Every year it seems like Oscars’ Best Actor category is crowded, while the number of contenders for the Best Actress trophy feels relatively thin. It’s a result of the sad fact that there just aren’t as many interesting lead roles for women in Hollywood as there are for men; many times the “female lead” is relegated to existing only in relation to the film’s male lead. It’s disappointing to be sure, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any noteworthy female roles out there, and this year’s Best Actress race is an excellent showcase of both talent and range, from brilliant sociopaths to Alzheimer’s patients.
After the jump, I take a look at the current state of the Best Actress Oscar category in this new edition of Oscar Beat.
One of the biggest heavyweights in this year’s race was actually a surprise latecomer. The drama Still Alice premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September as a rather under-the-radar picture, but buzz quickly grew for Julianne Moore’s lead performance as a linguistics professor coming to terms with early on-set Alzheimer’s Disease. The buzz was so strong, in fact, that many were saying if a studio picked the film up for distribution and got it out in theaters before the end of the year, they would almost certainly secure an Oscar nomination for Moore—if not the win. That’s exactly what Sony Pictures Classics has done, and word continues to be strong for Moore’s lead performance, making her a very likely candidate for a Best Actress nomination.
In the case of Reese Witherspoon and Wild, on paper the role seems like an obvious choice for Oscar attention. Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon plays a woman who attempts the 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert to the border of Washington State in order to work out some inner emotional turmoil. It all sounds very familiar and generic, but the film itself is anything but thanks to Witherspoon’s fearless lead performance and Jean-Marc Vallee’s dynamic direction. I’m actually a little surprised the film hasn’t made more of a splash already, but I imagine it will pick up more supporters as its December 5th release date looms closer. Regardless, Witherspoon has a strong and deserving shot at a Best Actress nod this year.
While many have been raving about Eddie Redmayne’s performance in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, an equal amount of praise is being heaped on his co-star Felicity Jones, who plays Hawking’s first wife Jane. The film is actually as much Jane’s story as it is Stephen’s, and Jones more than rises to the occasion with a strong, heartbreaking performance that is sure to garner her Academy consideration. It’s a subtle piece of work that is essential to the overall success of the film as Jane’s story is really the emotional center, and given that Theory of Everything tugs at the heartstrings quite successfully, I imagine Jones’ performance will be a hit with Academy voters.
Another performance that’s certainly had people talking is Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. The actress had a big challenge ahead of her as she essentially plays two roles in the film, but she does so in a manner that is wholly believable—Amazing Amy and Regular Amy are clearly cut from the same cloth, and the film’s “turn” is rendered at once surprising and inevitable thanks to Pike’s commanding work. It’s one of those go-for-broke performances that could have crumbled under a lesser actress, but Pike pulls off the high-wire act magnificently, crescendoing with some truly transcendent work in the film’s third act (that hair flip, man). The picture was a box office success and comes from a highly esteemed director (the one and only David Fincher) so it has a leg up in the Oscar race, but even without those two factors I don’t see how Pike’s performance could be ignored. It’ll be curious to see how the film’s momentum changes—if at all—as the season wears on, but regardless of how many nods it does or doesn’t get overall, I think Pike has a very strong shot at a Best Actress nomination.
And then this is where the category gets a less unsure given the overall thinness of the contenders this year. Jenny Slate is absolutely deserving of attention for her bold work in Obvious Child, in which she effortlessly balances humor with very difficult subject matter. But the trick is getting enough Academy voters to see the film, which has been crudely deemed “the abortion comedy.” And Hilary Swank is a real possibility for her role in director Tommy Lee Jones’ Western The Homesman, a film that feels like it could pick up some steam once voters start digging through their screener piles over the holidays.
Shailene Woodley also has a shot at a Best Actress nod for her turn in the hit drama The Fault in Our Stars, especially given the young actress’ popularity at the moment. She’s undoubtedly solid in the film, though I’m not so certain this is her “Oscar-worthy” performance—it feels like Woodley may give us something even better down the road. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a potential contender for her lead turn in the period drama Belle, and there’s always the outside possibility that previous winner Marion Cotillard could gain some attention for either James Gray’s The Immigrant or the Dardennes Brothers’ Two Days, One Night. Speaking of foreign films, I’d argue Lisa Loven Kongsli makes a strong case for Best Actress attention in the delightful Swedish film Force Majeure, but that’s a bit of an uphill battle as far as securing a nomination is concerned.
Other less-certain contenders include Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Keira Knightley in Begin Again, but those two actresses have much better shots in the Best Supporting Actress category for A Most Violent Year and The Imitation Game, respectively.
There are also a few unseen performances that are garnering early buzz, chiefly Amy Adams in Tim Burton’s drama Big Eyes. The trailer looks like the film could be a return to form for the whimsical director, anchored by a strong lead performance from Adams as Margaret Keene, an artist whose husband took credit for her popular (and lucrative) oil paintings. Early word on Adams’ turn is very positive, and the actress could nab her sixth Oscar nomination in just eight years.
And then there’s Emily Blunt’s lead turn in the Disney musical Into the Woods (co-star Meryl Streep is being submitted for Supporting Actress consideration). It remains to be seen if the film will be a massive success like director Rob Marshall’s excellent 2002 musical Chicago, more of a commercial play on Disney’s part, or a big miss like Marshall’s star-studded 2009 musical Nine. If it’s the former, Blunt could stand to secure her first Academy Award nod, though I’d also argue that she’s deserving of attention for the delightful sci-fi pic Edge of Tomorrow. Of course that’s a fruitless rally cry as the Academy rarely acknowledges anything too far outside its drama/dramedy genre sweet spot.
As I said before, there are certainly some wildly impressive lead actress performances from this year that rival any of the lead actor turns, but it’s in a disappointingly smaller number. The race will indeed continue to shift in the coming weeks, but as the last few unseen films start to screen throughout November, the board will be unveiled and the campaigns will kick into high gear.
1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
3. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
4. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
5. Amy Adams, Big Eyes
6. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars
7. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
8. Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
9. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
10. Jenny Slate, Obvious Child