Quick Confession: This blogger loves Best Actress more than any category at the Oscars and even during awards seasons, together with Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. Hence, a stand alone post about this year’s Best Actress contenders.
By this time, several critics’ awards have already been given. Popular precursor awards like the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association have already laid their cards with their choices.
Meanwhile, the Golden Globe Awards, known for its split between drama and musical/comedy categories, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the group most likely to influence because they are composed of actual actors (as well as journalists) have already announced their nominees.
By this point, several performances have already been ordained as locks, safe bets, or long shots. In a theoretical world, everyone could be nominated, but here’s the top twelve that are most likely to battle their way in the extremely crowded Best Actress category.
(I won’t include my personal opinion of the performances; I have only seen Huppert, Streep, and Field as of the time of writing.)
The Rest of the Field
Perhaps that one performance that could have arguably went the Best Actress way was Viola Davis in Fences. However, a supporting campaign was pitched and it helps her now become the de facto favorite for the win. Some are still speculating a shocker category switch come nomination announcement a la Kate Winslet (2008) or Keisha Castle-Hughes (2003). But given the competition, it’s safe to say that Davis will remain here.
Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals received considerable acclaim, but it became clear quite early in the awards season that Arrival was her more viable ticket to the awards season. This might just even help her cause for a win instead of a foreseen vote split.
Performances in comedic films has always had a tough time getting traction. Some of these performances are Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen (Globe nominee), Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris (BFCA Comedy nominee), Lily Collins in Rules Don’t Apply (Globe nominee), Susan Sarandon in The Meddler, Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, Greta Gerwig in Maggie’s Plan, and Kristen Stewart in Cafe Society.
Performances from indie hits have once in a while been visited by the Academy, but mostly during years with thin competition. This year’s slew of acclaimed performances include Sasha Lane in American Honey, Krisha Fairchild in Krisha, and Sarah Paulson in Blue Jay.
Similarly, acclaimed performances from genre films find themselves having a hard time getting in the conversation. Recently Oscar-nominated actresses in genre films include Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (thriller) and Sandra Bullock in Gravity (sci-fi). This year’s contenders include Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers (sci-fi), Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane (horror), Felicity Jones in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (sci-fi), and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (horror).
Foreign-language performances also have a harder time getting in the conversation simply because of language barrier. Most America-based award giving bodies (as we expect) tend to focus more on English-language works. This year’s contenders include Isabelle Huppert in Things to Come, Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann, and Sonia Braga in Aquarius.
And finally, there are performances in films positioned as contenders that simply didn’t pan out the way they were expected. These contenders include Marion Cotillard in Allied, Rachel Weisz in Denial, and Alicia VIkander in The Light Between Oceans.
THE TOP 12
Long Shots (11-12)
This group have shown enough acclaim and awards received to tell that they are still in the conversation despite not being the strongest contenders out there. Make no mistake: contenders like Laura Linney in The Savages (2007) and Samantha Morton in In America (2003) were all in this category with not having significant precursor awards (BFCA, SAG, Globes, etc.), and yet emerging as Oscar nominees.
12. Rebecca Hall in Christine as Christine Chubbuck
Citations: LAFCA (runner-up), Toronto (runner-up), Chicago (nom), Detroit (nom), Houston (nom)
In a weaker year, this may have been a stronger contender. Always a reliable character actress, Rebecca Hall is no stranger to Hollywood although she hasn’t been given the spotlight yet. Taking on a real-life character with considerable notoriety, Hall garnered critical acclaim for her performance, though being in a small independent film was inherently a challenge for her to crack in the race. However, she popped in several critics’ awards as nominee or runner-up. In a tight race like this, it all matters. Although it’s an extreme long shot, given the bigger names on this race, Hall is a viable if really out-there shocker.
11. Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship as Lady Susan Vernon
Citations: BFCA (nom, Comedy), Evening Standard (WIN), Gotham (nom)
Given its acclaim, Love & Friendship could have been a bigger contender. However, for some reasons including an early release date and an almost non-existent campaign, the film almost went into oblivion come awards season, save for some few notices. It pulled a nomination for Best Actress in Comedy at the BFCA which was a nice reminder that her performance is a contender.
However, a surprising snub at the Golden Globes was another nail in the coffin. With its two nominations from known award giving bodies and a win from a British group, it could still muster a campaign given Beckinsale’s household status in Hollywood. On a second thought, Amazon Studios must be focusing its campaign on Manchester by the Sea so…
Viable Upsets (8-10)
We have enough reason to believe that any of these contenders are feasibly able to pull off an surprise nomination more than the long shots but still not as ‘up there’ as those in the next group. For some reasons, they were at once solid contenders but they now position themselves as by the sidelines, possibly waiting for an aggressive late campaign.
10. Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train as Rachel Watson
Citations: SAG (Best Actress nom)
Just as we thought that this was done, due to the film’s poor critical reception, she snagged a surprising SAG nomination which helps her good will. She has been a Best Actress contender since 2014 (Into the Woods and Sicario) and she has been getting career-best reviews for this performance.
On one hand, SAG must have really liked her. On the other hand, it may not really matter since SAG-AFTRA also have non-actor members. On one hand, critics are saying that this is Blunt’s best performance and the film was a box-office success. On the other hand, the film is loudly panned by critics. In the end, it may not matter though.
9. Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane as Elizabeth Sloane
Citations: Golden Globe Drama (nom), Phoenix Critics (nom)
Weeks ago, this was a really strong contender. However, mixed-to-positive reception, poor box-office results, and lack of presence in awards season made Chastain’s chances shaky to almost dead… until the Golden Globes resurrected her. Sure, she had the advantage of the split categories in Best Actress, but trumping over Taraji P. Henson’s more popular film (and possible Best Picture contender) means something. Also, while the film earned mixed critical response, Chastain is single-handedly noted as the film’s high point. The film also delves on a timely subject (gun control) that may or may not keep Academy members from watching it.
8. Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures as Katherine Johnson
Citations: SAG (Ensemble nom), NBR (Ensemble win), Black Reel (nom), NAACP (nom), Satellite (nom)
While Henson missed a lot of precursor awards, hear me out: Hidden Figures is a potential Best Picture contender. With a SAG Ensemble nomination (among many ensemble wins; it competes with Moonlight for most wins) and several Best Picture mentions for Hidden Figures, add to that Octavia Spencer’s likely Supporting Actress nomination, we are sure Henson’s work is seen. That is very important.
And she is playing a landmark real-life character in a film that perfectly suits America’s current political climate. As the film is regarded as “uplifting”, “feel-good”, and “inspiring” by several critics, Hidden Figures will most likely battle for Best Picture, and that is Henson’s strength. And her iconic television work won’t hurt either. We’ll see.
In the Mix (4-7)
These four contenders are left battling for the last two slots, assuming that the top three are safe bets (more on that later). These performances are decorated with crucial precursor awards and all have something going for them. However, significant factors also deter them from becoming safe bets. Unless someone from number 8 below sneaks in, expect these four to be in an intense fight for the slots. You can all make arguments why each contender will make it or will not make it.
7. Ruth Negga in Loving as Mildred Loving
Citations: Golden Globe Drama (nom), BFCA (nom), NYFCO (Breakthrough win), several critics’ awards (nominations)
Perhaps the least known of the bunch, Negga established herself as a formidable contender this year ever since Loving‘s Cannes premiere. With another timely topic in relation to America’s current politics, the film managed to stay in the conversation as a relevant and urgent film. Tagged as “subtle” and “quiet” by critics, the film’s Best Picture buzz seemed to fade in contrast to the “louder” offerings of the more recently opened contenders. Negga herself was not nominated for SAG (something I expected she will), making us think if Loving’s (and Negga’s) chances are still as strong as it is before the awards season started.
6. Annette Bening in 20th Century Women as Dorothea Fields
Citations: Golden Globes Musical/Comedy (nom), BFCA (nom), Atlanta (win), several critics’ awards (nominations)
Weeks ago, this was a shoo-in Best Actress nominee (and even a possible winner). However, missing that SAG nomination was crucial and raises the suspicion of how 20th Century Women is actually perceived within the industry. Career tribute and achievement awards are constantly handed to her (and it all helps), she’s a respected actress in Hollywood, but being in a small independent film with an ensemble cast may have prevented her. Some are citing the late release date to cause this. But something must not be ignored: with a career filled with strong performances, this is called as Bening’s career-best. That’s something.
5. Isabelle Huppert in Elle as Michèle Leblanc
Citations: Golden Globes Drama (nom), BFCA (nom), Gotham (win), NYFCC (win), LAFCA (win), Boston Online (win), San Francisco (win), Boston (win), several critics’ awards (nominations)
A French acting legend finally cracking inside this Oscar race unlike before. She started from a longshot possibility to critics’ favorite, earning the most Best Actress wins at the precursor awards. It also helps that her film was submitted in the Best Foreign Language Film (although it didn’t make the shortlist) and she also has another well-received turn in Things to Come. Despite the potentially risque topic, she survived and got nominated in major critics’ awards.
As with Bening, it really means something when an acting goddess like Huppert who has delivered a string of strong and memorable performances get career-best reviews for this film. SAG miss blows, but like Marion Cotillard (2014) and Charlotte Rampling (2015), I’m expecting fervent critical support will rally her all the way to an Oscar nomination.
4. Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins as Florence Foster Jenkins
Citations: SAG (nom), Golden Globes Musical/Comedy (nom), BFCA Comedy (win), Phoenix Film Critics (nom), Satellite (nom)
Meryl Streep, Greatest Living Actress. She got stellar (if usual) reviews for her work in an early opening film. Precursor awards made minimal mention of her, but she won Best Actress Comedy in BFCA together with nominations for Golden Globes and SAG. For the first time in a long time, Streep is not a safe nominee. However, given how much the Academy loves her (if nominated, this is her 20th), add to that the biopic factor, things seem to favor Streep getting nominated despite an early release and a stiff competition.
The downside? The film did good business, but not as good as her past offerings (Julie & Julia made $129 million, FFJ made $44 million). Also, other contenders seem more urgent in having a nomination compared to Streep (Negga breakthrough, Bening overdue, Huppert never nommed).
Safe Bets (1-3)
These three are, I believe, the most expected to appear on the Academy’s roster of nominees for this year’s Best Actress. While # 3 is a call that I personally made (others still don’t see it happening), the top two have been there since they made the festival tour and then the awards season. Also, the Best Actress winner would most likely come from these three. Unless there is a huge f*ck-up that will happen, expect these names come the morning of nominations announcement.
3. Amy Adams in Arrival as Dr. Louise Banks
Citations: SAG (nom), Golden Globes Drama (nom), BFCA (nom), NBR (win), several critics’ awards (nominations)
She started the awards season with the Best Actress win which was a good sign given how unsure Arrival is in terms of reception (not that it’s bad). While not winning anything after NBR, she showed up in almost every critics’ awards as a nominee, right there with Emma Stone and Natalie Portman. If ever, this is her sixth nomination.
Overdue for a win? Possible. She is also getting career-best reviews for this film and Arrival is a true Best Picture contender. It’s really hard to see the Academy pass on their favorite given how critically acclaimed her turn here is. If for some twist of fate, she wins either BAFTA and/or SAG, prepare for a late resurgence for a win. Until now, I’m holding my assumptions and say she might win this.
2. Natalie Portman in Jackie as Jacqueline Kennedy
Citations: SAG (nom), Golden Globes Drama (nom), BFCA (win), Washington D.C. (win), Dallas-Fort Worth (win), Chicago (win), several critics’ awards (nominations)
Even besting her Oscar winning turn in Black Swan, Portman is again getting career-best reviews, with reviews even saying her work in Jackie is better than in Black Swan. That says a lot. She also fills the drama slot in this race to compete with Emma Stone’s comedy/musical slot, the same way Jessica Chastain did with the Best Actress race with Jennifer Lawrence in 2012.
Some say her 2010 Oscar win detracts her chances of winning, but with a surprise BFCA win and winning other critics’ awards, Portman might be back again as a serious contender for the win. Praised for her technical proficiency in the role of an iconic woman, Portman has the biopic card with her. Sally Field won twice in the span of six years. Hilary Swank, also six years. Jodie Foster, four years. It’s really possible.
1 . Emma Stone in La La Land as Mia Dolan
Citations: SAG (nom), Golden Globes Musical/Comedy (nom), BFCA (nom), Venice (win), several critics’ awards (nominations)
And our current frontrunner for Best Actress is from the current frontrunner for Best Picture – that rarely happens. Ever since her Venice win (over Natalie Portman, mind you), Stone keeps on getting notice after notice for her work in this film. It really helps a lot that the film is the current favorite to win Best Picture as well. We expect her to win Best Actress Musical/Comedy at the Golden Globes. She’s a famous international young female star in a presumably likable performance and film (think Jennifer Lawrence in 2012, Julia Roberts in 2000, Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998).
Two question marks though:
First, she actually hasn’t won any competitive awards yet expect for the Venice win. That’s strange for a presumed Best Actress frontrunner.
Second, will she and La La Land maintain their frontrunner status until the Oscars ceremony? It’s really difficult to start as the frontrunner because backlash happens (it’s already starting to happen, in small portions). That is Natalie Portman’s and Amy Adams’ possible entry point once the backlash gets intense.
Meanwhile, Emma Stone sits fine as the current favorite to win.
Who do you predict to make the five Best Actress nominees at the Oscars? Who do you want to be nominated? 🙂