As soon as it was announced that Annette Bening would star in “Nyad,” the narrative debut from Academy Award-winning “Free Solo” directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Oscar watchers were already penciling her into the Best Actress race. Bening, after all, is a beloved industry veteran who has never won an Oscar despite being nominated four times, including for the awards juggernaut that was “American Beauty” (That movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but Bening’s parked-car meltdown remains its most memorable scene; alas, she lost Best Actress to Hilary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry”). She is as close to the platonic ideal of “overdue” as anyone not named Glenn Close can possibly be.
“Nyad,” too, might be the platonic ideal of Oscar bait – a term that’s been cheapened from overuse but will always have its place. The film is a biopic about Diana Nyad (Bening), an aging long-distance swimmer who plans to swim unassisted from Cuba to Florida and succeed where her younger self came up short. With the help of her friend and coach Bonnie (Jodie Foster) and a boat captain named John (Rhys Ifans), Diana tackles her goal with laser-focused aplomb, illustrating the virtues of friendship, dreaming big, and never giving up. It’s predictable, but it’s sweetly uplifting, even if it’s based on an account from the real Diana Nyad that’s allegedly (and significantly) embellished. Lesser names than Bening have won Oscars for performances in worse movies.
But as Glenn Close can attest, “It’s Her Time” is not the kind of narrative that wins a person an Oscar. Even some of the most egregious career-recognition Oscars in recent years have had other factors at play. Jessica Chastain’s Oscar for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was a continuation of the media trend reassessing once-maligned women in pop culture, in the same vein as “I, Tonya,” “Pam & Tommy,” and the eventual, inevitable Britney Spears biopic. Laura Dern’s Best Supporting Actress win for “Marriage Story” was less recognition for her (quite good) performance as Nora Fanshaw and more an acknowledgment of her stellar run in the late 2010s, including but not limited to “Big Little Lies,” “The Tale,” and “Twin Peaks: The Return.” And sometimes, the role (Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour“) or the film (Jamie Lee Curtis for “Everything Everywhere All At Once“) is just that strong.
That won’t be the case for “Nyad.” Bening does a fine job, playing Diana as a force of pure willpower determined not to let her age or trauma define her. But the film does her no favors, sticking rigidly to an inspirational sports narrative framework only occasionally livened up by stylistic flourishes that either hit (neat underwater photography) or miss (the bizarre golden flashback filter). There’s also the matter of Diana Nyad on the screen and in real life. As written, Diana is somewhat grating and one-note: her obsession with achieving her goal crosses over into narcissism, and while she’s called out for this on occasion, it never really goes away. The discourse around “unlikeable female characters” is loaded at the best of times. Still, at least Amy Dunne and Lydia Tár made for engaging company – and in any case, they’re fictional characters who don’t go around trying to fight trans athletes in sports, as the real Diana Nyad does. That last part should not be held against Bening, who has a trans son and is an outspoken advocate for transgender rights, but it’s baggage that may not be overcome simply by being “due.”
There is, however, another actor from “Nyad” who stands a better chance in the coming Oscar season: Jodie Foster. It helps that, as Bonnie, the 2-time Academy Award winner plays one of the only characters capable of piercing Diana’s self-obsessed bubble, but by any standard, Foster turns in her finest work in years. She’s alternately funny, forceful, and tender, the kind of Diet Coke-chugging, tough-as-nails middle-aged lesbian anyone would be happy to know. She holds it together even during the movie’s ropier bits: Diana may get on the audience’s nerves, but they will care about her because Bonnie cares about her. She would be more than worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and luckily, there’s a real chance it could happen.
When Jodie Foster won a surprise Best Supporting Actress award at the 2020 Golden Globes for “The Mauritanian,” it proved two things: the Golden Globes are pure chaos, and Foster clearly commands a great deal of goodwill in Hollywood. After spending much of the past decade working behind the camera directing for film and television, Foster returned to the awards race and immediately won plaudits for an otherwise unremarkable film. To quote Sally Field, they like her – they really like her. And with a wide-open Best Supporting Actress field this year, Foster could easily make it in. Only two actresses are close to locks – Emily Blunt for “Oppenheimer” and Da’Vine Joy Randolph for “The Holdovers” – and a whole bunch of possibilities angling for the remaining three slots, including Penelope Cruz in “Ferrari,” Rosamund Pike in “Saltburn,” Julianne Moore in “May December” and Viola Davis in “Air.” While things still depend upon how “The Color Purple” turns out for Danielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson and Vanessa Kirby could steal the spotlight from Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” Foster is the one who stands an excellent chance of making it in the lineup.
What are your thoughts on Jodie Foster’s performance in “Nyad?” Do you feel she’ll be nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.
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