By Cody Dericks
How lucky are we? The Best Actress category has been a wild ride for the second year in a row. After several years where all four acting categories were seemingly locked up by Oscar night (namely, 2014, 2017, and 2019), these past two years have been refreshingly chaotic and undeniably fun for actress-lovers. And unlike last year when (with respect to Vanessa Kirby) all four viable contenders picked up at least one major televised award, this year’s crop of nominees has so many inconsistencies and confusing absences from specific awards bodies that it’s genuinely challenging to feel completely confident in any prediction.
In fact, though there’s overlap to be found at every other precursor, the BAFTA nominees for Best Leading Actress were entirely comprised of women who were not nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. The top prize went to Joanna Scanlan for her work in “After Love.” And while the BAFTA nominees are undoubtedly worthy of awards recognition, the fact that none of them will be a part of this year’s Oscar ceremony essentially means that awards pundits are short one entire significant indicator of potential Oscar success. Not only that, but in recent years BAFTA has been the most helpful indicator of Academy support when a race is fractured, as was the case last year when Frances McDormand won for her performance in “Nomadland” at the BAFTAs and, shortly thereafter, at the Oscars. Now that all the acting precursors have been handed out, it’s time for everyone to finalize their prognostications, but who to pick for Best Actress?
Before diving into the race, it must be said that this year’s Best Actress line-up is truly impressive, and it’s difficult to feel anything but thrilled for any of the five potential winners. In most acting categories, there’s almost always one or two nominees who feel like they made it into the race merely on the strength of their film or because of name recognition, with the quality of the performance being a less determining factor. That’s not the case this year, as every leading lady in contention for the Oscar is giving an awards-worthy performance. The best way to analyze such a disparate awards race is to look at each of the five nominees individually and assess the specific strengths and weaknesses of their chances.
First up, we have Kristen Stewart, who was given the unenviable task of portraying one of the most famous women of the 20th century – Diana, Princess of Wales. Her performance in “Spencer” has had a tumultuous awards run. After incredible word-of-mouth and reviews following the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film was met with decidedly more skeptical notices once a wider audience saw it. Her performance scored predictable Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award nominations, but she was shockingly snubbed by the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards. Suffice to say, her chances of even being mentioned by the Academy were looking uncertain come nomination morning. Still, KStew fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief when her name was announced last of the five women nominated. And while the disarray of the precursor wins for this category may seem to indicate that any of the five women have a distinct chance at the Oscar, the fact of the matter is the Academy at large clearly didn’t like the film. Its omission from categories that seemed tailor-made for it, such as Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, shows that besides the admiration for Stewart’s performance, “Spencer” remains divisive. And in terms of precursors, not even the Critics Choice Awards gave her a statue, even though she racked up more regional critics mentions than any other actress this year. As such, her chances of winning Best Actress this year appear to be quite slim, and she’s very likely in fifth place. The good news is, now that she’s been nominated for the first time, the Academy has already given her a stamp of approval, and it’s not hard to imagine that she’ll receive additional Oscar nominations in the future and possibly even an eventual win.
Next up is Penélope Cruz for her latest collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar – “Parallel Mothers.” Like “Spencer,” this film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Cruz won the festival’s Volpi Cup award for Best Actress. She followed that up with a small number of critics wins, notably Best Actress prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. However, she missed out on nominations from every major televised award show. Although this makes an Oscar nod much more unlikely and relatively challenging to predict, the Academy has occasionally nominated performances that didn’t make an appearance at any of the significant precursors in recent years. This year, they gave us two: Judi Dench for “Belfast” and Cruz. Even still, Cruz’s nomination was the less surprising of this pair, with many pundits predicting her both because of the undeniable strength of the performance itself and the fact that she’s a respected previous Oscar-winner. But can she pull off a win? Suppose Cruz were to be awarded Best Actress. In that case, she’d be the first performer to win without a significant precursor nomination since Marcia Gay Harden won Best Supporting Actress for “Pollock” in 2000. And even though the awards landscape was much different two decades ago, it was still considered a shocking victory at the time. Still, the Best Actress race is wide open enough that it’s not unthinkable that Cruz could potentially garner enough votes in an uncertain landscape and win. And some are predicting her to do so for the very same reasons that likely got her the nomination – her talent and the respect she’s garnered. Even still, I personally can’t bring myself to call the race for her with such an atypical awards run, even if there’s a slight possibility for her to win.
The third nominee in this category whose performance received raves at its Venice Film Festival premiere is Olivia Colman for “The Lost Daughter.” She scored a nomination from every major precursor except the BAFTAs (her supposed home-field advantage also didn’t work out last year when they overlooked her for her eventual Oscar-nominated turn in “The Father“). Her name had been batted around by predicting experts earlier in the season, usually as an alternative to then-frontrunner Kristen Stewart. But while her nominations are impressive, once statues started being handed out, her name was nowhere to be found. Now, this doesn’t mean that statistically, her chances are entirely dead, just very unlikely. The last person to receive significant precursor nominations but no televised wins and still nab the Oscar was Adrien Brody for “The Pianist” nearly 20 years ago. It’s since been widely theorized that leading contenders Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) and Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”) both gathered significant votes, but with a race spread so thin, Brody was able to come up the middle and secure the trophy. A substantial difference between Brody and Colman’s awards runs is the fact that “The Pianist” was clearly beloved by the Academy, winning Best Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. It was almost certainly the runner-up for Best Picture behind “Chicago.” And while the three nominations that “The Lost Daughter” received (Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay) do seem to indicate that it’s the most widely respected film of all five of this year’s Best Actress nominees, the fact of the matter remains that it couldn’t even make it into a Best Picture field of 10 nominees. Still, the rubric is there for Colman to pull off a surprise victory if the two leading contenders siphon a similar share of votes and allow Colman to pull through after all.
However, the race for Best Actress now seems to be between two modern acting titans. After receiving early solid word from industry screenings and a somewhat surprising Golden Globes victory, Nicole Kidman’s chances to win for her performance as Lucille Ball in “Being The Ricardos” at one point in time seemed promising. Not only does her work have industry respect, but her narrative is strong, and as any awards fanatic will tell you, a good narrative is just as important as the quality of the performance. Namely, Kidman can be portrayed as overcoming the negative press that her unlikely casting and early on-set photos garnered just on the strength of her talent. Plus, since her Oscar win for “The Hours” nearly two decades ago, she’s amassed an impressive resume of both film and, notably, award-winning television work. She’s widely respected, and she absolutely feels like the type of actor who will win a second Academy Award at some point in their career. So why isn’t she considered the odds-on favorite to win this year? Simply put, her momentum seemed to have hit a roadblock once Oscar nominations were announced. Although she’d already won her Golden Globe by nomination morning, it appears that her chances were slightly diminished that day. “Being The Ricardos” did score three Academy Award nominations, which isn’t insignificant. However, they are exclusively in the acting categories. The fact that the film isn’t nominated for any craft awards, Original Screenplay, or Picture is a sign that outside of the still-sizeable acting branch, the Academy at large doesn’t look favorably upon the film. And after nominations were announced, Kidman’s journey has hit several snags. She lost at both the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Awards and, like all the other women on this list, wasn’t nominated at the BAFTAs. Even still, her chances are far from dead. There’s a long history of actors winning just the Golden Globe before taking the Oscar, although it’s been a decent amount of time since that last happened (George Clooney for “Syriana” in 2005). Plus, as previously mentioned, she’s a beloved industry veteran who represents everything that Hollywood values: talent, stardom, and glamour. If it doesn’t happen for her this year, she will almost certainly win a second Oscar at some point in the near future.
Still, the nominee who arguably has the most momentum heading into the Oscars is Jessica Chastain for her performance in the biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” When the film premiered all the way back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was immediately met with decent reviews for the movie but rave reviews for Chastain. Thus, the Oscar talk quickly began. The box office underperformance of the film seemed like it might potentially be a deterrent to her chances. Still, once she started accumulating critical award mentions, it became clear that she wouldn’t be forgotten once the latter-season awards started rolling in. And sure enough, she received nominations from the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Critics Choice Awards, winning all but the Globe. Heading into the Oscars with a SAG and Critics Choice win is a potent combination – it indicates support from both actors, which represents the largest branch of the Academy and the critical body at large. Recently, Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight“), Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”), and Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave“) all won Oscars after picking up just SAG and Critics Choice. Plus, given that BAFTA is null and void as a prediction indicator for Best Actress this year, Chastain is at a significant advantage with wins from two of the three remaining televised awards. Additionally, with its recent wins at BAFTA and Critics Choice, there’s a strong possibility that the film will also win the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. In just the past decade, “Darkest Hour,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Les Misérables,” and “The Iron Lady” all won Oscars for their makeup and hairstyling as well as for at least one performance. What this indicates, beyond support from an Academy branch outside of the actors, is that performances with a significant degree of physical transformation tend to fare well at the Oscars. And Chastain’s work is precisely that. Not only is she aesthetically altered, but it’s the type of performance that she hasn’t given in quite a while. Since her previous Oscar nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Chastain has made a career of playing laser-focused, emotionally guarded characters in films such as “A Most Violent Year,” “Miss Sloane,” and “Molly’s Game,” all of which garnered some degree of awards attention but were eventually ignored by the Academy. Tammy Faye is the exact opposite of these characters – she’s over-the-top, gregarious, funny, and passionately expressive. Chastain’s work in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is an indicator of her range, and the Oscars love to reward actors for doing surprising, unexpected work compared to their previous performances.
I will be going into Oscar night with Jessica Chastain as my predicted Best Actress winner for all of these reasons. However, her win is far from guaranteed and, much like last year, every single nominee has a fighting chance at taking the top prize. It’s an exciting contest for Best Actress, and it’s exactly the type of race that Oscar lovers beg for each year.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91