The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actress in a Leading Role:
WINNER: Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
The Favourite is a film set in England in the early 18th century that follows the struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they jockey for the attention and adoration of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). I previously mentioned in my Best Supporting Actress post that The Favourite is an amazing film that thrives in totality due to the award-worthy performances by each of its three central actresses – Colman, Weisz, and Stone – and Colman likely has the best chance of the three to upset the frontrunner in their respective Oscar categories. Colman bested Glenn Close for the BAFTA, and she has also won awards for Best Actress in a Comedy at both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards (although Close has won the same award in the Dramatic category at both of those latter two award shows). In The Favourite, the character of Queen Anne is both tragic and hilarious at the same time – her health is in a very volatile state, she flips back and forth between needy and irritable, and she maintains 17 pet rabbits that sorrowfully represent each of her unsuccessful pregnancies. Despite the challenge of such an unstable character, Colman executes the performance masterfully. She nails the portrayal of Queen Anne’s surreal outlandishness and sublimely commands her position as the object of both Sarah’s and Abigail’s affection. Olivia Colman delivered one of my favorite acting performances of the entire year, and I am cautiously hopeful that she can eke out a surprise Oscar win this Sunday.
2. Glenn Close (The Wife)
In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the wife of a famous novelist, Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). The film begins with the news that Joseph’s prominent writing career has earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Castlemans get the distinct honor of traveling to Sweden for the ceremony. By all accounts, Joan appears to have long ago given up her own writing career to play the role of dutiful wife, a position in the marriage that is patently secondary to that of her husband. However, as the film progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that the power in this relationship (and the true nature of Joseph’s acclaimed career) may not be all that meets the eye. The 71-year-old Close has led a long and illustrious acting career, but her performance as Joan may just be one of her very greatest. At the start of the film, Joan’s nature seems very meek and straightforward, but it is only as the story continues to slowly unfold that we discover that she really wields an immense amount of significance in the overall success of Joseph’s writing career. Close’s portrayal of Joan is poised and dexterous, and Close carefully progresses toward the unveiling of Joan’s emotional tipping point with an unbelievably striking subtlety that is award-worthy in and of itself. Prior to this nomination, Close had been nominated six times for acting Oscars with a whopping zero wins. However, that is all (most likely) about to change – Close is the clear frontrunner for the Academy Award and has already locked in key wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and the Golden Globes. Although I loved Colman’s performance better, it will not make me upset at all to see Close finally take home the Oscar gold this Sunday.
3. Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
In A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga portrays Ally, an aspiring singer/songwriter whose dreams of making it big in the industry start to bloom after she meets and falls in love with Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a famous country musician. Ever since she broke onto the music scene in 2008 with back-to-back chart-topping singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has evolved into one of the biggest and most recognizable pop stars on the planet. Recently, she started expanding her career into acting (I have heard she is very solid in American Horror Story), which never seemed like much of a stretch to me because the essence of Gaga’s strength as a musician is her proficiency as a performer. And in A Star Is Born, she has seamlessly transitioned into one of the most impressive up-and-coming actors in all of cinema – this was definitely a career-altering role. Ally is a character with a lot of vulnerabilities who, over the course of the film, achieves a greater sense of confidence in herself, and Gaga effortlessly portrays Ally’s emotional complexities to perfection. If it were not for Olivia Colman and Glenn Close delivering two career-defining performances, Gaga might have seen herself taking home the Oscar.
4. Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Set in the early 1970s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez, a domestic worker who lives with and works for a prominent family. Aparicio’s journey to the Oscars is unbelievable – prior to auditioning for the role of Cleo, she had planned to become a preschool teacher in Mexico. In fact, before Roma, Aparicio had never acted professionally in her life. (This harkens back memories of Barkhad Abdi, who, for his debut film role in Captain Phillips, earned a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.) The fact that Aparicio was not previously an actress makes her performance in Roma that much more outstanding and noteworthy. Throughout the film, Cleo experiences a variety of events that lead to a broad range of emotions and feelings – she oscillates between happiness, sadness, loss, helplessness, and hopefulness. Aparicio’s nuanced performance was incredibly authentic and beautiful.
5. Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biopic starring Melissa McCarthy as the real-life, down-on-her-luck biographer Lee Israel, and it follows her attempt to revitalize her writing career by forging letters by famous celebrities and selling them for vast amounts of money. Off the top of my head, I am not confident I can think of a single time I have watched Melissa McCarthy in a sincerely dramatic role – obviously her bread and butter has always been comedies. However, if this film is any indication, McCarthy should really consider taking on more serious roles – she is absolutely spectacular here. Lee Israel is depicted as a callously cynical and insufferable woman, and McCarthy perfectly portrays these characteristics with the clever wit that she has lent to previous comedic performances. But in Israel’s darkest moments (such as when she discovers that her cat has died or as the walls come crashing down around her fraudulent scheme), McCarthy shines on an emotionally empathetic level. This was a really enjoyable film, and it was great to see McCarthy stake her claim in a new genre.