Oscar predictions week is here, folks! All weeklong, I’ll be rolling out my Oscar Beat Academy Awards predictions in the major categories, and we kick things off with the Best Actress category. This is one that’s usually either insanely crowded or disappointingly thin, and unfortunately this year it’s a case of the latter. There are a couple of huge performances that are sure to get nods and a few hopefuls on the outside looking in, but the competition isn’t as fierce as it was last year. So without further ado, let’s get started.
Renee Zellweger – Judy
Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
Charlize Theron – Bombshell
Alfre Woodard – Clemency
There was talk at the Telluride Film Festival back in early September that this race was over. Go home everyone not named Renee Zellweger. And indeed, the actress (who previously won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cold Mountain) delivers a show-stopping turn as Judy Garland in the better-than-expected Judy. It’s the kind of big, flashy, transformative performance that usually turns heads, and if Joaquin Phoenix is going to be lauded for his physically challenging turn in Joker, Zellweger has more than earned the right to be singled out for Judy. As for her chances of winning, this has gone one of two ways in the past. Either the inevitable becomes reality, like with Julianne Moore in Still Alice, or the inevitable gets shockingly shut down, like with Glenn Close in The Wife. For now, you can save a seat at the nominations roundtable for Zellweger, that’s for sure.
The other major leading actress performance this year is Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s crushing chronicle of divorce. The Netflix film is expected to be a serious contender in all major categories, and that includes Johansson for Best Actress. The actress delivers a fittingly subtle and commanding turn as one half of a married couple going through the process of divorce. Both Johansson and Adam Driver get a few individual scenes in which to shine, and shine Johansson does in perhaps the best performance of her career. She’s likely to pick up her first-ever Oscar nomination for it.
Then there’s Alfre Woodard in Clemency, an indie drama that premiered at Sundance earlier this year and drew raves for Woodard’s performance. The “problem” with Clemency is it’s a film about a death row prison warden, so it may be tough to get voters to actually see this performance. That said, Woodard has a significant amount of heat at the moment, so here’s hoping that spurs people to move this screener to the top of their pile over the holiday season.
There is also a pair of performances in two films that haven’t yet been widely released, but have been screened by critics and industry folks. Saoirse Ronan could be heading for her fourth Oscar nomination before the age of 26 for her turn as Jo in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which may be another serious awards contender just like Gerwig’s previous film Lady Bird. There’s also Charlize Theron’s unrecognizable performance as Megyn Kelly in the Fox News drama Bombshell. The film itself seems to be dividing folks a bit, but all appear to agree that Theron’s performance has the goods.
In the Mix
Awkwafina – The Farewell
Cynthia Erivo – Harriet
Lupita Nyong’o – Us
Helen Mirren – The Good Liar
Jodie Turner-Smith – Queen & Slim
Jessie Buckley – Wild Rose
Elisabeth Moss – Her Smell
On the outside looking in there are some very solid performances, but as you can see the list is frustratingly short. Awkwafina probably has the best shot out of this bunch to make it in for her quietly emotional work in The Farewell, but that may depend on how strongly the Academy responds to the A24 indie overall. Recognition in the critics groups awards throughout December could be the key to vaulting her and some of these other candidates into the spotlight for Oscar voters.
There’s also Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning dual roles in Jordan Peele’s Us. The film was a box office hit but faded much quicker than Get Out did, and Universal doesn’t appear to be pushing the film as hard or as seriously as they did Get Out. Regardless, Nyong’o is wholly deserving of recognition here for what, to my mind, is one of the best performances of the year.
There’s also Cynthia Erivo’s turn as historical hero Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet. The film itself has received a bit of a lukewarm response, but Erivo’s performance has been singled out. If she doesn’t make it in this year, it feels like the actress is destined for Oscar glory someday after her breakout turns in Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows.
Helen Mirren could possibly be in the mix for the well-reviewed thriller The Good Liar, and depending on how Queen & Slim hits, we could see some support for newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith. The studio Gunpowder & Sky is also pushing Elisabeth Moss for Alex Ross Perry’s indie Her Smell, but if I had to put my money on a dark horse in this race it would be Jessie Buckley for Wild Rose. The UK-backed film has quietly been gaining steam since it was released this summer, and there is passionate support for a nomination for Buckley, who you may also know from HBO’s Chernobyl.
Time will tell how this race shakes out, but as you can see, this is unfortunately a year in which there simply aren’t very many leading actress performances to choose from. That’s not to denigrate the women who did do outstanding work this year and have landed on this shortlist, but to point out Hollywood’s lack of complex or challenging female roles on the big screen. Alas.
Stay tuned, for tomorrow we dig into the Best Actor race.