globes to maintain this statistic because it has two categories to contribute to the Academy winner’s crossover.
Let’s take a look at the Golden Globe winners and how they matched up with the Oscar race. Note: the runner-ups are my educated guesses, obviously.
2019: Zellweger #1; Awkafina not nominated
2018: Colman #1, Close #2***
2017: McDormand #1, Ronan was possibly #2 maybe #3.
2016: Stone #1, Huppert #2***
2015: Larson #1; Lawrence was probably #3
2014: Moore #1, Adams not nominated
2013: Blanchett #1, Adams #2***
2012: Lawrence #1, Chastain was probably #3
2011: Streep #1, Davis #2***
2010: Portman #1, Bening #2***
2009: Bullock #1, Streep #2***
2008: Winslet #1, Hawkins not nominated
2007: Cotillard #1, Christie #2***
2006: Mirren #1, Streep #2***
2005: Witherspoon #1, Huffman #2***
2004: Swank #1, Bening #2***
2003: Theron #1, Keaton #2***
2002: Kidman #1, Zellweger #2***
2001: N/A, Berry did not win
Another argument to consider: Viola Davis winning SAG is good news for Andra Day because they both portray historic women singers in period pieces. Their similar characters/types of performance will allow for Davis’ traction at SAG to transfer to Day at the Oscars. I’m afraid I fiercely have to disagree with this argument and, frankly, find it ridiculous. A SAG vote for Davis is an Oscar vote for Davis. Davis is not a Day. Davis fending off Mulligan at SAG helps everyone in some respects because it allows for no one to rise up and win 2/4 televised precursors before the Oscars. One argument that can be made for Mulligan or McDormand is: since Davis and Day do have similarities to their characters and performances, perhaps they split votes and allow for one of the other contenders (in a Best Picture nominee, like “Promising Young Woman” or “Nomadland“) to rise up.
Davis and Day each won the most important awards that predict Best Actress. I do feel Davis is better positioned as the veteran in the better and more respected film than Day as the ingénue in a poorly reviewed film that has not had much of a campaign. Davis may benefit from being a name-check based on her reputation in the industry and the fact that her film is almost assured to be viewed by voters due to Boseman’s narrative. Either would become the second Black woman to win Best Actress in Academy Awards history.
With all of that being said, here is where I stand now on Best Actress from most likely to least likely. Maybe it is more helpful to predict this category in that way, rather than trying to figure out who will decisively win. Approach it as who is most likely based on the evidence. They all have a solid, almost equal shot on the facts and analysis.
1. Viola Davis – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“
2. Andra Day – “The United States v. Billie Holliday“
3. Carey Mulligan – “Promising Young Woman“
4. Frances McDormand – “Nomadland“
5. Vanessa Kirby – “Pieces of a Woman“
Who do you think will win the Oscar for Best Actress? Do you think it matters who wins the BAFTA? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and be sure to check out our latest predictions here.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rcs818