It’s arguably the most glamorous award of the entire ceremony. It’s the be all, end all of the “Who are you wearing” red carpet shtick. It brings us the most emotional of acceptance speeches, from Halle Berry name-dropping every black actress ever, to Julia Roberts telling the band to fuck off, to Gwyneth Paltrow nearly snapping herself in half as she keels over crying. It’s the award for Best Actress. The winner is the queen of Hollywood for the next year, and its presentation (by the previous year’s Best Actor), is one of the landmark moments of the night.
The only disappointing part is that more often than not in recent years the result has been a dead giveaway. It’s a side effect of the marketing process the studios go through to win over (i.e. bribe) Academy voters into just giving it to whomever they spend the most money on, regardless of who’s the best. For instance, take last year, when Emma Stone won for her performance in La La Land. Now, I love Emma Stone, and in my wildest dreams I’ll get to make beautiful ginger babies with her one day, but in last year’s crop, she was arguably the worst of the five nominees. At least that’s where I had her in my personal rankings. Because part of my criteria to judge a performance is how much I see the character vs. the actor. Emma Stone did a fine job in La La Land, but the entire time all I saw was Emma Stone. The character of Mia was just your run-of-the-mill Hollywood ingenue. Nothing wrong with that, but also nothing groundbreaking, whereas Natalie Portman truly became Jackie Kenndy, and Ruth Negga in Loving was nothing short of inspiring and heartbreaking.
So sadly, the result year in and year out is always a given thanks to the campaigning. I’d argue that since 2000, the winner in this category has been set in stone well in advance with three exceptions. Marion Cotillard’s win for La Vie en Rose was a bit of an upset, as most were predicting a showdown between Cate Blanchett and Ellen Page. Meryl Streep won for The Iron Lady, where she played a British version of herself playing Margaret Thatcher, shocking us all that Viola Davis didn’t win. And then the very next year Jennifer Lawrence won out in what was considered a slugfest (in the press anyway) against Jessica Chastain. We knew one of them would win, we just didn’t know which one.
Contrast that with other recent years, where films like Still Alice and Blue Jasmine almost existed solely to get their leading lady an Oscar. Or even lamer, there was the time that Nicole Kidman won for The Hours, where the most noteworthy thing about her was the prosthetic nose, but her win was so assured that Denzel Washington already had a scripted, “winning by a nose” joke before he even opened the envelope. Hell, two years ago the Academy decided to nominate Alicia Vikander for Supporting Actress instead of Lead (even though she was the lead of The Danish Girl, not Eddie Redmayne), just so they could guarantee Brie Larson the Best Actress win and still give Vikander something without them having to duke it out and one go home empty handed.
Thankfully, there is a little bit of drama in this year’s award, though it’s not much. Most speculation is that it’s down to two again, which will mirror the Jennifer Lawrence/Jessica Chastain matchup from a few years ago, but really, all five performances are worthy of mention.
This year’s nominees for Best Actress are:
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Like Holly Hunter before her, Sally Hawkins delivers an absolutely brilliant performance basically without saying a single word. As the mute Elisa, she forges a totally weird yet amazingly believable romance with what is basically the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She communicates so much with just her hands and eyes, that she becomes the most emotionally realized character in the entire film. By the time she finally opens her mouth (for a fantasy sequence where she sings “You’ll Never Know”) your heart, and your jaw, are on the floor.
I first saw Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, where she was nominated for Supporting Actress, which is really impressive, as the Woody Allen film was meant as a pure Oscar bait vehicle for Cate Blanchett (mission accomplished by the way, and I absolutely loved it). That same year she was a voice in the nominated Animated Short, Room on the Broom. The next year she starred in the Oscar-winning Live Action Short, The Phone Call. Basically everything the woman touches turns to gold, and I wouldn’t be the least bit upset if she won here.
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
What I say now I say without the slightest hint of hyperbole. This is the greatest performance of McDormand’s career, better than her previous Oscar-winning turn in Fargo. As the ball-busting Mildred Hayes, she becomes a lodestar for the modern expression of grief, as well as the very picture of tenacity. She rarely acts within what most of us would consider reason, but you would never once question her various courses of action, either (save for a molotov cocktail or two).
For me, the moment I was all in was about 10 minutes in, right after the titular billboards are put up. After the initial public backlash, she’s confronted in her home by the local priest. Rather than acquiesce to his sanctimonious bullshit, she outright calls him out for the hypocrisy of the church protecting pedophile priests. This tells you right off the bat that this is a woman not to be fucked with, and we’re still half the movie away from her kicking a teenager’s ass in broad daylight! She might be the most hardcore mama out there, and McDormand owns every single second of it! Even at her most irrational, there wasn’t a single moment where someone in the audience wasn’t cheering for her.
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
I have no shame in admitting that Margot Robbie gives me wowsers in my trousers. I know that may not be the most decent thing to say, particularly in today’s climate, but I’d rather admit my lesser qualities than try to hide them. Ever since The Wolf of Wall Street, let’s just say I’ve been a fan. She’s the only reason I watched Suicide Squad or Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (okay, I nerd crush on Tina Fey as well – I’m a dork), and the idea of her playing Tonya Harding was all I needed to hear.
Harding was always a tragic figure to me, and I still remember watching her perform in the ’94 Olympics (I flipped back and forth between the figure skating and an episode of The Critic), seeing her stop mid-routine to show the judges her laces (recreated in the film), and I remember being really angry that a) she only got 8th place, and b) Nancy Kerrigan lost in a tie-breaker vote to Oksana Baiul. So yeah, the idea of a dark comic biopic was very appealing, and the idea of Margot Robbie playing her excited me to no end.
What impresses me so much about Robbie as an actress (all pervy mentions of attractiveness aside) is that she’s so good at doing accents. She’s Australian, but only once (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) have I seen her do her native voice. Everything else I’ve seen her in she employs an array of expert American dialects. That takes incredible skill. As Tonya Harding, she translates the redneck attitude, the take-no-prisoners shitkicker lifestyle, and the tragic vulnerability of someone who never had a real chance because of her social status, regardless of her superior ability. And of course, the fact that Robbie spent four months in training to actually pull off believable figure skating talent shows amazing commitment to the role.
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Oh bestill this poor Irishman’s heart (I swear I don’t lust after every actress in Hollywood – my girlfriend would kill me). Saoirse Ronan was previously nominated two years ago for her role in Brooklyn, which I enjoyed, but I could tell she wasn’t quite there yet. In the short period since then, she’s more than matured and become the world-class actress she was meant to be, realizing in very quick order the potential we were all seeing in her.
In Lady Bird, she plays a dual role. Not only is she essentially the avatar of writer/director Greta Gerwig (so. much. crush!), but she also has to be a relatable stand-in for everyone in the audience, at least those of us old enough to be nostalgic for our formative years (for example, the film takes place in the 2002-03 school year, which was my junior year of college). Ronan perfectly embodies the sense of wonder, angst, wanderlust, and general curiosity that we all had at that point in our lives. She also gives us a comic look back at our most awkward moments as we vicariously relived the milestone events of our teenage years through her character. There’s a brilliance and wit about Lady Bird, a bright intellectual and artistic independence that’s so refreshing that it should be the standard by which all coming-of-age stories are told. And yet, even more impressively, she never devolves into the “manic pixie dream girl” cliche. Her nomination two years ago allowed us to see what she could become. This performance cements her status as one of this generation’s greats.
Meryl Streep – The Post
I’m about to say something unpopular in the extreme. In fact, don’t be surprised if this blog gets completely scrubbed from the interwebs after I publish this because of this highly controversial thing I’m about to say.
I’m just sort of, meh, on Meryl Streep.
Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely LOVED some of her work, particularly Sophie’s Choice and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She’s the most accomplished actress alive right now, and her skill is unparalleled. It’s just that she gets nominated for everything, almost like a default. A lot of the time it’s warranted, as it is here. But sometimes it just seems like the Academy isn’t paying attention. It’s become a running gag that she gets nominated every year, even if she doesn’t put out anything.
That said, I very much enjoyed her as Kay Graham, who is one of my personal heroes. Her role in The Post demanded a set of competing – and combating – loyalties: to her staff, her business interests, and to the elite social class to which she belonged. And to her credit, Streep navigates it all with ease. More importantly, she had to be a lightning rod for women’s rights, especially in the workplace. Kay Graham was one of history’s greatest glass ceiling breakers, and Streep played it to the hilt.
Oddly enough though, my favorite scenes were those where she and Tom Hanks just sat down and talked to one another. They had such witty repartee that they could have been talking about watching paint dry and it would have been fascinating. My Dinner with Andre ain’t got SHIT on Streep and Hanks chatting.
Of the five nominees this year, Meryl does rank last for me, but it’s not a knock on her. Taking a look at the 10 nominees for the Golden Globes (as they separate Dramas and Comedies), I saw nine of the performances (The Leisure Seeker still hasn’t gotten a wide release yet). And honestly, the only one that was left off the Oscar list that you could make an argument for is Jessica Chastain’s turn in Molly’s Game. I was surprised she wasn’t nominated, but I completely understand it. These five really look to be the best five (at least among those who got a full campaign from the studios), and it says a lot that Meryl is at the bottom. It’s just that strong a class this time. Like I said earlier, I’m pretty sure it’s down to two here, but I’ll discuss that more when I make my official predictions, but really, there’s no bad choice.
1) Frances McDormand
2) Saoirse Ronan
3) Sally Hawkins
4) Margot Robbie
5) Meryl Streep
Next up: Start warming up your vocal cords cause it’s time for the Original Song category. Spoiler alert – it’s way better than it was the last two years!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Are you mad about Meryl, or are you salivating for Sally? Let me know! And if you just think I’m a pervert or a pig, you can say that, too, but it’s not very nice.