No matter how you spin it, 2016 was not a kind year for women who remain trapped on the other side of a cracked glass ceiling. So it is with great pleasure that I begin this first in a four-part series focused on the leading ladies of the Best Actress race. Last year’s race saw the defeat of #OscarsSoWhite with people of color represented in all of the major categories, and of course, Best Picture, in a turn as dramatic as the films themselves, going to Moonlight following an envelope mix-up backstage. (Can someone please explain why that guy hasn’t been fired yet?) As we look to Oscar nominations in January 2018, we do so under the shadow of a man who is hidden behind a veil of secrecy. It will be interesting to see how the Academy is affected by the state of the union. Will they choose to support performances from films of heavy subject matter, or go the opposite direction and support those from films of lighter fare? If the historic win of Moonlight this year is anything to go by, the shiny happy sheen of a film, such as La La Land and those who dream, was not what the Academy wanted, to make a bold statement. Last Oscar season, the race came down to two very deserving actresses in roles that were the polar opposite of one another: the eventual winner, Emma Stone, as the fictitious young ingénue in La La Land and Natalie Portman as the titular Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. What story has yet to be told this year? The film screenings to take place over the next couple of months will weave that narrative. For now, let’s examine last year’s Best Actress nomination results.
Of the eleven roles that were discussed here, only two went on to join Stone and Portman and secure Best Actress nominations: Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins and Ruth Negga for Loving. Viola Davis ended up being nominated in a supporting role and winning for her searing performance in Fences. Jessica Chastain and Rosamund Pike’s films, The Zookeeper’s Wife and A United Kingdom, respectively, were pushed to this year, thereby falling out of contention. Finally, Allied, Passengers, and The Light Between Oceans were seen as genre fare, promptly taking Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Lawrence, and Alicia Vikander, respectively, out of the running and leaving behind Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) and the aforementioned Adams who had two chances for a nomination: Nocturnal Animals and Arrival. I would argue that when all was said and done, the only real snub was Adams who all but literally carried Arrival on her back to earn eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The last nominee was Isabelle Huppert (Elle).
THE QUEEN BEE: Meryl Streep – The Papers (director: Stephen Spielberg):
FYC: This historical drama, inspired by true events, involves a cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents and drove the country’s first female newspaper publisher of The Washington Post, Kay Graham (Streep) and its hard-driving editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to join an unprecedented battle between journalists and the government in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Streep is discussed every year in this column. The actress has racked up 17 Oscar nominations and three Oscar wins—two in lead (Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and The Iron Lady in 2011), and one in supporting (Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980). Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, you know that the film is highly relevant following constant attacks on the press by, and several ongoing investigations of, the man who currently occupies the White House.
THE LESBIAN: Emma Stone – Battle of the Sexes (directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris):
FYC: The comedy-drama film is loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Stone) and ex-champ/serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Stone is on fire at the moment having won the Oscar for Best Actress just this year. She was previously nominated for her supporting role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2015. What’s more, the last film directed by Dayton and Feris, Little Miss Sunshine, was nominated for two Oscars and won two others, including Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin.
THE WILDCARD: Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (director: Martin McDonagh):
FYC: A dark comedic drama that depicts the plight of a mother (McDormand) who takes a stand against a revered chief of police (Woody Harrelson) using three billboards leading into her town after several months have passed without a culprit for her daughter’s murder. McDormand was first nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1989 for Mississippi Burning. She won Best Actress in 1997 for Fargo, and earned two more Best Supporting Actress nominations for Almost Famous and North Country in 2000 and 2006, respectively. Although McDormand has largely remained outside of the Oscar conversation since her last nomination, the trailer for the film shows a lot of range from the actress, who appears to be relishing in the role. Sight unseen, I have her as the one to beat this year.
THE DAME: Dame Judi Dench – Victoria and Abdul (director: Stephen Frears):
FYC: This British-American biographical drama film based on Shrabani Basu’s book of same name depicts the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Dench) and young Indian clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). It’s hard to believe that Dench who has been nominated of Best Actress five times (most recently for Philomena in 2014) and Best Supporting Actress two others (Mrs Brown in 1997, Chocolat in 2001) has only won a single Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love in 1999. Further, like McDormand, if the range depicted in the trailer is anything to go by, we will be seeing an awful lot of Dench this awards season.
THE PERENNIAL: Jennifer Lawrence – Mother! (director: Darren Aronofsky):
FYC: Although very little is known about this thriller-horror that centers on a couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive, disrupting their tranquil existence, Aronofsky’s Black Swan did quite well with the Academy (despite naysayers saying that the film wasn’t within their wheelhouse), earning four nominations, including Best Picture, and winning the Best Actress Oscar for Natalie Portman. Black Swan is also described as a thriller; could lightning strike twice? Lawrence earned her first Best Actress nomination in 2011 for Winter’s Bone and she won the Oscar in 2012 for Silver Linings Playbook. She went on to net a Best Supporting Actress nomination for American Hustle (2014) and her third Best Actress nomination for Joy last year. Even though all of her performances do not catch fire in the awards race, Lawrence remains one of the most bankable actresses to date, and in our capitalist society, bankability often translates to awards heat.
THE REDHEAD: Kate Winslet – Wonder Wheel (director: Woody Allen):
FYC: The plot is unknown for this period drama set in a late 1950s amusement park at Coney Island, Brooklyn New York, but Allen’s films often find themselves in the thick of the Oscar conversation. Winslet’s career has yielded two Best Supporting Actress nominations (Sense and Sensibility in 1996 and Iris in 2002) and three Best Actress nominations (Titanic in 1998, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2005 and Little Children in 2007). In 2008, she infamously won the Oscar for Best Actress for her would-be supporting role in The Reader over Streep’s wonderful turn in Doubt. Winslet last brushed shoulders with Oscar when she was nominated for her supporting role last year for Steve Jobs. Early images from the film show Winslet with red hair engaged in a passionate argument with co-star Justin Timberlake. Given that she excels in relationship dramas, and the film has a December 1st release date, she’s a pretty safe bet.
THE CLASS ACT: Emma Thompson – The Children Act (director: Richard Eyre):
FYC: This drama based on Ian McEwan‘s novel of the same name concerns British High Court judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) who is asked to rule in the case of a minor refusing treatment because of his family’s religious beliefs. Thompson won the Best Actress Oscar in 1993 for Howard’s End and went on to be nominated the following year for The Remains of the Day. 1996 brought her not one, but two Oscars: Best Actress and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published for Sense and Sensibility. Thompson was most recently in the Oscar conversation in 2013 for Saving Mr. Banks, but she was snubbed by the Academy for her role as P.L. Travers—the author behind the Mary Poppins books. It’s important to note that the last film to be adapted from one of McEwan’s novels, Atonement, garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Actress and Best Picture. It seems a safe bet to throw Thompson’s hat in the ring at this early stage.
THE GAMBLER: Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game (director: Aaron Sorkin):
FYC: This drama marks the directorial debut of Sorkin and is based on Molly Bloom’s memoir Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. Bloom was a former Olympic hopeful-come-successful entrepreneur who became the subject of an FBI investigation after she established a high-stakes, international poker game. Chastain, perhaps the actress most overdue for a win discussed here,
was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Help in 2012 and Best Actress the following year for Zero Dark Thirty. As per usual, she has a few other films in contention this year: The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Woman Walks Ahead. But having more films, doesn’t necessarily equate to more chances to win—especially with an actress as talented as Chastain who consistently delivers—because the Academy often splits the vote without a consensus. For now, I’m putting my money on this one having the highest profile of the bunch, and that late November release date sure doesn’t hurt.
As always, the women discussed here are some of those with the pedigree to earn a nomination. Others include Saoirse Ronan in another McEwan adaptation On Chesil Beach—a drama set in the early 1960s centered on a young couple on their honeymoon. The actress also stars with Annette Bening in The Seagull, who also has a shot with Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Then there’s Helen Mirren in The Leisure Seeker who stars as one-half of a runaway couple on an unforgettable journey in the faithful old RV called “The Leisure Seeker.” Sally Hawkins also has two films to consider: The Shape of Water from visionary director Guillermo del Toro and Maudie—a role for which she is already winning rave reviews. As if that weren’t enough, Halle Berry has her shot in Kings from Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven in a drama that follows a foster family in South Central LA just before the city erupts in violence following the verdict of the Rodney King trial in 1992.
The Oscar race will really get its start with the Venice International Film Festival August 30 – September 9, 2017 and the Telluride Film Festival August 30 – September 4, 2017. These festivals often set the stage for the season to come as frontrunners emerge. Stay tuned in September when I take a look at the leading men of the Best Actor race.