Breaking Down The Best Actress Race

It’s that time of the year; Sundance, Cannes, Telluride and Venice are behind us while the Toronto Film Festival has just begun, and so has Oscar season. The contenders are beginning to emerge and narratives are starting to take shape. There are some films that have gotten a head start thanks to some critical raves (JackieLa La Land, MoonlightLovingSully) and some that are playing catch up (The Birth of A Nation) while others are giant question marks in the race right now (Arrival,

One race that’s particularly interesting, as it stands right now, is Best Actress. With so much left of the race left to go there are a number of exciting possibilities that, if played right, could make this one of the best years for Best Actress in awhile.Frontrunners: 

  1. Emma Stone, La La Land


Emerging as a the one to beat at the very beginning doesn’t always pan out, but there’s truly a lot going for Emma Stone’s Best Actress prospects right now. For one thing, her film has premiered to rapturous acclaim twice (Venice and Telluride) and is about to enjoy an even bigger premiere at Telluride. She just won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, making her the first American actress to accomplish this since Julianne Moore in 2002 for Far From Heaven. She’s also a previous nominee (Best Supporting Actress, Birdman). Right off the bat that’s a pretty good case for her.

It’s true that musicals often aren’t big players in the Oscar race. Into the Woods, despite being hyped up, underperformed in its year. Les Miserables won Best Supporting Actress, some craft awards and a Best Picture nomination but it was hardly a threat in any of the other major categories. You’d have to all the way back to Moulin Rouge to find a big player in the Oscar race, and even that film had its detractors. La La Land is certainly the most critically acclaimed musical to come around in a long time, and the fact it’s a crowdpleaser makes a strong case for Oscar success. It could be very much like The Artist, where it finds success throughout every category and branch within the voting block. That would make Stone the Jean Dujardin of this year; both won festival trophies, both starred in crowdpleasers, both starred in Best Picture contenders. Though she shares the film with Ryan Gosling, it’s Stone getting the lions share of the acclaim; being the face of your film goes a long way in the Oscar race. It worked for Natalie Portman in Black Swan a few years ago. And Stone does sing and dance in the film, which could earn her bonus points. Right now, there’s no one that ticks off as many boxes as she does.

Speaking of…

2. Natalie Portman, Jackie 


Not so fast Emma Stone! Natalie Portman is back, and with a new wig and accent; Fox Searchlight just picked up Jackie after it played successfully at the Toronto Film Festival.

Since premiering at Venice, the response has been rapturous. Critics have hailed this as Portman’s best performance, topping her Oscar winning work in Black Swan. And though she missed out on the festival’s Best Actress award, the film picked up a Screenplay nomination, suggesting there might be potential in a lot of other categories. This would be Portman’s third nomination overall. Jackie has been compared heavily to The Queen, which won Helen Mirren an Oscar in this category. Being a biopic (and an unconventional one at that) and Portman’s first high profile performance since her hiatus it’s the right role at the right time. The first clip released is absolutely phenomenal; any physical differences between Portman and Jackie O instantly disappear once Portman begins talking. How she nailed down the airy yet husky accent is beyond me. But praise be, she did it; there were so many who thought this would be a flop.

Do I think she could win it all? She already has a Best Actress statue, one that was awarded to her not that long ago… but what a way to make a comeback. Not to mention, Searchlight won her that Oscar, and something tells me they’re going to push this one hard, and we all know how much the Academy loves it when actors play real life figures. Until we get a look at Viola Davis in Fences, she is Emma Stone’s fiercest competition.

3. Ruth Negga, Loving 


Though she’s not a household name, Ruth Negga has been steadily working on television in shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and AMC’s Preacher. Oscar loves “discovery” nominations (hey Rosamund Pike, Jennifer Lawrence and countless others), and what they love even more is “Based on a True Story” films.

Negga plays Mildred Loving of the famous Loving v Virginia Supreme Court Case that overturned the ban on interracial marriage. Director Jeff Nichols has been a star on the rise for awhile now; with films like Take Shelter, Mud and this year’s Midnight Special, the Academy might think it’s time to honor his hustle, and it’s hard to imagine them honoring the film without honoring her performance. Loving plays right into their sweet spot, and with the reviews as strong as they are it’s hard to see Negga missing out. And while her buzz isn’t as loud as Emma Stone’s, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m sure her campaign will find its footing at TIFF, but Loving seems like a film that will play better to Academy types and have its presence grow as the race wears on.

Looking Good: 

1. Viola Davis, Fences 


The second we get a trailer or a clip for Viola Davis in Fences (the film adaptation that is), this is going to go from a two way race into a three way race, I’m sure of it. For one thing, she played this role a few years ago on Broadway and won a Tony for her performance (as did her co-star and director, Denzel Washington). We know the role, the story, and more importantly we also know that Davis will hit it out of the park as she does with everything she does. She’s been nominated twice, and came close to winning for The Help. That year, she famously won the Screen Actors Guild’s Actress award and famously lost the Oscar to her biggest cheerleader Meryl Streep. There’s a sense that Viola Davis is overdue amongst many people, and before she knows a lot of people in the industry. That counts for a lot.

She’s also made history last year for her performance in the popular TV show How To Get Away With Murder; she became the first black actress to win a Leading Actress (Drama) Emmy. Her speech was powerful, and generated many think pieces; it was all anyone could talk about for months (and rightfully so). She stands a great chance at winning another Emmy next weekend, and has another season of HTGAWM on the way; that voters will have so many chances to see her work aside from the film in consideration goes for a lot, and that’s not even taking into account the level of campaigning I’m sure she’ll do for the film, and the performance itself. The late opening (December 16) could hurt, or help, the film in the bigger categories but overall she’s the surest thing about the project.

Anyway here’s a clip from the Broadway production.

2. Annette Bening, 20th Century Woman


Never underestimate Annette Bening. She has four Academy Award nominations to her name. She’s the wife of Warren Beaty and serves in the Academy’s Board of Governors; basically  she’s Academy Award royalty. All she’s missing is an Oscar. She came very close for The Kids Are All Right, and if Black Swan didn’t become the worldwide phenomenon that it did she would have won that year for sure. But she’s back with a buzzy project helmed by Mike Mills, one that’s been flying under the radar…

There’s not a lot we know about 20th Century Women, except that it’s opening the New York Film Festival, which is basically where you want your film to screen (besides Toronto) if you’re trying to get into the Oscar race. Mills’ last project, Beginners, won an Oscar for another overdue veteran: Christopher Plummer. The early word on Bening’s work is good, and if the film around her is as well, watch out. She’s proven how far she can go despite stomping the trail for a smaller film.

3. Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins 


By now we know not to discount Meryl Streep when it comes to the Academy Awards, and while her last few attempts have had mixed success (Into the WoodsRicki and the FlashSuffragette), her performance as Florence Foster Jenkins might just do the trick.

Meryl is back in her usual late August release that has been her sweet spot for the last couple of years. She’s playing a real life person in an uplifting crowdpleaser. Of course, it all depends on what kind of a mood the Academy is in. Sometimes they throw her in by default (August: Osage County) and other times they ignore her completely (Hope Springs). The film’s director, Stephen Frears, has a great track record with the Academy so this could be one of the times where she gets in. But with such strong competition, it depends on if voters feel like this performance is worth nominating her for the 20th time.

Dark Horses: 

1. Amy Adams, Arrival 


Talk about overdue; Amy Adams has five nominations under her belt. The last time she was nominated was for American Hustle, which was her first Leading Actress nomination. It’s clear the Academy love and respects her (they even nominated her for Doubt), but not enough to bring her on stage for an acceptance speech.

Arrival has been playing the festival circuit very well, though the reception is a bit more muted than La La Land or Loving. That wouldn’t necessarily matter if Adams were in any other film, but Arrival might be too outside of the Academy’s wheelhouse for her to be a total slam dunk; they have a history for not embracing Sci-Fi . Paramount has made it clear they’re giving her a campaign for this film, so surely exposure won’t be a problem. Not to mention Adams also has a performance in Tom Ford’s latest film Nocturnal Animals as well, which has drawn acclaim as well. I think her chances will depend on how the film does with critics once it opens, and if it does well at the box office.

2. Emily Blunt, The Girl On The Train 


Emily Blunt has been actress on the cusp of getting her first nomination for awhile now; The Devil Wears PradaThe Young VictoriaInto The WoodsSicario; time and time again Blunt has delivered solid performances but never seems to get anything more than a Golden Globe nomination. The Girl On The Train, based on the best selling novel of the same name, could have a very similar trajectory to Gone Girl, which means Blunt could get a Best Actress nomination.

The role is good enough; Blunt plays Rachel, a depressed alcoholic who is caught up in a complex murder mystery. Of course, the film will need to be a hit in the same way that Gone Girl was; everyone was talking about it. The director, Tate Taylor, doesn’t have the same clout that David Fincher has, but he did direct The Help which scored a lot of nominations during its year. Having read the source material, I can say that this film might have an easier climb to the Oscar race than Gone Girl did, which a lot of voters were turned off by Rosamund Pike’s character. Rachel is much more sympathetic, which ultimately shouldn’t matter when dealing with the quality of a film/performance but then again this is the Academy. Again, her chances depend on how big it is when it hits theaters.

3. Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane 


A two-time nominee, Jessica Chastain has proven she’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s missed out for the last couple projects she’s been in, however (A Most Violent YearInterstellar) and not much is known about Miss Sloane. But what we do know, is that she’s playing the title character and the film will tackle gun lobbying. It’s certainly topical enough, and though it has a late release date (December 9), she shouldn’t be counted out.

4. Rooney Mara, Una 


Una, based on the stage play Blackbird, is said to feature another knock out performance from Rooney Mara. Being previously nominated twice (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and last year’s Carol), it’s clear she’s past the point of having to work to get in the Academy’s good graces. Her biggest hurdle, however, might be the film’s subject matter; Mara plays a woman who seeks out a man she was sexually abused by when she was younger. Though the man (played by Ben Mendelsohn) has “moved on,” Mara’s character is looking for answers. The role won Michelle Williams a Tony nomination just a few months ago, and while some critics have issues with the film as a whole their praise for Mara is universal. If it can get a good distributor, she stands a good chance.

Who will be campaigned where?

  1. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monaé, Hidden Figures


I was overjoyed when I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures, the story about three black women who helped NASA catch up in the Space Race. I was even more overjoyed when I saw Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monaé would be leading the project.

Henson, who has been killing it on Empire and is a past nominee, and Spencer, a previous winner, should not be counted out. This is Monaé’s second acting credit; she also stars in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight; she has a harder hurdle to clear than her veteran co-stars. The film is based on a true story (which Oscar loves) and looks like a total crowdpleaser. It’s receiving an Oscar qualifying release on Christmas Day before expanding in January. I have a strong feeling it’s going to make a killing at the box office, but with a strong enough push that might not matter. The only question I have, is where will the ladies be campaigned?

From the looks of the trailer, it looks like Henson will be the film’s focus, plus she has top billing. But we all know from last year with Carol and Rooney Mara that studios will stop at nothing to get nominations, aka committing category fraud. With an ensemble cast and a focus on the three women, they could campaign Henson, Monaé and Spencer all in Supporting since that’s a weaker category than Lead Actress this year. Realistically, Henson will probably get the Lead campaign with Monaé and Spencer in Supporting. If Fox can build a strong campaign and outline who will be campaigned where, look out, especially for Henson who will absolutely do the campaigning and charm a bunch of voters in the process.