With most of the major film festivals behind us following the New York Film Festival (NYFF) (September 27-October 13, 2019), it’s time for the second of the three-part “Ones to Watch” series, which examines the contenders of the Best Actress Oscar race. At this juncture, most of the films have been screened, making it easier to identify the true contenders–but it is still early, and a lot can change.
Unlike Best Actor, Best Actress is not often tied to Best Picture. However, the films of the Telluride and Venice film festivals along with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and NYFF still act as a springboard for the performances, which, along with critical reception, form the Best Actress Oscar race. Before we get into this year’s contenders, let’s review last year’s race.
By this time last year, all chess pieces were on the table with the five eventual Best Actress nominees coming from film festival premieres: Glenn Close (who has never won an Oscar) had become the frontrunner for The Wife following the film’s bow at TIFF in 2017, Venice gave us Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), and Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), and Telluride added Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to the mix.
Though Gaga had the wind at her back early on with critical reception for her singer/songwriter Allie, once the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) awarded both her and Close its Best Actress statuette, there was trouble in the air. Sure enough, the Golden Globe, given out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama went to Close (and her trademark simmer to a boil). But Colman’s enfant terrible queen wouldn’t be held down, and she matched Close, winning both the Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actress in a Comedy from the BFCA. This set the stage for a nail-biting awards season finale that saw Colman as the victor. It would be remiss of me not to say that many feel Colman’s performance, while outstanding, was really a supporting role.
All performances were discussed here with the exception of Aparicio who was swept along with success of Best Picture contender Roma. As for the others, Viola Davis couldn’t find footing to get recognition for her much deserving work in Widows, nor could Nicole Kidman, who gave my favorite performance of the year in Destroyer (this oversight likely due to the film’s late release date). Meanwhile, perennial favorite Saoirse Ronan’s film Mary Queen of Scots was met with a lot of criticism and KiKi Layne’s Tish missed the mark in If Beale Street Could Talk.
The Legend: Renée Zellweger – Judy (director: Rupert Goold, studio: Roadside Attractions)
FYC: This drama follows the stage career of Judy Garland during 1968, the last year of her life, when she relocated to Great Britain for a string of sell-out concerts at the Talk of the Town. Zellweger was nominated for Best Actress in 2002 for Bridget Jones Diary and again the following year for Chicago. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for Cold Mountain, completing a three-year nomination streak. In 2010, she started what would become a six-year hiatus from acting, and in 2016, she began making her way back with roles in films such as The Whole Truth, Bridget Jones’s Baby, and Same Kind of Different as Me. When she took the cover of Elle for the magazine’s 21st-Annual Women in Hollywood Awards issue in October 2014, there was a lot of conversation in the media on whether she had undertaken substantial cosmetic surgery because of her new likeness. This is all to say that if anyone has lived the life in the limelight the way Garland’s then fading star had, it is Zellweger, as shown in her magnanimous performance. When the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August, Zellweger became the frontrunner, and three months later, she retains the position.
Metacritic Score: 66
THE SHAPESHIFTER: Charlize Theron – Bombshell (director: Jay Roach, studio: Lionsgate)
FYC: A group of women decide to take on Fox News head Roger Ailes for sexual harassment and the toxic masculinity he presided over in this drama based on the real-life expose. It’s hard to believe that in the nine years of FYC, Theron has not been featured. She won Best Actress in 2004 for Monster and was last nominated in 2006 for North Country. Since then, she has delivered several brilliant performances, including this year’s Tully, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and a Best Actress in a Comedy nomination from the BFCA. The iconic Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, woefully ignored awards-wise, did net Theron a win for Best Actress in an Action Movie and a Best Actress nomination from the BFCA in 2015. Incidentally, this same phenomenon seems to have played out in 2017 for Amy Adams in Arrival, where both films earned several nominations, including Best Picture but shut out the film’s star, shameful. Bombshell has been screened for critics and the reviews have been positive. What’s more, the film’s trailer depicts Theron’s striking transformation into real-life journalist Megyn Kelly. At the time of this publication, the film has not yet premiered, but Theron looks strong for a nomination. But given its late release date, and a shortened awards season, Lionsgate will need to get screeners of the film to awards bodies who vote early to keep her name in the conversation.
Metacritic Score: Unknown
THE ACTRESS: Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story (director: Noah Baumbach, studio: Netflix)
FYC: This comedy-drama gives a compassionate look at the breakup of a marriage between an actress (Johansson) and a stage director (Adam Driver) whose divorce spans both coasts and pushes them to extremes. Although today’s audience knows Johansson for her high profile role as Marvel’s Black Widow, Johansson was previously nominated for two Golden Globes in 2004 for Lost in Translation (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical), which also netted her a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role and a Best Supporting Actress BFCA nomination, and Girl with a Pearl Earring (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama) for which she also earned a BAFTA nomination and the Best Actress award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA). Her Golden Globe nomination streak continued in 2005 with a second nom in the latter category for A Love Song for Bobby Long and in 2006 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture in Match Point. She also earned a BFCA Best Supporting Actress nomination for Her in 2014. Johansson also appears in a supporting role in Jojo Rabbit, my favorite film so far this year, which could make her a double nominee. Having seen the film at NYFF, I can tell you her performance is certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination, but a win is not likely.
Metacritic Score: 94
THE WRITER: Saoirse Ronan – Little Women (director: Greta Gerwig, studio: Columbia Pictures)
FYC: Gerwig’s rendition of this coming-of-age story concerning the lives of the March sisters in 1860s New England, after the Civil War, is the eighth film adaptation of the 1868 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott and stars Ronan as Jo March. I have detailed Ronan’s three Oscar nominations beginning with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 2007’s Atonement, spanning ten years to last year when she was nominated for Best Actress for Lady Bird. Unfortunately, Ronan joins Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain as actresses who have yet to be awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for their work. The film has screened for critics with positive reviews for both the film and Ronan, but whether her performance is enough to give her the edge over Zellweger remains to be seen–at least until the film is released on Christmas day and the embargo is lifted. Like Lionsgate for Bombshell, Columbia will need to be swift with its screeners.
Metacritic Score: 90
Up until now, you may have noticed that the best actress slate is comprised of all Caucasian blondes. I purposely organized this piece to illustrate a shameful point when it comes to Oscar prognostication this year: as of today (November 14, 2019) most pundits have all picked the same four actresses described above, with the fifth slot being filled by a woman of color. Fifteen of them have Awkwafina for The Farewell, 6 have Lupita Nyong’o for Us, 7 have Alfre Woodard for Clemency, and 8 have Cynthia Erivo for Harriet. Only 8 out of 29 pundits have more than one woman of color picked for a nomination, and 2 pundits with outdated predictions are picking less likely contenders. But the reason most pundits are picking only one woman of color is because since 2014 AMPAS’ response to #OscarsSoWhite has been to nominate at most one woman of color in a given year—hardly leveling the playing field. The thing is, pundits tend to play by the Academy’s guidelines, thinking “What will they do?”. And so continues this vicious cycle. With that said, let’s look at the rest of the field.
THE LIAR: Awkwafina – The Farewell (director: Lulu Wang, studio: A24)
FYC: In this comedy-drama, based in part on Wang’s life experiences, Billi (Awkwafina) is caught between a rock and a hard place when her Chinese family discovers their grandmother is terminally ill and keeps her prognosis a secret. During a family gathering, does Billi honor her family’s wishes or break the news to her grandmother? Awkwafina is perhaps best known as the spunky sidekick to Constance Wu’s Rachel in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, but you may not know that the Queens native is also a rapper. So far this season, Awkwafina has been nominated by the Gotham Awards for Best Actress for her work in this Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize dramatic nominee. But the award does not usually factor into an Oscar–could a shorter Oscar season be more of a harbinger of what’s to come?
Metacritic Score: 89
THE SINGER: Cynthia Erivo – Harriet (director: Kasi Lemmons, studio: Focus Features)
FYC: This biographical film finally puts one of America’s greatest heroes in the limelight as it tells the tale of escaped slave-turned-abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, who freed hundreds of enslaved people and helped change history as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Erivo, also a stage actress, won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2016 for her role as Celie in The Color Purple. In 2017, she won both a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Musical Performance in a Daytime Program (also for her work in The Color Purple), putting her in line for an EGOT. Lemmons’ film, which premiered at TIFF, eschews comparisons to other recent films depicting enslaved people through her vision of a more light-hearted approach to the subject matter. The result is a bit formulaic for the taste of critics. Still, Erivo is fierce and compassionate as Tubman, who followed her heart and the North Star to bring enslaved people to the north from 1850-1861. However, as a British actress, Erivo has faced a lot of backlash from many who believe the role should have gone to an American. These remain sticking points as Erivo reaches for gold this year.
Metacritic Score: 66
THE WARDEN: Alfre Woodard – Clemency (director: Chinonye Chukwu, studio: Neon)
FYC: This drama follows prison warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard) whose job has taken a psychological toll as she confronts her demons, thereby connected to the latest man she is sanctioned to execute. Woodard was nominated for Best Supporting Actress way back in 1984 for Cross Creek. In 1993, she was then nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture for Passion Fish (Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture). Afterwards, her awards recognition was relegated to television. She picked up the Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television in 1998 for Miss Evers’ Boys and was last nominated by the HFPA in 2001 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television for Holiday Heart. Woodard’s television bona fides go well beyond the Globes, with twelve Primetime Emmy nominations and four wins. There is no question that Woodard is adored by Hollywood, and her performance is astounding in the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (dramatic) winner, but the film is small and not set to be released until December 27. This is another film where the actress’s awards chances could be heavily influenced by whether its studio (Neon) distributes screeners in time.
Metacritic Score: 76
Other actresses vying for the Best Actress Oscar include the aforementioned Nyong’o, whose film is a horror and therefore an uphill climb (Toni Collette received raves for her performance in Hereditary this year but was ignored by AMPAS), leading me to believe this performance, though amazing, will be left out. There is also newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith who has been turning heads in the Bonnie & Clyde-esque Queen & Slim, Kristen Stewart in Seberg, Helen Mirren in The Good Liar, and Felicity Jones in The Aeronauts.
When next you hear from me, it will be in February and the Academy Awards will be a little over a week away! I’ll do a quick analysis of the supporting players and end the season with my picks in all major categories. Until then, Oscar watchers!