Saturday, December 3, 2022

Surveying The Oscar Field – Analyzing The Best Actress Race So Far

By Ryan C. Showers 

​Venice. 
Telluride. 
Toronto. 
Check, check, and check. 

Now that we’re well into phase one of the 2018-19 awards season, the races are starting to take shape with an abundance of clarity. Critics and pundits have found common ground about which performances will put up a good fight upon their release for the awards circuit. From my understanding and analysis, the Best Actress race comes down to eight performances, four frontrunners, and four possibilities.

Eleven months ago, I wrote a piece published on this blog where I summarized last year’s Best Actress race as being “the mystery of the fifth slot.” This meant I was confident that Meryl Streep, Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, and Margot Robbie would be nominated in the Academy Awards lineup. (I was correct.) The final slot in Best Actress was an enigma to me, and I listed Jessica Chastain, Emma Stone, Saoirse Ronan, and Judi Dench as the actresses who could end up occupying it. In the conclusion of that piece, I predicted Ronan for the last spot, which was right before the “Lady Bird” buzz took off. (Again, I was correct. I predicted all five of the Best Actress nominees last year in October.) After Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, this year’s Best Actress race breaks down along a similar structure as the category did last year. I see four frontrunners with ideal roles and critical reviews, and then I see another thorough group of actresses who all stand a decent shot at filling the final spot. I’m not ready to say I’m confident in any of the frontrunners since the autumn films haven’t been released theatrically yet, but the principle similarly applies.

The performance with the most astonishing reviews out of the festivals is Nicole Kidman’s transformative turn in Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer.” (And by transformative, I mean, Kidman is literally unrecognizable as Erin Bell.) The degree to which her work was acclaimed by critics and audiences surprised me. Her performance has been hailed as a “tour de force,” revolutionary in terms of Hollywood gender role dynamics, and her best work ever in a resume which includes “To Die For,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “The Hours,” and “Rabbit Hole”. I was overtaken by the reaction to her work. Even the critics who dislike the film admit Kidman is phenomenal. In addition, Kidman is incandescent on the campaign trail, and she’s a legendary actor who has had a career resurgence after a decade of struggling. I often refer to Kidman’s reign last year when sweeping the Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG awards for “Big Little Lies” as “Kidman: Hollywood’s Prom Queen.” There’s goodwill in the air for her, and the reviews for her performance and the social politics of the production (female director manufacturing a gender-defying cop movie) are effective in a #MeToo time period. 

But make no mistake: there’s a real chance Kidman could be snubbed altogether. There are a lot of viewers who have responded negatively to the film itself. “Destroyer” has several institutional problems, too. It’s inherently a genre film, and we found out from reactions that “Destroyer” is much darker than most were even expecting. Kusama and the writers on the film do not have the best resumes or track record to position an actress such as Kidman for awards. As we learned from the festivals, the film’s quality has been called into question by the divided reactions. Kidman herself, despite incessantly acting in Oscar-baity films, hasn’t been nominated by the Academy as many times as her peers such as Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. She’s the most complex case of the four frontrunners. Adding to the uncertainty, “Destroyer” would only receive a sole nomination for Best Actress, or perhaps another for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. The film’s reviews are not ideal for starting an Oscar campaign, but they do skew positive, which I believe is enough for her to be successful in this race. 

Another actress who is in-it-to-win-it this award season is Melissa McCarthy for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” McCarthy, currently the most lucrative comedic actresses at the box office and previous Oscar-nominee for “Bridesmaids” stars as Lee Israel in the biographic comedic drama which won hearts and minds at Telluride and Toronto. In all honesty, this was a project about which I was concerned before the festival season commenced. I was predicting it to be one of the films that would disappoint or flop. My instincts were wrong on this occasion. McCarthy was presented with an opportunity perfectly in tune with her talents as an actress, and based on the reactions, she succeeds at expressing the different thematic shades of the film. 

Like Kidman, McCarthy is another Best Actress contender working with a female director. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” directed by Marielle Hart, who is the most likely female director to compete in the Best Director race this year. Unlike Kidman, McCarthy’s film has had passionate reactions at the festivals, ones that, under the campaign directives of the almighty Fox Searchlight, give the film a fighting chance for not only a Best Actress nomination, but Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. McCarthy and Hart could sail through this award season as the “Lady Bird” combination of this year. McCarthy also has the box office advantage in her favor, because she’s such an audience draw that one can assume “Can You Ever Forgive Me” will likely be profitable. The only problem I see with McCarthy in the race is the way her character and work will compare to that of the other contenders. Her tender work may be too light to realistically compete against heavyweight performances against which she’s competing. 

Another formidable allocation of the Best Actress race is inscribed to an actress in “The Favourite.” Category placement has still not been decided for the three actresses, who all have about the same amount of screentime and all of who are receiving raves from critics. The most common ground gleaned from the festival circuit is that Olivia Colman, who has the most exuberant character, is predicted to be placed in Best Actress, while co-stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are predicted to campaign in Best Supporting Actress. Therefore, one could say Olivia Colman, who actually won the Best Actress award from the Venice Film Festival, is a safe contender in this category, yet I’m going to assess this more broadly. I’m willing to say one of the three actresses – whichever Fox Searchlight decides to campaign as the Lead Actress – will be nominated. Unless they decide Best Supporting Actress has an equal amount of competitive performances, if not more, and push two of the three actresses in lead and one in supporting. (In this case, I’d imagine Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone would be the two campaigned in lead.) Regardless, these three women are going to be nominated this year for their work in “The Favourite” and the only unknown is which actress in which category.

The final frontrunner who may upend the entire race and clean up every televised precursor is Lady Gaga for “A Star Is Born.” Bradley Cooper’s take on the classic story is receiving thunderous applause. It’s a film the Academy will love. It’s a film that will make an obscene amount of money. And most importantly, it’s a film that will likely win a lot of other Academy Awards. The response to Gaga’s work out of Telluride was a bit muted; I analyzed the reviews as “very good” but not good enough to win. However, viewers in Toronto went further and raised the buzz around her performance in particular, some calling it a “knockout” showcase. Gaga is one of the most known stars in pop culture. Her music is iconic. Her look is iconic. Her name is iconic. If she’s on the ballot, I have a suspicion the Academy will feel obligated to check her name off, whether she’s simply good or actually produces dramatically skilled work, because of the fact that she’s Lady Gaga. A parallel example that shows Gaga’s path to Oscar gold is Cher in “Moonstruck.” She is the key to this Best Actress race. Her fate unlocks the season’s path of the category. Either Gaga sweeps the season, along with her film for Best Picture, or the Academy members view her nomination as enough for the pop star and choose to focus on the more traditional acting performances from the actresses I mention above and below.

Those are the four I see as the frontrunners at this point in time. And many of you must be scratching your heads wondering, where the hell is Glenn Close? She’s in the bottom four whom I believe could be scraping their way to that final Best Actress spot. Close’s position in the race is complicated. From some critics and pundits, the only thing you’ll hear is, “Glenn Close has an overdue narrative and gives the best performance of her career in “The Wife.’” The others, of which I’m a part, see that her path is not as clear as those nostalgic for Close’s career highs believe it is. To start with, her release date is a painful arrow in her side. “The Wife” was released in mid-August, right before the film festivals went into high gear. And guess, what: there have been ten other actresses who give equally strong performances with more convenient release dates. It’s not often that films that are released even get nominated for Academy Awards, let alone in one of the biggest categories of the program. Summer-released acting nominations are rare. 

Close could be the exception if she has something else going for her other than the caliber of the acting itself. I would argue she does not. The quality of “The Wife” as a film itself is not very strong, and I do not believe Close’s overdue narrative is as potent as some do. If it was the priority of the industry to reward her with an Oscar of she was robbed in the 1980s, then there would have been more of a push for her to win in 2011 for “Albert Knobbs.” The Academy chose to give Streep her third trophy instead of Close her first. Let that sink in. Close’s work is undeniable in “The Wife,” and she could become a player if the critics go to bat for her and Sony Pictures Classics lays out a sophisticated campaign. But even then, does she have the steam to win the race over the fresher performances with more high-profile films? I shudder to think of the prospects for Close, who is really suffering from just bad luck.

And if we’re judging these performers on a meritocracy, that the work of these actresses with unfavorable release dates will conquer all, then we need not look further than Toni Collette in “Hereditary.” Many believe she gave one of the greatest performances in the history of horror cinema. I would agree with that characterization, but I have doubted her ability to gain any Oscar traction due to her film being so entrenched in the horror genre. Luckily for Collette, A24’s award season slate is rather bare, and if they focus their energies on campaigning Collette, she could receive a deserved nomination. 

“Roma” has been labeled a “masterpiece” by the majority of people who have seen and written about the film, so along with Netflix’s aggressive campaign, the film is bound for Oscar glory. The film is likely to contend in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and a slew of technical categories. If the Academy really loves it and wants to seriously consider giving it a chance to win Best Picture, an actor from the film will likely have to be nominated, as a sign of support from the acting branch. Yalitiza Aparicio’s turn in as the protagonist has garnered raves, and if someone’s nominated from that film, it’s going to be her.

The final performance I believe has a serious chance at obtaining a Best Actress nomination is Viola Davis for “Widows.” Her film’s rapturous reactions at Toronto were muted on the awards front due to an asterisk next to the praise that can be interpreted as any of the following: *too commercial, *a popcorn film, *not an Oscar contender. Davis is a powerhouse in everything she does, from her brief appearance in “Doubt,” to masterclass theater in “Fences,” or her exhaustingly soapy show “How To Get Away With Murder.” The acting value will be there if the Academy wants to nominate an actress from a film that relies so heavily on an intersectional women’s empowerment film, but if Davis is overlooked for others, we know it’s because “Widows” was a project originally planted for audience adoration, not memorialization from the Academy Awards.

​So here are where my current predictions stand…

Yalitiza Aparicio – “Roma”
Olivia Colman – “The Favourite”
Lady Gaga – “A Star Is Born”
Nicole Kidman – “Destroyer”
Melissa McCarthy – “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Post-festival reactions, this is the most informed Best Actress lineup I can predict at this point. These are my current predictions, which are in no way definitive. I could see a world where all of them are snubbed or hit potholes that tank their campaigns. (A Lady Gaga snub would shut down the Internet, but honestly, I can see it happening.) Unless Amy Adams is campaigned as a lead for “Vice” or the box office success of “On the Basis Of Sex” propels Felicity Jones into the Oscar race for what most believe looks like a mediocre film, this is the group of women with which we are working with.

What do you think? What do your Best Actress lineups look like at the moment? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @RyanCShowers

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