Last year at the Oscars, we saw one of the few legitimate upsets that just elated me. Going in, it was all but a certainty that Glenn Close would finally get her award after six nominations. She had won a Golden Globe, the SAG award, and the Independent Spirit for her role in The Wife. The result was considered so far in the bag that she had her dog accept the Spirit award on her behalf, saving her moment in the spotlight for the Academy Awards the next night.
But then, Olivia Colman happened. I screamed in joy! There was a slight chance at the possibility, as she had won the Globe on the comedy side and had gotten the BAFTA, but both of those wins could have been discounted on the grounds that a) the Academy tends to ignore comedy, and b) being British herself, Colman winning at the BAFTAs could have just been local bias. But it happened. Colman won, Close didn’t, and you could tell Glenn was piiiiiiiiiissssssssseeeeed.
I was overjoyed because Colman was my preferred choice, but I didn’t hate Close’s performance, and after six nominations, the whole “Career Achievement” vibe could easily be worse applied. The only thing that would have annoyed me about Close winning was that it would have been the latest in the very unfortunate trend of making a movie for sole purpose of featuring a lead actress to get her an Oscar. The plot is almost always melodramatic, the surrounding cast is at best competent and at worst filled with no-names, all to elevate the lead. It’s a contrived trick meant to highlight otherwise mediocre movies and basically manipulate the Academy by exploiting the fact that a lot of Hollywood films don’t make great roles for women.
Well, that moment of happiness is sure to be dashed this year, as basically all the acting categories are foregone conclusions, and Best Actress will once again be handed out to a spotlight feature. Meanwhile, the rest of the field is made up of three nominees that are part of larger, strong casts, and one that you could also argue is a spotlight role, but with a much more involved ensemble, and a story that isn’t just about the lead. It’s also performed by someone who is too young for “Career Achievement,” so giving her the win would be more justified. But sadly, this one is in the bag, even before the BAFTA or Spirit results come out, as this field is identical to the Globe Drama category, with no comedy nominees making the final cut.
This year’s nominees for Best Actress are:
Cynthia Erivo – Harriet
As previously mentioned during the breakdown of Original Song, Cynthia Erivo will complete her EGOT if she gets in a win in either of the two categories she’s up for, which would make her the youngest such winner by nearly six years (Frozen songwriter Robert Lopez is the current record-holder).
Erivo’s performance as Harriet Tubman is simply brilliant from beginning to end. While obviously laudatory, the film goes beyond just the bullet points of Tubman’s life, focusing not just on her escape and her beginnings with the Underground Railroad, but highlighting her personality, her faith, and her iron will. It’s not just that she escaped, it’s how and why she escaped. It’s not just that she went back for her family, it’s how and why she went back. Like any heroine, she’s got her share of applause lines and convoluted characterization, but the vast majority of the film is about showing us the person behind the deeds, and that’s a rarity in “showcase” roles.
Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson has pulled the rare feat of getting a nomination in both acting categories this year, and as I previously stated, I think her role in Jojo Rabbit was the better of the two. That’s not to say that she doesn’t do well in Marriage Story, it’s just that the other was a better performance, and if I’m being honest, a better film.
As Nicole, Johansson does an admirable job as a divorcée asserting her own agency for the first time. She’s even forced to overcorrect a few times thanks to her mother and sister still having affection for Adam Driver’s Charlie, to the point that they almost take his side in the proceedings. Her entire life she’s been reactive, but her side of the story is her seizing an opportunity to be proactive. She retakes control of her career, she dictates the terms of the divorce despite initially acquiescing to Charlie’s more amiable suggestions, she weaponizes every opportunity to keep her child away from Charlie to win the battle of affection. At several points her actions are brash, unfair, and downright mean-spirited in the name of winning, but every time you feel angry at her, that’s Johansson succeeding in her craft.
Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
There’s something to be said for working with a director on multiple projects. Knowing a filmmaker’s style is definitely helpful in understanding their vision as the rapport grows, resulting in even better performances. With Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig, that enhancement is even more pronounced, because Ronan essentially played Gerwig in Lady Bird. It’s not just that she knows Gerwig’s work, she knows Gerwig, and as such it makes for the best collaboration between a director and actor you could imagine.
Jo March has never been better realized on the big screen than by Saoirse Ronan. She’s ebullient, vivacious, assertive, loving, empathetic, and as smart a character as they come. Her performance practically leaps out of the screen. Every moment she’s on camera, we feel her pain, her insecurities, and most of all, her joy. There wasn’t a more perfect performance across all of 2019 cinema.
Charlize Theron – Bombshell
Charlize Theron’s performance as Megyn Kelly basically boils down to one thing: the voice. She quite capably gives us an impression of Megyn Kelly’s voice, and the makeup team does an admirable job to make her look the part.
But beyond that, there’s not really much there. Theron spends much of the film breaking the fourth wall to narrate about the inner workings of Fox News, something we already knew, which robs the proceedings of the “A-ha” moments of The Big Short. The rest of the time, she’s waffling back and forth about whether to come forward about Roger Ailes, which would seem compelling, were it not for a) the fact that we already have Gretchen Carlson and the fictitious Kayla Pospisil carrying that dramatic weight, and b) Megyn Kelly has basically made her entire career out of not taking a stand until she’s certain which way the wind is blowing. That doesn’t make her a hero. It makes her a lemming. And I’m not here to watch lemmings.
Renée Zellweger – Judy
As I mentioned in my review of the film, there’s one solid moment where Renée Zellweger truly embodies Judy Garland, and that’s her opening performance in London. She shows up late and drunk, and basically looks like an emaciated shell. Somehow, through the sheer force of her personality, she goes out on stage, and over the course of a soulful rendition of “By Myself,” transforms into the star she once was. It’s a breathtaking sequence, truly.
Sadly, the rest of the film she plays like a Lifetime movie version of Garland’s life, with Zellweger acting more like a caricature of Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, basically just whining, popping pills, and falling over herself drunk as she phones in a few of her old standards on stage. No wonder Liza herself absolutely hates this movie. The entire film is constructed to win Zellweger her second Oscar, and the ploy will almost certainly succeed. But mark my words, in five years this movie will be completely forgotten.
1. Saoirse Ronan
2. Cynthia Erivo
3. Scarlett Johansson
4. Renée Zellweger
5. Charlize Theron
Up next: It took until the final week for the shorts to be released, but I’m ready and raring to go! It’s Animated Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which performance did you like best? Do you think showcase films should be disqualified or ignored in favor of great performances in traditional films? If you wrote a book about your family, what would it be called? Let me know!