Last week, when running down the current state of the Best Actor Oscar race, I pointed out this year’s uncharacteristically weak field. Year after year, Hollywood churns out incredibly complex and engrossing roles for men that allow some of our best performers to shine, usually resulting in a highly competitive race for Best Actor. The Best Actress race, meanwhile, is a reflection of Hollywood’s lack of similar quality when it comes to female characters, as more often than not the best roles are written for men. 2015, however, is a very welcome change.
Narrowing down this year’s leading female roles to a simple Top 10 is nearly impossible, which makes predicting the five women who will be nominated for Best Actress a difficult task. There were so many incredible performances this year showing a wonderfully diverse range, from the stoic hero in a blockbuster masterpiece to the quiet, restrained turn in a captivating drama. The race remains incredibly competitive, so I’ve taken a moment this holiday weekend to run down a snapshot of where things stand right now in terms of who has the best shot at a nomination.
The Safe Bets
Cate Blanchett is, bar none, one of the best performers who’s ever lived. She is transcendent, and never is that more clear than in 2015, when she had not one but two masterful leading performances. Given that the Academy only allows an actor or actress to be nominated once (which is, if I may say so, a very dumb rule), there was some debate this fall about whether Blanchett stood a better shot for the political drama Truth or Todd Haynes’ magnificent romance Carol. Now, a few months out and following a mixed response from critics re: Truth, it’s pretty clear that Blanchett’s confident, complex, and at times defiant turn as a 1950s semi-closeted lesbian who strikes up an affair with a younger woman in Carol is the one she’ll be nominated for. And oh yes, she’ll be nominated.
Alternately, we have the young Brie Larson gunning for her first-ever nomination, and things are looking up. The actress turns in a pretty astounding performance in Room as a woman held captive for five years, left to care for a son whose only world he’s ever known is the tiny room in which they’re kept. It’s a immensely powerful work as Larson conveys the mix of strength and terror necessary to convincingly bring the character to life, and her arc is a complex one that Larson delivers beautifully. I’d be quite surprised if she didn’t at least land in the pack, let alone win.
The emotional, near-perfect immigrant drama Brooklyn has been building steam over the past month, nearly a year after it first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and if it’s as big a hit with the Academy as I think it will be, Saoirse Ronan stands a solid chance at nabbing a well-deserved Best Actress nomination. There is nary a false note in the entirety of Brooklyn from the top down, but Ronan carries much of the film’s weight on her shoulders as we view this story of a young Irish girl leaving her family and coming to America through her eyes. Ronan is so good in this role, and it’s a complex one to be sure as she juggles romantic entanglements, familial obligations, and the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land all with ease. One of the year’s best performances in one of the year’s best films will probably land the recognition it deserves.
The Bubble Contenders
Beyond those three, it becomes much more difficult to parse out who gets in, specifically because the competition is so fierce. There’s support for Charlotte Rampling’s devastatingly brilliant performance in the intimate drama 45 Years, assuming enough voters actually see the film, and while Suffragette hasn’t made too much noise yet, Carey Mulligan is a contender to be sure. We could also see Blythe Danner nab her first ever Oscar nomination for I’ll See You in My Dreams, which had the advantage of being the first screener sent to most voters along with Grandma, another film that features a potentially Oscar-worthy performance in Lily Tomlin.
Emily Blunt was an early favorite to score a nomination for her incredible work in Sicario, but as the field as gotten more crowded, it becomes more difficult to tell if she can make the cut. The heat on Sicario itself has cooled a bit, which is a shame, but that’s not to say it won’t land a profile boost from the critics awards coming down the pike starting next week. And Maggie Smith is also on the radar for the drama The Lady in the Van, although she’s not one for campaigning so that one will depend entirely on the merit of her performance/the film.
And what of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road? Furiosa is really the star of George Miller’s masterpiece, and Theron does a tremendous job in a role with few words. The Academy isn’t huge on genre, but the brilliance of Fury Road is impossible to deny. If the film makes a splash with voters, I could see Theron becoming a bigger part of the conversation.
The Question Marks
There are also a couple of potential candidates worth mentioning that, while not exactly in the outer ring at the moment, could possibly gain some steam next month. Sandra Bullock is certainly well loved in the Academy, so while Our Brand Is Crisis was a pretty formidable bomb at the box office, there’s the potential for her being recognized for a solid performance regardless. Similarly, Angelina Jolie’s next directorial project By the Sea has been quiet as a mouse, but she could find favor for her performance in the marital drama.
On the indie side of things, Bel Powley landed strong notices for her turn in Diary of a Teenage Girl and recently nabbed a Best Actress Spirit Award nomination, as did Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for her work in the lauded Tangerine.
There’s also the outside possibility that Rooney Mara gets a Best Actress nomination for Carol. The Weinstein Company is pushing Mara for supporting, even though she and Blanchett are really co-leads in the film, but Oscar voters don’t have to abide by the category placement of the For Your Consideration ads, and I’d be delighted to see both Blanchett and Mara deservedly recognized for their impeccable performances in Haynes’ film.
The Yet to Be Seen
The biggest question mark of all, of course, is Jennifer Lawrence in Joy. Screenings for the film begin soon, but right now it’s tough to parse out just how formidable a player Lawrence will be in this race—although she will be a player. Her last two collaborations with director David O. Russell resulted in a nomination and a win, and for Joy we have a true star vehicle, not an ensemble piece or a two-hander. Lawrence is an incredible performer and is beloved in the community, so the question really isn’t whether she’ll be a player but how big of a player she’ll be.
So how will things shake out? If I were forced to make predictions right now, here’s what I’m thinking (in order of likelihood to be nominated):
- Cate Blanchett – Carol
- Brie Larson – Room
- Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
- Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
- Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
The first critics group awards arrive next week, and while critics don’t vote for Oscars, they can certainly help to raise the profile of certain bubble contenders. So look for this race to heat up considerably over the next month. Oscar Beat will return next week for one more snapshot piece taking a closer look at the Best Director category.