God it’s been a while since this category was truly competitive. I know Olivia Colman pulled the upset two years ago, but that’s exactly what it was, an upset (though she was the truly deserving winner). Apart from her BAFTA win, which you could argue was home field advantage, Glenn Close won every Best Actress award for her role in The Wife. It was a foregone conclusion that amazingly didn’t pan out.
No, for the last time Best Actress was truly a toss-up, you have to go back nearly a decade, when the category came down to Viola Davis for The Help and Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady. Streep had the Globe and the BAFTA, while Davis had the Critics’ Choice Award and the Screen Actors Guild under her belt before the grand finale on Oscar night. As we all know, Streep eventually emerged victorious.
That’s how long it’s been since we’ve had a legitimate contest for what is largely considered the most glamorous prize of the night, as the winner is often decked out in a very memorable dress, and Best Actress is looked upon as the ultimate fulfillment of the Hollywood dream for a young starlet. It’s usually the third-to-last award given out on the night, just before Best Director and Best Picture. Yet despite its symbolism and importance, it’s been considered “in the bag” for eight of the last nine years, even though one of those eight ended up being wrong. Incidentally, before Davis v. Streep, you probably have to go back a further four years to Marion Cotillard’s win for La Vie en Rose for the next true surprise.
This year, however, it’s a whole new ballgame. I initially mocked and then sarcastically praised the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for their seeming punt on the category when they gave the Golden Globe to Andra Day and Rosamund Pike, as Pike was never going to be nominated, and Day had only the Globe and a Critics’ Choice nomination to show for her role.
But as it turned out, that initially baffling result ended up potentially being the catalyst for the most wide open contest this category has seen in decades. There are essentially four mid-to-major awards ceremonies that honor actors before the Oscars (five if you count the Independent Spirit Awards when applicable). Those are the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the BAFTAs, and the Critics’ Choice. In those four contests we’ve had four different winners in this category, all of whom are nominated by the Academy. That means truly anyone can win, even the one who hasn’t picked up hardware yet, as the competing factions might just cancel each other out, leaving an opportunity for the biggest upset possibly ever.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, this category will actually live up to its hype, and I am so glad for it.
This year’s nominees for Best Actress are:
Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
My God what a powerhouse performance. We all went in to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom knowing that it would be Chadwick Boseman’s last role, and as such, our eyes and brains were prepared to defer to him throughout. We all knew that he’d get a posthumous nomination and probably even a win if he was even remotely competent. As it turned out, he gave his greatest performance at the end, completely justifying the gesture.
But what we never expected was for Viola Davis to keep in lockstep the entire way, matching him note for note, line for line, and asserting her own character story and agency completely independent of Boseman. This really is that rare film where there are two separate leads of equal standing, and as I’ve mentioned before, part of why it’s so compelling is because neither one is the hero and neither is the villain. They are simultaneously the protagonist of their own story and the antagonist to the other, and it’s just fucking gorgeous.
As the titular singer, Davis plays every moment to the absolute hilt. She’s gained a modicum of power as a black woman in early 20th Century America due solely to her talent and profitability, and she is going to wring that for all it’s worth. Like Leslie Odom, Jr. as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami… she’s playing an artist who is well aware of the exploitative nature of the music industry, especially on black performers, but she also knows that her talent gives her a say in what happens, and she’s smart enough to not only control her own affairs but also to exert some influence on the people who think they’re controlling her. At times she acts like a diva, but it’s always justified, because she is the moneymaker, and if anyone wants to make money off of her, they’ll do as she says. Every seemingly unreasonable or impatient demand is more to keep people on their toes and remind them of what she can do if she doesn’t get her way. It’s a unique position, and Davis plays it perfectly.
Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday
It’s been a good year for women playing all-time great singers, huh? Just imagine if the pandemic hadn’t happened and Respect had come out last year as planned? Then we’d likely be adding Jennifer Hudson to this mix as well. Yeesh! Talk about a battle of heavyweights!
Oddly enough, though, this performance sort of came out of nowhere. Andra Day is a talented singer and songwriter, but she doesn’t have all that much experience as an actress. That didn’t stop her from seizing her moment and delivering the goods.
The material in Lee Daniels’ film is rather weak, filled with scenes where every other word begins with “f” or “n.” But when it comes to the true inner workings of Billie Holiday’s life, Day is able to shine despite that handicap. I’m not sure anyone could ever top Diana Ross’ performance in Lady Sings the Blues, but taken on its own, Day’s performance is still quite strong. One of the more impressive moments was her ability to sing like Billie. I’ve heard Andra Day sing on her own recordings, and there’s a distinct difference between her normal output and what she did here, and you can tell it’s her and not a lip sync of one of Holiday’s recordings. It reminded me of how Taron Egerton used his own voice in 2019 to sing as Elton John, and how criminal it was that he wasn’t nominated, yet Jamie Foxx and Rami Malek won the Oscar while lip syncing.
Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman
Kirby’s the only one not to pick up any major prizes this cycle, but that doesn’t mean she can’t win. Apart from a very ballsy one-shot sequence to open the proceedings, Pieces of a Woman is a piece of shit movie. But once that opening is over, Kirby is the sole saving grace keeping it from being an utter failure.
Far too often the actress categories at the Academy get filled up by aggrieved mothers in one form or another, and it’s a very tired cliché. What sets Kirby apart here is that she’s the antithesis of that character trope. After the film’s tragic opening where her newborn baby dies shortly after birth, it’s everyone else who’s aggrieved instead of Kirby. Her husband, Shia LaBeouf, cheats on her with the family lawyer. Her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn in a rare misfire, is basically a screaming, stereotypical old Jewish mother, and she’s just looking for someone to blame for the tragedy.
But Kirby is mostly a sounding board for them, never really emoting herself. Because everyone’s so focused on what she should be feeling, she’s never able to take any time to actually mourn her loss. She’s too busy reacting to everyone else and trying to keep her life together. She’s trying to continue living and find some way forward, while everyone else expects her to dwell in her grief forever. If she did, she’d be no different from any number of other actresses who’ve had to portray this outdated archetype. So while the film itself is relatively awful, Kirby does at least earn some kudos for bucking the trend with this somewhat novel approach.
Frances McDormand – Nomadland
She’s one of the greatest actresses of all time for a reason, folks. For the last 30 years plus, McDormand has been at the apex of her craft, and it shows here again in Nomadland. It’s definitely a showcase role, but unlike others over the last few years (Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson, etc.) she already has two Oscars on her mantle. She doesn’t need a spotlight role to get attention from the Academy. As such, she can just bask in the room that the film gives her to just be and do, and that’s a refreshing change of pace.
McDormand as Fern has had a lot of bad things happen to her over the years before the film even begins. She lost her husband, her job, and her home as the industrial town she lived in became a ghost town after the nearby company shut down. She now exists on a part-time, freelance state of semi-retirement and semi-homelessness living in her van. The film has her migrating all over the country as a seasonal Amazon employee, park guide, and line cook among other “Joe Jobs,” so she can maintain her new life as a nascent nomad.
Like Vanessa Kirby, part of the core of Fern’s character is her inability – or refusal – to publicly process her own grief. But whereas Kirby was reactionary throughout her role, McDormand is proactive, taking the initiative to redefine her existence. This allows her the ability to experience her own version of joy and freedom, even when things aren’t ideal. Whether it’s floating naked in a river or shitting in a bucket (two things I can honestly say I never expected to see her doing), there’s a serenity to the performance that pervades everything, which is why the film ultimately becomes so enjoyable to watch.
Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
This is definitely the most unique performance of the group, and easily the best of Mulligan’s young career. She doesn’t have the best material to work with via the screenplay, but what it lacks in substance Mulligan more than makes up for in style.
Ironically, I was reading the Defector Funbag column by Drew Magary yesterday (one of my favorite writers), and a reader submission commented that they thought actors couldn’t convincingly play drunk, to which Magary rebutted, citing several great examples, from Llewyn Davis to Gabby Johnson. I’m surprised he didn’t mention Mulligan here, because I would absolutely put her in that club based on this performance. It’s the incidental catalyst for the whole movie, this idea that she can play drunk as some rapacious asshole tries to take advantage of her, only to snap to the moment he’s about to cross the line into sexual assault. In order for this entire movie to work, she either has to be really convincing as a drunk, or guys have to be just so thirsty for some raping that they ignore an obvious act. Guess what? It’s the former.
But I feel like it’s sort of backhanded to just say that Mulligan plays a good drunk. What makes this film tolerable and occasionally enjoyable is Mulligan’s sardonic wit on display throughout, as well as the assertive nature of Cassie’s character. It’s just as crucial to the success of the film for her to be able to look at someone like Connie Britton completely stone-faced and convince her that frat boys are running a train on her daughter as it is to keel over in a booth at a bar with excellent dramatic timing.
While a lot of the film can be derided as a series of “gotcha” moments, it’s Mulligan’s ability to sell those bits that helps the movie get by and gloss over its weaker elements. I wish the script didn’t pull its punches when it really counted, but when it comes to selling the drama, comedy, romance, and revenge, Mulligan rises to the occasion when it would have been so easy to turn this story into something gratuitous and grating. In essence, she’s this year’s Joker, and it’s very possible she’ll achieve the same victory Joaquin Phoenix did last year.
1) Viola Davis
2) Frances McDormand
3) Carey Mulligan
4) Andra Day
5) Vanessa Kirby
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, we continue our tour of the short program with our second of three categories, and the second in a row where I can review the entire shortlist. It’s Documentary Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite performance? Who do you think got unjustly left out? What great singer would you like to see portrayed on film? Let me know!