It seems like history is repeating itself. Last year, Oscar pundits worldwide were faced with one of the craziest Best Actress categories in recent Oscar memory. By the end of the award season, there were four different winners at every televised event, and only one nominee got in at every precursor. It was, arguably, one of the most complex categories to predict last year. Now, after the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced last week, it seems that Best Actress is, once again, going to remain fiercely competitive and be a category that will have us second-guessing our predictions up until Oscar night unless one performance takes both Critics Choice and SAG.
Much like last year, each televised event has had an array of leading ladies in their lineups. This has both provided the opportunity to showcase and highlight other leading performances – Rachel Zegler from “West Side Story” who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, Jennifer Hudson in “Respect” who was nominated for a SAG award, and Lady Gaga in “House of Gucci” who received every prominent precursor nomination (CCA, GG, SAG & BAFTA) – but it also left us without a consensus five (or four to be honest) with a clear frontrunner. But now that the nominations have been announced and the competition cut down to five performances, it seems that three actresses are taking center stage in one of the most contested races of the year. Interestingly enough, these three women have entirely separate narratives and approaches of playing real people in three different types of biopics. Those actresses are Kristen Stewart for “Spencer,” Nicole Kidman for “Being the Ricardos,” and Jessica Chastain for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
One of the biggest and best surprises from the Oscar nomination telecast was finding out that Kristen Stewart, in fact, made it into the Best Actress lineup for her incredible performance in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer.” After stunning critics and audiences at Venice, Stewart seemed to be the early frontrunner for the Oscar. But then she lost the Golden Globe (to Kidman) and was left off the ballot at the SAG awards, one of the most significant precursors for an actor, followed by the miss at the BAFTAs. In one swift motion, Stewart went from Oscar frontrunner to potential miss. So it was a collective sigh of relief and celebratory cheer when Stewart’s name was read as an Oscar nominee.
But that is, unfortunately, the point: Stewart is the internet’s choice for the Oscar (also with backing from a majority of critics). At the time of this article, Stewart has won 22 Critics’ groups prizes, leaving the competition in the dust (Olivia Colman for “The Lost Daughter” has the second-most wins for Best Actress with a total of seven). It is obvious that Stewart’s most passionate fans of her tormented, lyrical portrayal of the late Princess are critics and not individuals within her industry (the SAG and BAFTA misses speak for themselves). “Spencer” is an atypical biopic, meaning that it doesn’t tell its audience the basic story of its subject and instead focuses on the subject’s internal and emotional journey. Therefore, Stewart’s performance is not what the Academy, particularly the actor’s branch, is accustomed to when considering a “biopic performance.” The goal of “Spencer” is not to challenge the narrative the public has come to know about Princess Diana or for Stewart to completely disappear into the role, which is where this performance has had an exceptionally hard trail to its Oscar nomination and will likely continue to cost her votes. Performance aside, “Spencer” is not an Academy or industry-friendly movie, which, as we predicted, was the most challenging aspect about it, as evident by its lack of nominations outside of Stewart. Yet, after a fascinating career that is still in its early stages, she is finally an Oscar nominee, which proves the strength of her star power. And since she is a lone nominee, this is the only way the Academy can reward the film. But most importantly, this reveals that the people who voted for Stewart specifically love Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” instead of the film overall.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have Nicole Kidman for “Being the Ricardos.” Unlike “Spencer,” Aaron Sorkin’s biopic on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had no festival run and came out in December, at the very end of the season. For the most part, this strategy seems to work in grabbing the last nomination spot (Andra Day did this last year for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”). It can even establish a new frontrunner, especially for a legend such as Nicole Kidman. It seemed like a safe bet to place Kidman on the Best Actress ballot, but when she won the Golden Globe, beating the at-the-time frontrunner Kristen Stewart and scored a SAG nomination, she all of a sudden became the new frontrunner.
Kidman’s recent victories seem to indicate that she is the industry’s pick out of the five nominees (as opposed to Stewart being the critics’ pick). “Being the Ricardos” takes enough creative license over Lucille and Desi’s story, but it never strays away from the “biopic feel.” Like “Spencer,” it takes place over a short period of time, and Sorkin depicts a multitude of dramatic events all happening within that week, which really didn’t happen. But he still gives his audience the basic biography of its subjects. We learn how Desi and Lucy met, how “I Love Lucy” came about, and the creation of famous moments from the show. Even with mixed reviews, Sorkin is playing directly into the Academy’s hand by making a film that typically garners Oscar nominations, or as many would call it, “Oscar bait.” Plus, in addition to Kidman’s nomination, co-stars Javier Bardem and J.K Simmons were both nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively (Bardem was also nominated for a SAG award). This shows that “Being the Ricardos” generally plays extremely well to the actor’s branch, who are still the largest voting branch within the Academy. They don’t just love Kidman in the movie; they love the other actors, which can only benefit her. It’s possible that Kidman’s strength pulled Bardem or Simmons, but it is also possible that the actor’s branch really likes this type of fast-paced, extroverted acting all three performers are delivering through Sorkin’s witty, firecracker script (despite it not being nominated for Best Original Screenplay). And since it is unlikely that Bardem and Simmons will win in their respective categories, it feels like Kidman will receive all the “Being the Ricardos” love. Kidman is living an actor’s dream in this film. She gets to play two sides of the same character with different voices and mannerisms and has monologue after monologue after monologue courtesy of Sorkin’s wordy screenplay. There is no downtime in this performance, and Kidman is never not at 100%, which demands a certain level of respect even if many feel she was the wrong choice to play Lucille Ball. All of this could result in her being this year’s Best Actress winner. Plus, Nicole Kidman seems like an actor that should have two Oscars, right?
Lastly, we have Jessica Chastain for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Now, even though Michael Showalter’s only has one other Oscar nomination (Best Makeup and Hairstyling) and Chastain has only won five critics’ awards this season, it would still be unwise to dismiss her completely. Narratively speaking, Chastain has a strong one heading into Oscar night. She has been working on this project for ten years, has never won an Oscar (unlike Kidman), and is in the most Academy-friendly biopic out of all the other nominees. Biopics and playing a real person have done well with the actor’s branch in recent years (Renée Zellweger in “Judy,” Olivia Colman in “The Favourite,” etc.), and Chastain is most certainly aware of that. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the most traditional biopic that chronicles the rise and fall of its subject, which allows the performance to take center stage since the audience probably already knows the story. Throughout the film, Chastain is covered in prosthetics, has an accent, wears heavy makeup, and is aging from her early 20’s to her 50’s. This is one flashy performance that actors specifically love. It is loud, emotional, and extroverted, similar to the actual Tammy Faye. Plus, Jessica Chastain is an actor who commands enough respect in the industry for her efforts both in front and behind the camera that she deserves to have an Oscar. And it seems the industry really wants to give her one. It’s been nine years since her last Best Actress nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty,” a performance people seem to think she should have won for, making this the industry’s first opportunity to reward her since. In between those nominations, she’s become an influential figure behind the scenes and an advocate for women’s rights in Hollywood. Considering “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” appears to be the type of movie with the exact kind of performance that gets a repeated nominee their deserved, maybe even overdue, statue, Chastain should not be counted out of this race.
Alas, it would be unfair to leave out the other two nominees, Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers“) and Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter“), because just like last year’s race: anything can happen. Both have the added benefit of not being the lone nominee (Best Score for “Parallel Mothers” and Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Lost Daughter“) for their respective films, and both are previous Oscar winners. Cruz has been universally praised for her performance since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where she won the Best Actress prize. It seems her international star power, the highly concentrated campaigning efforts from Sony Pictures Classics, and her outstanding performance landed her the nomination. To consider her stiff competition to someone like Kidman may be stretching the narrative, but she is a previous winner, is not a lone nominee (unlike Stewart), and is loved by all; it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
However, Colman seems to be in the stronger position since “The Lost Daughter” earned nominations in other above-the-line categories, and she’s nominated at Critics Choice and SAG, where she can still pick up a prize (Cruz is not). Some might discount Colman by stating that she isn’t really on the campaign trail or state that the Academy wouldn’t award the same actress Best Actress twice within three years. Still, she’s Olivia Colman (and do we forget that Frances McDormand just won her third Oscar three years after her second?). She has a history of winning awards without campaigning, so, likewise, it would be highly unwise to count her out. While I wouldn’t rank her and Cruz as likely as the other three women mentioned above, this will become an entirely different race if Colman wins either SAG or Critics Choice in the lead-up to the Oscars.
Last year, the Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA awards all went to a different woman nominated for the Oscar. That pattern is very likely to repeat again this year, especially given that none of the five Oscar nominees are nominated at BAFTA, leaving us to our statistics, knowledge of the Academy, and gut instinct come Oscar night to predict who will prevail. If Nicole Kidman continues after her Golden Globe win to win Critics Choice and/or SAG, then there’s a pretty clear path for her to win the Oscar. But, because it’s been so long since the Golden Globes and many want to decry their relevance this year, the other awards bodies might feel compelled to go another way. Kidman is also maybe not as strong as people thought after her film failed to get Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominations, leaving the door open with Critics Choice and SAG to anoint a new frontrunner. How wild would it be to see Critics Choice go for Stewart (the last prize she can pick up before the Oscars) and SAG reward Chastain? What do we do then? This stacked race is still very much open, where anything can happen and will probably remain a mystery until the final vote is counted.
Who do you think will win Best Actress at the Critics Choice Awards, SAG and ultimately, the Academy Awards? Check out our latest Oscar predictions for Best Actress here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Lauren and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @laurenlamango