Back in 1936, Bette Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Dangerous,” a movie she found “maudlin” and beneath her talents. Like many in Hollywood, she felt that she should have won for “Of Human Bondage,” the previous year, when her lack of a nomination was so shocking that there was a write-in campaign. Now she was up against Katharine Hepburn, for “Alice Adams,” who even Davis believed had given the best performance of the year. When Davis won anyway, she knew in her heart that it was a consolation prize. “It was true that even if the honor had been earned, it had been earned last year,” she wrote in her book “The Lonely Life.” “There was no doubt that Hepburn’s performance deserved the award. These mistakes compound each other like the original lie that breeds like a bunny. Now she should get it next year when someone else may deserve it.”
Davis’s Bunny Theory has held firm: sometimes people win for the wrong movie, or lose for the right one, causing chain reactions that can last for decades. The what-ifs are dizzying to contemplate, even considering just this year’s nominated actresses. Had Frances McDormand not won Best Actress for the forgettable “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in 2018, would she now be a lock for “Nomadland”? If Diana Ross had won for playing Billie Holiday, in 1973, in “Lady Sings the Blues,” would Andra Day have gained such momentum for playing the same role, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”? And what if Glenn Close, an eight-time nominee and zero-time recipient (who knows from bunnies), had won two years ago, for “The Wife,” as was widely predicted, instead of Olivia Colman, for “The Favourite”? Would the calculus change now that both women are in the Best Supporting Actress category? The alternate universes multiply like rabbits. Below, a closer look at this year’s actress races, both of which are unusually wide open.
Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Four years ago, Davis won an Oscar for playing another August Wilson heroine, the beleaguered suburban wife in “Fences.” But, controversially, she was in the Supporting Actress category, a reflection less of the role’s size than of a woman’s place in a man’s story—and of Oscar politicking. As the blues singer Ma Rainey, in George C. Wolfe’s film, Davis stands in nobody’s shadow. Smeared in makeup, sweat, and world-weary glamour, she plays against type as a star clinging to every bit of leverage that she can muster during a 1927 recording session. “They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma Rainey says of the men who pan her artistry for profits. “All they want is my voice.” Davis is a volcanic talent who should have a Best Actress award on her mantle. Her recent victory at the SAG Awards shows that it could happen this year.
Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Speaking of legendary blues singers and the women who play them, there’s the formidable Andra Day, who won a Golden Globe for her performance in Lee Daniels’s bio-pic. The pairing of actress and subject feels fated—Day, a recording artist, took her stage name from Holiday’s moniker, Lady Day—and her mimicry of Holiday’s plangent warble is convincing. The movie, though, is a rickety vehicle, one that my colleague Hilton Als called “interminable,” with Day striking “a series of postures and imitative voice techniques that serve only to further etch the image of junkie mess into this portrait of a great artist who changed an art form.” Could a portrait of an iconic singer as a tragic, strung-out mess win a Best Actress Oscar? Easily. Just ask last year’s winner, Renée Zellweger (“Judy”).
Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”
For those who knew Kirby only as the decadent young Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” her role in Kornél Mundruczó’s grief-laden drama came as a jolt. Kirby plays Martha, a Boston woman whose home birth—filmed in a long and harrowing single take—results in unspeakable loss, from which Martha spends the rest of the film excavating herself. It’s the kind of strength-through-adversity performance that has attracted scores of Best Actress prizes, going back to Greer Garson’s role in “Mrs. Miniver.” Kirby is an underdog in a crowded field, and in a different year Ellen Burstyn, who plays her mother, might have walked away with the Supporting Actress prize. Both get extra credit for putting up with Shia LaBeouf.
Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
Does any actress come close to doing what McDormand does? The plainspoken poetry of her blunt presence and lined face makes her less a movie star than a natural resource. She’s won the Best Actress award twice, for “Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but you’re as likely to find her singing Shaker songs for the Wooster Group as traipsing down a red carpet. As Fern, the van-dwelling drifter at the center of Chloé Zhao’s ruminative film, McDormand slips into the company of non-actors with ease, because she had no celebrity pretensions to shed in the first place. One moment that lingers: when Fern finally sits on a bed in a house, a moment that McDormand makes us realize is as alien as a tuna on a trampoline. McDormand just won a BAFTA Award, and her talent for giving a kooky barn burner of an acceptance speech is well established.
Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”
I’ll admit, I didn’t know she had it in her. Ever since her breakout role, in “An Education,” Mulligan has projected a kind of doe-eyed breakability. There were signs that something fearless, even fearsome, lurked beneath—recall her unsettling rendition of “New York, New York,” in “Shame.” Perhaps it’s Mulligan’s perceived vulnerability that makes her turn in Emerald Fennell’s feminist revenge thriller so bracing. When we meet her character, seemingly blackout drunk at a night club, we might feel the urge to come to her rescue ourselves; all the eerier, then, when she snaps to sobriety and reveals herself as an avenger to an opportunistic “nice guy.” Mulligan, who has received honors this season from the Critics Choice Awards and the National Board of Review, digs into her character’s trauma and self-destruction without sacrificing her stone-cold conviction—contradictions that lie at the heart of Fennell’s genre-busting film.
Bottom line: Unlike last year’s coronation of Zellweger, this year’s race is a head-scratcher. All the contenders but Kirby have won major awards this season, and each of those four is a plausible winner. Davis and McDormand have the possible disadvantage of having recently won Oscars, and Davis’s co-star Chadwick Boseman is all but a lock for Best Actor, possibly giving voters a reason not to reward both. McDormand headlines the front-runner for Best Picture, but the fact that she doesn’t have this Oscar in the bag shows just how blurry the race is. I’d give a slight edge to Day, who has every Best Actress trope in her favor (famous character, singing, suffering), or Mulligan, who subverts every trope in her path.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
Who knew it was possible to steal a movie from Sacha Baron Cohen? As Tutar, the daughter of Kazakhstan’s prince of bad taste, Bakalova, a twenty-four-year-old Bulgarian actress, not only shared the film with its creator but underwent its most hazardous mission: spending time in a hotel room with Rudy Giuliani. Bakalova was cast as a secret weapon, since Borat himself was too recognizable to pull off the high-level pranking he did in his first film. That Bakalova proved herself to be as game, as wily, and as funny as Cohen was a happy surprise, and she’s already been repaid with a Critics Choice Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award. Still, we really owe her one. I mean, Giuliani.
Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”
Close has the most confusing Oscar campaign of the year. One the one hand, she’s been nominated eight times and never won, so it’s her turn! On the other hand, she’s in a movie that most people found laughably terrible. On the one hand, she totally deglamorized herself to play the role of J. D. Vance’s crabby, salt-of-the-earth “Mamaw.” On the other hand, Vance, who wrote the best-selling book that the movie is based on, is a conservative venture capitalist who recently praised Tucker Carlson for bucking “elite dogma,” after Carlson echoed white-supremacist rhetoric on Fox News. And then there’s the pure camp value of Mamaw distinguishing among “good Terminators,” “bad Terminators,” and “neutral Terminators.” This is what we get for not giving Close an Oscar for “Fatal Attraction.”
Olivia Colman, “The Father”
Like Kirby, Colman comes to the Oscar race off the handsome heels of “The Crown,” in which she played Queen Elizabeth II. This was after she won Best Actress, in 2019, for a significantly more grotesque royal performance, in “The Favourite.” Anyone who was indignant on behalf of Close was immediately disarmed by Colman’s charmingly dotty acceptance speech. Colman has emerged as a star in her forties, at home in comedy or drama, and her role in “The Father” reinforces what an asset she is. As a woman struggling to communicate with her senile father, Colman wears exasperation and sorrow on her face without losing her composure. It’s Anthony Hopkins’s movie, but Colman’s understated woe is recognizable to anyone who’s had to care for an aging relative.
Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”
After starting out on soap operas, Seyfried became one of Hollywood’s more versatile ingénues, up for smart comedy (“Mean Girls”), gothic horror (“Red Riding Hood”), musical drama (“Les Misérables”), or summertime frivolity (“Mamma Mia!”). She’s the kind of amiable, adaptable player who might have thrived under the nineteen-forties studio system. In David Fincher’s resurrection of that era, she plays Marion Davies, the chorus girl turned movie queen whose legacy, for better or worse, is as the paramour of William Randolph Hearst—and as the possible model for the boozy second wife in “Citizen Kane.” Seyfried is poised and even pointed in her scenes with Gary Oldman’s Herman J. Mankiewicz, and her success in the role is a kind of Hollywood myth come true: one starlet channelling another across the ages.
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