In today’s post, I will review the Best Actress category, home of the most wide-open race at this year’s Academy Awards. Who will win is anybody’s guess, so let’s dive in for an analysis of the category.
Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), a highly influential African-American blues singer in the 1920s. The film focuses on a tumultuous studio recording session with Ma Rainey and her band in Chicago. Viola Davis is one of the best and most talented actors currently working, and with her turn this year as Ma Rainey, she further demonstrates her impressive range, taking on a distinct physical transformation to play the brash blues legend. Over the course of the film, it becomes apparent Ma Rainey’s generally difficult demeanor with respect to her producers is shaped by her experience as an African-American woman in a world controlled by white men, and Davis depicts the character’s tough-nut-to-crack temperament with strident passion and exquisite flair.
Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday)
Set in the 1940s, Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday follows the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, one of the most instrumental jazz singers in the history of music. In particular, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s racially motivated preoccupation with targeting and harassing Holiday. The government persecuted Holiday under the guise of drug-related offenses, but Daniels explores another motivation—stopping Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching song, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement. Three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day’s performance in this film’s leading role is absolutely stunning, made all the more startling by the fact it is only the third film credit of her career. (She previously played the role of “Minton’s Singer” in Marshall and voiced the character “Sweet Tea” in Cars 3.) Although the film as a whole had a number of flaws, Day’s take on Billie Holiday was surely not one of them—she was singularly the film’s dazzling high point. Day transformed into Holiday, delivering striking moments of passion and restrained moments of intimacy, and it deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination this year.
Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)
The setup for Pieces of a Woman is simple—a young couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), lose their baby during a home birth gone wrong, and they are left to grapple with the emotional toll of this tragic event, while also dealing with the stress of a legal case being pursued against the midwife who delivered the child. For me, it was impossible to watch Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman and not come away thinking, “Wow, that is what acting is all about.” The film’s storyline is, at its very core, crushing and heartbreaking, and Kirby delivers every single one of her character’s raw and painful emotions with devastating exactitude. It is a shame Kirby hasn’t been shown more love this awards season in what has turned out to be a wide-open Best Actress race. (She’s been nominated at a number of noteworthy award shows, but her only significant win was the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the award given out at the Venice Film Festival.) The portrayal of Martha required Kirby to embody the essence of a shattered woman, consumed by inconceivable grief, while also to methodically demonstrate the character’s ultimate revival and enduring spirit to press on—Kirby checked these boxes off with apparent ease. It was an outstanding expression of pure acting prowess.
Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
In Nomadland, following the death of her husband and the closing down of the manufacturing plant in her hometown (at which she worked), Fern (played by Frances McDormand) makes the decision to sell most of her personal possessions, purchase a van, and essentially live a “nomad” life without any fixed residence, driving from city to city in search of odd jobs here and there to make enough money to survive. Make no mistake, the legendary Frances McDormand is, in accordance with every other role she’s ever played, wonderful in Nomadland. However, for me, if I was going to sneak in another performer who was snubbed this year (see discussion of such snubs below), McDormand would probably be the one to make way. Nomadland is definitely one of the best films this year (when I reveal my rankings in a few days, you will definitely hear more about it), but considering its beautiful story, cinematography, collective supporting performances, and near-documentary style of filmmaking, it’s a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts, including McDormand.
Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman)
Although Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is full of unique and intriguing twists and turns, the setup is fairly straightforward: Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), motivated by the rape of her best friend Nina, spends her nights pretending to be drunk at bars in an effort to attract morally corrupt men (who pass themselves off to her as “nice guys”) in order to ultimately confront those guys about their skeezy behavior and hold them accountable—Cassie is most definitely a modern-day femme fatale. Eventually, Cassie directs her mission to everybody connected to Nina’s rape, which is where the story takes off. Carey Mulligan is nothing short of amazing in this darkly comedic thriller, a bona fide departure from her trademark appearances in period pieces and hard dramas. Cassie is ice cold and vastly different than any character I’ve ever seen Mulligan depict, and if her entrancingly exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman is any indication, I hope we see Mulligan again in the near future taking on another complex modern figure—Mulligan is a first-rate pro!
Snubs and Other Performances
In addition to the nominees, this year supplied movie watchers with a number of other incredible acting performances from female leads who easily could have gotten Oscar nominations themselves—this category is just so unbelievably stacked. First, Jessie Buckley was hauntingly superb in Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, nimbly navigating a cinematic maze of strange, surrealist ideas. Second, in a movie chock-full of first-rate acting performances, Han Ye-ri wonderfully delivered a quiet, yet poignant, depiction of a wife struggling to balance her own happiness against the dreams of her ambitious husband in Minari. Third, Rosamund Pike is enthralling in the Netflix dark comedy I Care A Lot as Marla Grayson, a charismatic (yet brash) con artist who preys on elders in assisted living communities to steal their money and valuables. I couldn’t help but see a lot of similarities in this character to Amy Dunne (the character Pike played in 2014’s Gone Girl, which earned Pike her lone Oscar nomination), so it’s no wonder Pike knocked the performance out of the park. Additionally, one of my favorite acting performances this year came courtesy of breakout actress Bukky Bakray, who starred in Rocks, a British film about a teenage girl who must take care of not only herself, but also her little brother, after her mother abandons the family. Bakray, just a teenager herself, gave a beautiful, gut-wrenching portrayal of the film’s lead, which earned her a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress and a win for the BAFTA Rising Star Award.
Although these performances above were certainly stellar, there was one this year that stood out to me as a performance that absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination (and yet got snubbed): Elisabeth Moss as the lead protagonist, Cecilia Kass, in Leigh Whannell’s rendition of The Invisible Man. Whannell’s version of this classic tale focuses heavily on abuse and the effects it can have on victims, and Moss was nothing short of astounding in her portrayal of this character. Her performance is incredibly intense at moments, while also meticulously subtle at others. With every apprehensive glance, with every hurried breath, Moss skillfully portrays her character’s fear and emotional exhaustion with fastidiousness. Ultimately, Cecilia gets her revenge, in the most badass way possible, and Moss executes the whole operation to perfection. For years, dating back to Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss has been a critically acclaimed staple of television—this year, Moss deserved an Academy Award nod for her silver-screen talents.
Who Could Win: Viola Davis or Frances McDormand
This year, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is by far the most competitive of any other acting category. So far, a different woman has won the Golden Globe Award (Andra Day), Critics’ Choice Movie Award (Carey Mulligan), Screen Actors Guild Award (Viola Davis), and British Academy Film Award (Frances McDormand) for Best Actress. Carey Mulligan is getting slightly better odds than the rest of the field, and of the three other Best Actress award winners this season, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand stand the best chance to pull off an “upset.” (In light of how tight this race is, nothing will actually be an upset this year.) McDormand is currently getting +400 odds, while Davis is getting a stunning +200 odds, which is insanely close to what Mulligan is receiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Davis or McDormand took home the Oscar on Sunday.
Who Should Win: Vanessa Kirby
I truly enjoyed each performance nominated in this category, but for me, the most emotionally affecting of the year—Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman—deserves the Oscar. It is a beautifully soul-crushing portrayal of a first-time mother struck by tragedy, and Kirby would have my vote, full stop, if I had one to give.
Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan
As I alluded to above, this category is going to come down to the wire. Carey Mulligan, this year’s winner at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, is currently getting the best betting odds to take home the gold at +125. Although not really a frontrunner due to the razor-thin margin between the nominees, my educated guess is Mulligan takes home the Oscar. Promising Young Woman is a vital, timely piece of cinema, and Mulligan is its standpoint star. Prior to this year’s nominations, Davis and McDormand accounted for a combined 8 Oscar nominations and 3 wins—this is only Mulligan’s second nomination ever, and I think the Academy will welcome her into the winner’s circle.