By Tom O’Brien
Welcome to the third in our NBP series of the 10 best early Oscar contenders in each of the four acting categories. For the past two weeks, we have looked at the early contenders in the Supporting categories before the fall film festivals kick into high gear. This week, we turn our attention to the most likely contenders for Best Actress.
Just to address the rumor mill, there has been online speculation that two women whom we had listed as supporting contenders — Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in “Backseat” and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in “The Favourite” — might be pushed up to lead. Personally, I think it would be foolish for Adams to go lead because the best argument she has going for her is that a nomination this year would be her 6th without a win and that she’s way overdue. However, going lead would likely put her up against Glenn Close (“The Wife“), for whom a nomination would be her 7th without a win — even more overdue. As for Colman, she will be formidable wherever she’s placed. So I’m leaving them both in supporting for now.
At this moment, here are the 10 women who, as we see it, stand the best chance of hearing their name on nomination morning. Click below to see the top contenders in alphabetical order.
Glenn Close – “The Wife”
No living actor has had more Oscar nominations without a win than Close. But with “The Wife,” she has her best role in decades as a woman who considers herself a “kingmaker” when her husband (Jonathan Pryce) wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, yet she harbors a devastating secret of her own that could destroy him. Close gives a carefully modulated performance, simmering in the film’s early scenes until the last 20 minutes when she really turns it up to a boil. Should Close prevail and win the Best Actress Oscar, many may dismiss it as some kind of sentimental vote. Ignore them. If she wins the Oscar for this performance, it will be based entirely on merit.
Toni Collette – “Hereditary”
It’s not easy to earn a Best Actress nomination in a horror film. Ellen Burstyn managed to do it for 1973’s “The Exorcist,” Kathy Bates did it in 1990 for “Misery,” and Jodie Foster actually won her second Oscar for 1992’s Best Picture, “The Silence Of The Lambs.” (Also, depending on your definition of horror, you might add Natalie Portman’s 2010 win for “Black Swan.”) But it doesn’t happen often, so it’s notable that Toni Collette’s astonishing performance in “Hereditary” is still at the forefront of the Best Actress discussion for her slow and terrifying descent into madness. Whether she makes the final 5 remains to be seen, but she delivers the goods and certainly deserves to be there.
Viola Davis – “Widows”
We’ll know more on September 8th when Steve McQueen’s “Widows” premieres in Toronto as to whether the film is simply a commercial player or an awards contender. No matter which way the film goes, however, Davis looks dynamic as the leader of a group of widows determined to complete their late criminal husbands’ last job. “Widows” would be her fourth Oscar nomination, including a win for 2016’s “Fences,” and with an Oscar winner such as McQueen at the helm, any bid by an actress as skilled as Davis must be taken seriously. As Oscar predictors say, once a winner, always a contender.
Nicole Kidman – “Destroyer”
This week, the first promotional photo for Nicole Kidman in Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” was released, and the photo of a ragged Kidman looks worthy of an Oscar itself. In “Destroyer,” Kidman portrays undercover cop Erin Bell who once infiltrated a California gang but the results proved to be tragic, a conclusion that has haunted her for the rest of her life. When the gang’s leader re-emerges years later, Erin decides to go back to the remaining gang members to find some closure to her troubled life. This story is so far out of Kidman’s comfort zone that it will likely get her Academy attention at the very least and respect if the film is as good as it seems to be.
Lady Gaga – “A Star Is Born”
Ever since the trailer to “A Star Is Born” was released two months ago, there has been enormous speculation about the Oscar prospects of Lady Gaga in her role as the newcomer on the rise. At this moment, a win for the Best Actress Golden Globe in the Musical/Comedy category is probably a given and will likely offer her a leg up toward making the final five nominees. If Gaga can get over that nomination hurdle, then the Oscar may be hers to lose if the final film delivers on what the trailer promises — dramatic chops, romantic chemistry, and powerhouse vocals. We’ll know more when “A Star Is Born” premieres in Venice on August 31.
Melissa McCarthy – “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
There’s a long history of comic actors going dramatic and winning Oscars for their efforts — from Red Buttons in “Sayonara” to Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting.” So those Oscarologists who are pooh-poohing Melissa McCarthy’s chances for a nomination as real-life literary forgerer Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty should pause and take a second look. McCarthy is already a member of the Oscar club, having received a nomination for 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” and by the time of the nominations, “The Happytime Murders” will be but a distant memory, all to McCarthy’s benefit.
Julianne Moore – “Gloria Bell”
On Monday, A24 picked up Sebastián Lelio’s (“A Fantastic Woman” & “Disobedience“) English-language remake of his own 2013 film “Gloria” and announced that the film will have a Spring 2019 release. This means, of course, that it won’t be eligible for this year’s Oscars, right? Not so fast. The film premieres on September 7th in Toronto, and A24, which knows how to play the Oscar game, will soon decide if they have a Best Actress contender in star Julianne Moore which would require a one-week qualification run in December. We already know that Gloria is a baity part — Chilean actress Paulina Garcia knocked it out of the park in the original — and with Oscar winner Moore in the role of an older divorcée looking to begin a new life, we may have a major stealth contender here.
Carey Mulligan – “Wildlife”
If you can believe it, it’s been nine years since Mulligan’s prior Oscar nomination for “An Education.” But, given the reviews from its screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics are calling her work in “Wildlife” the best of her career. Jeanette Brinson’s (Mulligan) world turns upside down when her golf pro husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and goes off to fight wildfires in Montana, leaving her feeling abandoned with their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) and forced to begin a new life for them both. Joe, however, becomes concerned when he sees his mother becoming attracted to another man. Mulligan has done such good work since her last nomination that it’s about time to see Mulligan’s craft appreciated again by Oscar.
Saoirse Ronan – “Mary Queen Of Scots”
It may seem difficult to believe, but if Saoirse Ronan is nominated in the title role of “Mary Queen Of Scots,” it will mark her fourth Oscar nomination by the ripe old age of 24. Yet if that 4th Oscar nod does happen, it would not be surprising, given how dominant she appears to be in the film’s trailer. It is a delicious role — Vanessa Redgrave was nominated as Mary in the 1971 retelling of the story — that encompasses both the physical (Ronan is completely believable on horseback) and the dramatic (her confrontations with Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth absolutely crackle). Make no mistake about it — Ronan is a major player once again.
Rachel Weisz – “The Favourite”
As Fox Searchlight wrestles with the category placement of co-stars Olivia Colman and Emma Stone, it is becoming clearer that Weisz is the main protagonist of Yorgos Lanthimos’ film as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, whose role of being chief suck-up to Queen Anne (Colman) is suddenly being threatened by the arrival of her cousin, Baroness Abigail Masham (Stone). Reactions to early screenings have indicated that the film has the making of an Academy favorite, and if so, Weisz, who won her first Oscar for 2005’s “The Constant Gardener,” may need to clear shelf space for a second Academy Award.
This is, of course, not a definitive list. We’ve all been through enough Oscar races to know that, at this early stage, the fortunes of some unknowns will rise and those of some early favorites will fall. So let’s call this a snapshot of where the Best Actress category is at this moment, and we’ll follow every shift in the contest here at Next Best Picture.
You can follow Tom and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @thomaseobrien