In today’s post, I will review the Best Leading Actress category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!
Cynthia Erivo (Harriet)
In Harriet, Cynthia Erivo plays the titular character, Harriet Tubman, as the film chronicles the inspirational story of the renowned abolitionist’s escape from slavery and strenuous work to help others along the Underground Railroad. I was hoping to like Harriet much more than I actually did, as I was all in on a proper film adaptation for such a heroic American figure. However, the film as a whole was a bit mechanical and lacked depth. With that said, nothing can take away from the rousing performance by Erivo, who brilliantly assumes the mantle of this legendary heroine. Her performance is adept and moving, and Erivo absolutely deserves a nomination this year. Erivo is a multi-talented performer, and both her acting and singing gifts shine on the big screen. In addition to this acting nomination, Erivo is also up for Best Original Song for “Stand Up” from the film, and if she were to win in either category, she would complete the illustrious EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story follows a couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), as they cope with a contentious coast-to-coast divorce. As I have previously said, Marriage Story is not a fun watch. I am definitely an admirer of Baumbach’s previous work (btw, The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha are far superior films to Marriage Story, and if you haven’t seen them, do yourself a favor and make that happen), but this movie is just so sad and depressing at its core. (With that said, it is still incredibly well made.) Regardless of my enjoyment of the movie as a whole, the acting is undoubtedly magnificent and thus, Johansson’s nomination is 100% deserved. Johansson vividly wears Nicole’s pain and suffering on her sleeves throughout the movie, and during the film’s most antagonistic moments between Nicole and Charlie, Johansson delivers a heartbreaking performance that highlights her acting superiority.
Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
In Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s critically acclaimed book Little Women, Saoirse Ronan plays the story’s protagonist Jo March, a fiery, stubborn, and self-reliant young woman attempting to make a literary career for herself, all while balancing the stresses of her family and grappling with her loneliness, a product of her stern independence. Before Ronan, Winona Ryder played Alcott’s storied heroine in a 1994 film adaptation, which garnered three Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Ryder. In such a famous role that already evokes nostalgia for a generation that grew up on Ryder’s version, Ronan proves her worth and makes the character her own. In fact, I think Ronan’s interpretation of and performance as Jo March is superior to that of Ryder’s—for me, this isn’t entirely surprising, as Ronan is objectively one of the most talented actresses in the film business. (This is Ronan’s fourth Oscar nomination, making her the second youngest actor/actress to reach four nominations, lagging behind Jennifer Lawrence by mere months.)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Bombshell tells the story of Fox News and the sexual harassment controversy surrounding its former CEO Roger Ailes. As I previously mentioned on my Best Supporting Actress post, I wanted to like Bombshell, but I just didn’t. The makeup work is phenomenal and the acting performances are great, but the film as a whole felt incredibly surface-level and sensationalist. In the film, Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News host who famously drew the deranged ire of Donald Trump (then a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination), which is depicted in the film. If you’ve seen the images of Theron as Kelly, the resemblance is unbelievably uncanny—the makeup team did a phenomenal job (they are nominated for an Oscar, too) and Theron, an expert in her craft, nailed the complete embodiment of her character, including Kelly’s distinct voice and mannerisms. Although Theron was great, her performance was simply not as moving as those of her fellow nominees, and if I had a vote, I would have given her spot to Awkwafina (discussed more in detail below), who gave a more inspired performance this year that deserved to be recognized on this level.
Renée Zellweger (Judy)
Judy tells the story of famed actress and singer Judy Garland’s final year of life, during which she makes a professional comeback for a short residency at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London, England. With her employment prospects dwindling in the United States and her finances in disarray, Garland is convinced to make the trip across the pond to perform for a country of fans who adore her. However, despite some early success during her show’s initial run, Garland’s personal problems increasingly interfere with her professional life, as the film documents her troubles with alcoholism and drug addiction. I will admit, the only facts I really knew about Judy Garland before this movie were that she was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and that she died from a drug overdose. These two facts (and the complexities involved with each) bookend this film, and everything in between is incredibly informative and wonderfully crafted to make for a solidly entertaining movie. And if you haven’t seen Judy, I urge you to believe in the Renée Zellweger hype—she is radiantly flawless in her portrayal of the troubled star. Zellweger deftly navigates the dichotomy of Judy Garland—on the one hand, she’s an incredible talent with first-rate performance abilities, and on the other, she’s hobbled by debilitating substance abuse. Like the film’s story of comeback, Judy serves as a renaissance of sorts for Zellweger, too, who is spectacular.
Snubs and Other Performances
In addition to the foregoing actresses, there were a handful of other actresses that turned in performances this year that deserve some attention, including one that should have received a nomination instead of Charlize Theron. First, Lupita Nyong’o was stellar in Jordan Peele’s Us. Although I really didn’t enjoy the film (I can usually overlook a few plot holes, but goodness, that storyline just blatantly didn’t add up), it is impossible to ignore the solid work of Nyong’o as both Adelaide and her “tethered” character Red. Second, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out was creative, quirky, and a lot of fun, and Ana de Armas was one of the film’s brightest stars as a caretaker suspected of killing her employer. Additionally, I was wildly impressed with Florence Pugh’s chilling performance in Ari Aster’s eerie horror flick Midsommar, one of my favorite movies of the year—the image of Pugh’s character donning the May Queen crown is instantly iconic! I was more than pleased to see Pugh receive some Oscar love with her nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for Little Women, but her performance in Midsommar was definitely her best this year.
Despite these wonderful performances, the biggest “snub” in this category is Awkwafina for her emotionally beautiful performance in the critically acclaimed film, The Farewell. If you recall, I already discussed Zhao Shuzhen from The Farewell being the biggest snub in the Best Supporting Actress category, but it is an even bigger travesty that Awkwafina missed out on a nomination. Awkwafina has already made her mark in the industry thanks to her comedic chops (see, e.g., Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Crazy Rich Asians), but in The Farewell, the 31-year-old proved that she is an absolute force to be reckoned with from a dramatic perspective. Although the Golden Globes don’t historically predict the Academy Awards, insiders were confident that Awkwafina’s win would vault her to an Oscar nomination. Charlize Theron was solid as Megyn Kelly, but there is not a doubt in my mind that Awkwafina should have been nominated in her place.
Who Could Win: Scarlett Johansson
Like every single other acting category this year, the winner here, according to the betting lines, seems like a guarantee already. However, Scarlett Johansson is currently getting the next best odds, albeit they are +1400.
Who Should Win: Renée Zellweger
Renée Zellweger is perfect in her portrayal of Judy Garland. I believe in the hype that she is getting, and if I had a vote, I would gladly cast it for Zellweger!
Who Will Win: Renée Zellweger
Every favorite in an acting category this year has swept the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards, SAG Awards, and BAFTAs. So, for the first time in a long while, I don’t anticipate a single upset in any of these four categories. Zellweger is getting -2000 odds as the favorite, and I look for her to definitely lock in her second career Oscar win on Sunday.