The Best Actress category has begun to take shape more clearly than the other three acting races this year. Four of the five spots for Best Actress appears to be filled, or at least the following four actresses seem to have marked their territory and have a good position in the race politically. By which I mean, these actresses either have a spirited campaign narrative, or they’re headlining star a film that is going to be a big player with the Academy and contend for Best Picture, or have critical support and industry respect that is too big to ignore.
Normally, I would not feel confident this early in the game to mark the so many potential nominees safe, and after Amy Adams’ snub last year for “Arrival,” we can assume no one is safe even if they campaign the right way, star in a popular Best Picture nominee, and gather every single necessary precursor. However, these top four have defendable cases for being nominated at this point in time.
Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya” are the two performances I would consider the frontrunners. They have received stellar reviews and have ignited a level of passion from critics and pundits to sustain energy about their work over the next few arduous months. McDormand is one of the most respected veterans in the business in a role that is shocking, bold, and allows her to show real emotion. Her film is also beloved and will likely factor into several of the bigger categories, which keeps a level of attention on her work throughout the winter months. Robbie, on the other hand, has the privilege of being the ingénue competitor in a breakout role. She benefits from having a freshness to her as a Hollywood figure on the awards circuit. She’ll be able to boast an “It” girl narrative while promoting her dense (And maybe transformational) work in juicy, flagrant character. Also, Robbie’s buzz will likely peak at a right time, around her film’s early December release date, for building momentum.
After the top two is Meryl Streep in “The Post” and Sally Hawkins in “The Shape Of Water” as the next two performances that will have a strong case to fill the Oscar lineup for Best Actress.
Streep’s role in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is biographical, playing Katharine Graham. Her film will likely connect with the sensitive political times and will have a sense of urgency about the themes. Even though no one has necessarily seen “The Post,” the bait surrounding the project and the company involved in the making of it provide a layer of security in the film’s chances. And if it were any other actresses playing this role the unseen film, I would be less confident. But because it’s Streep, watch out. If her nominations for “August: Osage County” and “Florence Foster Jenkins” should tell you anything, do not underestimate the Academy’s adulation for her, even if there are better performances in contention.
As for Hawkins, “The Shape Of Water” has been a hit in the film festivals at which it has appeared and it’s a film geared toward the Academy’s sensibilities. Combine that with her terrifically praised work in del Toro’s film and respect from “Happy-Go-Lucky” and her Oscar-nominated acting in “Blue Jasmine,” it feels like she’s in the safe zone. The worst that could happen is, she could be snubbed in a similar way as Adams in “Arrival,” as referenced above, where the film is embraced everywhere, as was the lead actress in all of the precursor lineups, but something fails to correlate at the final stop. I think what happened to Adams was an isolated incident and am confident the Academy will take to Hawkins delicate work.
The big mystery of this category is, who will be the fifth actress to join the crowd? The top four are sprinting far and ahead of the rest of the competition, and there are a fair amount of actresses who are viable for the fifth spot. The most of the exciting aspect of the Best Actress category this season could be watching how the fifth slot varies from precursor to precursor. The possible performances to take the last spot are likely to be featured inconsistently in critics’ nominations, SAG, the Golden Globes, and BAFTA, which means the precursors may not be clearly indicative of who to predict for the Oscars.
This year is reminiscent of 2014, where Julianne Moore for “Still Alice”, Reese Witherspoon in “Wild,” Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl,” and Felicity Jones in “The Theory Of Everything” were nominated across the board, scoring all the precursors as well as the Oscar lineup. The fifth spot rotated between Jennifer Aniston in “Cake,” who was nominated at SAG; Amy Adams in “Big Eyes,” who was nominated at BAFTA; and Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night,” a non-Golden Globe-nominated critics’ darling who won the Oscar nomination. Each of the actresses showed strength in different areas and the level of variability was high. A similar situation could be repeated this year.
The most difficult thing about trying to pinpoint who may be ahead in earning that fifth nomination among the possibilities in this awards season is that all of these performances have about the same amount of strengths and weaknesses. They have different strengths and weaknesses, but they all balance out to about the same amount of credibility at this point in the race.
Emma Stone in “Battle Of The Sexes” – Stone is coming off a hot year of winning the rounds for “La La Land.” More importantly is, her film tells a classic feminist story that is timely coming off a bruising presidential campaign where the first woman nominee had to debate against a chauvinist opponent. There are uncanny parallels. Stone’s role is also one that carries leverage with award shows, portraying real-life tennis icon Billie Jean King. She has positive reviews, but they are not affirmative enough to survive the film’s early release date, the lukewarm awards buzz the film is carrying overall, and the tempered nature of the script and role. Not to mention, “Battle Of The Sexes” performed dismally at the box office. It’s possible she sneaks into the top five at the Oscars, but with each passing day, Stone could be fading from the voters’ memories.
Jessica Chastain in “Molly’s Game” – Chastain is one of the hardest working actresses in the business and has the secret weapon of Aaron Sorkin dialogue in “Molly’s Game.” She is also playing to type, so there’s no question the quality will be present in work. However, the problems Chastain will face are transparent. The film’s initial reaction of unbridled enthusiasm did not have longevity – now the consensus of the film and her performance is plainly good rather than phenomenal. Chastain has missed for “A Most Violent Year” and “Miss Sloane.” Those snubs should work in her favor as some “overdue” narrative, right? Wrong. The fact that the Academy didn’t nominate her for those two films is telling, as though they may not be as enamored by her as pundits and critics are. The biggest roadblock I see is, her characters in “Miss Sloane” and “Molly’s Game” could appear to be too similar. If they weren’t enticed by the original portrait of this character type, why would the Academy go for the knockoff?
Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird” – This is the performance on this list I’m most apprehensive about. Ronan continues to get raves and appear in more and more pundits’ predictions. But I’m having a difficult time being dragged into drinking this Kool-Aid. Her performance, having not seen the film, does not look like it fits the mold of a Best Actress nominee. I’m not sure what’s holding me back – the age of the character, the comedic nature of the film, or the uniqueness of the role – but something is. I’m being circumspect before I jump on the Ronan bandwagon and declare her a frontrunner for a nomination. It feels like a performance that belongs more to the Golden Globes Comedy/Musical race than the Oscar race. There’s also a huge risk that most of the appeal critics are finding in the film will not translate to the Academy’s taste. But so far, she’s proving me wrong, with her Gotham nomination and continued to ascension in wide-scale predictions. She may be the magic fifth nominee that doesn’t emerge until the later in the game after the film and her performance prove themselves.
Judi Dench in “Victoria And Abdul” – Dench is an actress like Streep, to whom the Academy is loyal, and in particular when she acts in costume dramas, like “Mrs. Brown,” or films that appeal to an older demographic, like “Philomena.” Specifically, her comedic work seems to draw the Academy to her, too, of which “Victoria And Abdul” is a marvelous showcase. In addition, Stephen Frears has directed many female leads in similar films to success in collecting award nominations. Though she has been well-reviewed by critics, her film has received a middling response and has an early release date. That combination is a recipe to be forgotten when the bigger films released at a later time overthrow the conversation with brighter reviews. She’s one who really needs BAFTA and SAG highlights to be kept in the conversation.
Kate Winslet in “Wonder Wheel” – Before her film was screened at the New York Film Festival, people were crazy enough to say Winslet would win her second Academy Award for this movie without seeing any reviews for the film’s quality. One thing I’ve learned about Woody Allen’s recent films is, he’s either having a great day (“Midnight in Paris,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), or he’s having a rotten day (“To Rome with Love,” “Whatever Works,” “Magic in the Moonlight”). “Wonder Wheel” seems to belong more in the second group rather than the first. Winslet’s reviews have been wonderful for her performance, specifically, but for a Woody Allen performance to be sold to Academy voters, history shows they need to have the solid foundation of a successful film. Winslet’s reputation and work may be strong enough to overcome the film’s mixed reviews, but it’s certainly a gamble.
Jennifer Lawrence in “mother!” – The same rule I used to describe Streep’s certainty for “The Post” applies to Lawrence: do not underestimate her. The Academy’s admiration is evident from her track record. (She was nominated for “Joy” against the odds, in a film that disappointed most, after many pundits abandoned her in their predictions.) In “mother!” Lawrence plays completely against type, has a film that’s told literally and entirely from her perspective, and gives a practically perfect performance in the title role. That being said, “mother!” is a film the Academy will not react well to, no matter how much they like Lawrence as an actress. She would have to attain precursor nominations, like Emily Blunt did last year for “The Girl On The Train,” to overcome her film’s controversial storyline and plot. But it is possible – Blunt is proof of that, especially for someone of Lawrence’s stature.
Below are a few more elusive options for the Oscars’ Best Actress lineup that I’m not strongly considering, but would not be impossible to fill the fifth spot. These actresses, though most likely not grow to the Academy’s attention, could show up in a few mentions from critics or smaller awards.
Annette Bening – “Film Stars Don’t Lie In Liverpool”
Nicole Kidman – “The Beguiled”
Vicki Krieps – “Phantom Thread”
Cynthia Nixon – “A Quiet Passion”
Millicent Simmonds – “Wonderstruck”
Michelle Williams – “All The Money In The World”
As for who joins McDormand, Robbie, Streep, and Hawkins, it’s all about your perspective on predicting the Oscars and the areas you find to be more indicative than others. Recently, I have been bouncing between Stone and Chastain, but my gut tells me either Ronan will build a narrative on the back of critical praise and solidify her spot gradually, or Dench will round up support from BAFTA and SAG and fly into her eighth nomination.
What do you think though? Do you have the same top four as I do? Do you have a completely different lineup for Best Actress? 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