I’ve waited long enough to be able to examine what is certainly a very rich category this year, full of potential surprises and an indefinite front runner. Last year saw the award go to the very deserving Brie Larson for Room in a performance that was heartbreaking and again represented the best of a very strong category. This year will be no different with a strong depth to the actresses who have already had the chance to unveil their performances and, like Best Actor, some that may be on the horizon.
Let’s get right into it, with those that the general audience has had a chance to see before looking at the more limited releases that will go wide later in the year and then ending with some performances that haven’t had the chance to be seen yet.
From What We’ve Seen
So far there hasn’t been much in terms of widely seen performances that I feel could land in this category. This Summer gave us plenty of perfectly good male acting performances, but the female performances have been somewhat lacking until recently in wide releases. Tilda Swinton made some waves in the beginning of May when she appeared in A Bigger Splash, in which she played a rock star on vacation in Italy. As per usual, Swinton delivered a worthwhile performance but it likely won’t last all the way until awards season with a variety of contenders that I’ll describe in a second. Audiences also had the chance to observe Sally Fields, herself a veteran actor, appear in Hello, My Name is Doris, a workplace romcom that opened at SXSW last year before appearing in wide release March. Fields is also less likely to last into the Oscar race, but having given what appears to be a solid performance in a comedic film gives her the chance to be up for a Golden Globe. It’s not like Fields, a two-time Oscar winner, is lacking in hardware, but she is still one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. Speaking of respected actors, Meryl Streep dazzled audiences in Florence Foster Jenkins thus Summer, and it might as well be illegal to not nominate her at this point. She is also a potential front runner for a Globe, but she’ll face plenty of competition as well as an Academy that may be more keen toward looking for fresher faces.
Looking to some more recent films, Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans wasn’t able to withstand a wave of mixed reviews due to what was perceived as a dreary tone and pacing, but the performances of its three stars were widely appreciated. This includes last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander, who played a young wife and mother forced into a complicated situation surrounding her adopted child. Vikander has rapidly become one of Hollywood’s most successful actors after a busy year in 2015, and although she’s not wanting for awards after last season, she could still find a serious awards push behind her from Disney. Finally, there’s Emily Blunt, whose The Girl on the Train just premiered to very mixed reviews. Critics seem to dislike the film’s melodramatic tone and fanciful plot, but praise for Blunt’s performance appears to be permeating through each review. Mixed reviews didn’t stop Meryl Streep from her success in The Iron Lady, but Emily Blunt is no Meryl Streep in terms of industry respect, even if she’s still in hot pursuit of her second nomination. After Jason Bourne‘s failure to meet its mark, Universal Pictures might try to push this as their awards season hallmark, although it’s possible that they’ll rally to get Renee Zellweger into the Comedy/Musical category for the Golden Globes for Bridget Jones’ Baby as well. We’ll have to see where they focus their efforts, if they choose to make much of one at all.
As for the festival circuit, there are plenty of movies that have played for a limited audience that we have to look forward to, and in these movies there may be several potential front runners for Best Actress. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is the designated front runner for Best Picture, and besides maybe Best Director, it’s most likely lock is Emma Stone in Best Actress. The film is opening wide on December 9th and critics who have seen the film have lavished her performance with praise, and I consider her a lock for the Globe at this point. Stone’s previous nomination for Birdman was deserved and she has built up an impressive resume as one of the most popular actors of her age in Hollywood. However, front runners in this category don’t always last, and there are plenty of other challengers threatening from the wings. One such challenger is Ruth Negga‘s performance in Loving, which like La La Land has been praised overall, with especial praise for its female star. Negga has built up a reputation as a successful television actress, and that could help her or hurt her, but her performance has remained highly praised and I’m still highly anticipating this film’s November 4th wide release.
Someone who has certainly developed a strong overdue narrative for herself is Amy Adams, who has two potentially nominated performances that have already won huge praise on the festival circuit. One is for Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a sci-fi hit that opens November 11th and has received unanimous praise for just about everything in it, especially Adams’ performance as a linguist tasked with translating an alien language. Adams has another big threat in the form of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a stylish revenge thriller that has won huge praise for all of its main actors. Arrival may try to focus its push on the below-the-line categories to avoid splitting the vote on Adams, although they’re being pushed by separate companies so that may lose it for Adams. If she doesn’t make it, another festival darling that has made a recent lunge for Best Actress is Natalie Portman in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which was acquired by Fox Searchlight after a stellar premiere in September and will open for general audiences on December 2nd. Critics are already hailing the film as a masterpiece, and no part of the film is getting more praise than Portman’s performance. This one might be too good to resist.
A very recent premiere was that of Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, which was first seen at NYFF this past Saturday, and from what we know it sounds pretty amazing. Leading the praise is the lead performance by Annette Bening, who is still in pursuit of Oscar glory after some near misses for The Kids Are All Right and American Beauty. Early reviews are also considering Bening’s performance as a potential awards frontrunner, and given the film’s apparent comedic tone she may challenge Emma Stone for the Globe as well. 20th Century Women premieres this Christmas There are two other performances worth mentioning in this section: Isabelle Huppert is starring this year in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a rape thriller from a director who has never shied away from controversy. Reviews from Cannes have been good and although it won’t be gracing American screens until November 11th, it may have the chance that 2012’s Amour had in being a standout performance in a potential Best Foreign Language nominee. Lastly there’s Rebecca Hall in Christine, about a newperson who committed suicide on the air in 1974. Although we may already know where it ends, I’ve read her life story and it sounds like it was made for the big screen. Sundance reviews have been good, and this seems like the kind of thing that would be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award. Expect this one in theaters on October 14th.
Those Still to Come
With little under three months left in the year, there is a slew of other potential award winners that remain to be seen by any audience. November and December are packed full of highly-anticipated films with highly-anticipated performances. Perhaps the most anticipated for the purposes of this race is Denzel Washington’s Fences. Washington is likely to land in the Best Actor category, and just like he won the Tony for Best Actor when the play was last on Broadway, his costar Viola Davis also won a Tony for playing the same role, Rose Maxson, in the same revival. Davis is quite possible the most beloved actress without an Oscar right now, and her recent work on How to Get Away with Murder is only going to help her chances. She is definitely overdue and in a role she has already been acclaimed for, I can’t but help think she’ll not only land in this category, but also is a possible winner. Fences is premiering this Christmas.
There is also another hugely overdue actress with a bone to pick with the Academy, Davis’ costar from The Help, Jessica Chastain. Chastain has come just short of a win twice for her work in The Help as well as Zero Dark Thirty, and this year she’s starring as a gun control lobbyist in Miss Sloane from acclaimed director John Madden. Like Davis, Chastain will be seeking to use her overdue status as a potential in with the Academy, and if this film lands like its trailer makes me think that it will then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chastain slip into Best Actress at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Oscars due to her high status among her fellow actors. And while she may not be overdue, Taraji P. Henson has been building up an impressive resume recently with Empire, for which she has achieved immense praise including and a Golden Globe. Henson was previously nominated for Supporting Actress for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and early buzz for Hidden Figures, which premieres on Christmas as well, has been stellar.
There are two other past winners in this category worth mentioning: Jennifer Lawrence and Marion Cotillard. Lawrence is approaching Streep/Hepburn status in terms of her frequency of being nominated, and Joy shows that they’re willing to nominate her for even “meh” films. This year JLaw is starring in Passengers, a sci-fi romantic thriller from The Imitation Game‘s Morten Tyldum based off of a well-liked script. Lawrence’s star power is undeniable but with a race as packed as this years that power may not be enough. Meanwhile Cotillard is starring in Allied, a romantic war thriller, in which she’ll star opposite Brad Pitt. Whether the film is any good or whether its to the Academy’s taste we don’t yet know, but considering her past win for La Vie en Rose and her recent nomination for Two Days, One Night, Cotillard could also be in contention.
With all of this in mind I find it highly unlikely that any of the early season players, meaning those before Autumn, will have a chance of landing in Best Actress. Only Strep’s performance seems to stand a chance because, come on, it’s Meryl Streep in a good movie. With the Academy looking to avoid a third year of Oscars So White, Henson, Negga, and Davis provide three of Hollywood’s best for their consideration and they will likely not have a hard time finding space for any of them. Chastain, Bening, and Stone are all still in hot pursuit, especially the latter two who seem to be the most realistic front runners at this point in the race. That being said I would never underestimate Natalie Portman, nor Adams in two films that could both find her a spot at the Dolby Theater in February. Just like last year this category is hotly contested, even more so I would say than last year when there were only three potential winners. This year it could be any of the five who will be nominated and the only thing certain is that there’s a tight race ahead.
My predictions as of now for Best Actress are:
- Emma Stone – La La Land
- Viola Davis – Fences
- Ruth Negga – Loving
- Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
- Natalie Portman – Jackie
Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Chastain or Henson snuck their way into this category at any point in the race.