While it’s often thought of as the most glamorous award of the evening, Best Actress is often a category that gets underserved. This is mostly due to two main factors. One, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a marketing strategy that I refer to as the Best Actress Showcase, where a film is specifically made to highlight the lead performance at the expense of basically everything else. The entire movie can suck donkey balls, but it’s almost intentional, as every moment is focused on making the actress look spectacular by comparison, thereby getting a nomination and hopefully a win. The flipside of that tactic is that quite often, the studio is cutting off any credibility or chance that the movie has to be nominated anywhere else, because all of the voters can see that it’s a piece of crap outside of the one performance.
That problem has come to a head this year, as essentially all five nominees are Showcase films. Yes, two of them have separate acting nominations, but that’s mostly a side effect rather than actual intent. And in the case of The Lost Daughter, both nominees are playing the same character. As such – and this clarifies a point I make in the video below – this is only the second time in Academy history that none of the movies featuring a nominated performance are up for Best Picture. The last time was in 2006, when there were still only five Best Picture nominees. So even with double the chances, they couldn’t do it, making this the first time in the “preferential era” (as Best Picture is decided by ranked choice rather than simple plurality) that it’s happened. Further, this is the first time that none of the Oscar Best Actress nominees are shared with the BAFTA category, and that one has six nominees. So while my word choice might not be the best in the video, we are definitely in unprecedented territory here.
The second issue is the fact that so, so many of the nominees in this field (and Supporting Actress as well most years) are pigeonholed into motherhood roles. It’s like Hollywood (and even world cinema) doesn’t feel like a woman can give a great performance if it’s not through a maternal lens. All five nominated characters this year are mothers, though two at least have them as a side note rather than the driving force of the film. It’s no accident that for me, the best performance of the bunch is for the character who never wanted to be a mom and who lives with conflicting feelings of love and regret about abandoning her children to forge her own path.
Honestly, I think the one positive statistic about this group is that it’s a notably older set than in most years. The average age of the nominees is 44.8 years, and if you take out 31-year-old Kristen Stewart (God I wish we could take her out of this competition), it’s 48.25. It used to be that this category was long reserved for young ingenues to make their mark and have a tearful acceptance speech as their dreams all come true. This year we have more seasoned veterans, including three previous Oscar winners and one of the other two had multiple nominations before now. I know I’m grasping at straws, but I’ll take any positives I can get.
Still, this is easily the weakest field for Best Actress this century. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. So when you watch the video breakdown, please bear in mind that I’m doing my best with what we’ve got.
With this depressing set in mind, how do we proceed any further? Well, as I mentioned last week, I’m doing a different bit of side content for every category where I also do the main analysis on YouTube. This week, because the field is just so bad, I figured the best way to go about it is to attempt to correct the Academy’s mistake. So rather than further parse these performances, I will instead offer alternative substitute nominations. Each nominee will get one, even the ones I agreed with, and I’ll do my best to make sure the suggestion is playing a part at least tangentially similar – but undoubtedly better – than the one who got the nod. Time to render my accompanying movie stills absolutely moot!
This year’s nominees for Best Actress are…
Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Substitute Nod: This is arguably the hardest one to find an analog to, as Chastain’s entire performance is a makeup job, a terrible voice, and Jesus. Well, I can at least lean into the quasi-religious part of this equation thanks to Rachel Sennott’s performance in Shiva Baby. Playing a “sugar baby” who runs into her “daddy” at a shiva for a distant family friend, Danielle’s entire worldview is shaken by a series of panic-inducing comic set pieces, every turn making her more and more uncomfortable in a waking nightmare where her parents know the man she’s fucking for money, her ex-girlfriend never misses an opportunity to one-up her, and everyone around her has some snide, judgmental comment about something.
It’s cringe comedy at its best, a 90-minute panic attack that only works because Sennott gives a fully committed performance. In doing so, she shows both genuine affection for her family’s faith while at the same time lampooning its foibles, gives audiences a sex-positive hero (hey, there’s another stretch of a link to Chastain, since Danielle’s bisexual and Tammy Faye didn’t hate gays as much as her husband or Jerry Falwell!), creates a relatable character even for people who’ve never experienced her exact degree of stress, and shows that embracing one’s flaws is what makes them human. And she does all of this in a role that is truly funny, something women never get recognized for.
Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter
Substitute Nod: Now, I truly believe that Colman deserves her nomination. I even included her as one of my prospective nominees in my “Best Of” recap for 2021. But I said I’d find a substitute for everyone, and I will honor that. How about Patti Harrison in Together Together? The roles are, on the surface at least, quite similar, in that both of them are about reluctant mothers with a large degree of detachment from the children they bear. Like Colman, Harrison is blunt, uncompromising when she knows she’s in the right, and more than willing to tear someone down when warranted. On top of that, just like Sennott, Harrison is funny as all get out, holding her own with Ed Helms in every scene, matching wits and punchlines.
So why not give her a go? Honestly, I’m kind of surprised she didn’t get much consideration, especially given the Academy’s penchant for box checks and performative representation. Being a trans actress, Harrison was sitting right there to be a self-congratulatory gesture to the world. Only she would have deserved her nod rather than just getting it for the sake of optics.
Penélope Cruz – Parallel Mothers
Substitute Nod: Tessa Thompson for Passing is the closest parallel (see what I did there?) that I can make. Like Cruz as Janis, Thompson as Reenie Redfield has a good chunk of her story defined by her relationship to a character in a similar situation, who approaches things from a completely different angle. For Cruz, it’s her maternity ward roommate, Ana, played by Milena Smit, while for Thompson, it’s Ruth Negga as Clare Bellew. Both Cruz and Thompson see their counterpart with both curiosity and concern, both have larger ambitions than just their family life while still being devoted to their motherhood, and both have serious doubts about how to handle this new human wrinkle in their lives.
Where Thompson arguably surpasses Cruz is in the core thematic crux of her film, the racial element. The underlying concept of Passing is in this idea that some light-skinned black women can be mistaken for white, and thus not suffer as much direct discrimination and hatred. It’s a fine line that Reenie and Clare have to walk, but it’s a rather unique aspect of their existence. There was a chance for similar travails in Parallel Mothers, as Janis is trying to arrange an archaeology dig to unearth a mass grave. In the documentary, The Silence of Others, there’s a fascinating look at Spanish history after the fall of Franco’s regime, including a legislative reconciliation that granted a lot of the fascist soldiers amnesty for their crimes, which created a ton of logistical problems and bureaucratic red tape for survivors and families of the dead to find and reclaim their loved ones’ remains. At minimum, there was a good deal of governmental resistance to such projects, as they didn’t want to open old wounds. I’m not saying it would have been appropriate for such obstacles to be a part of this movie, but they certainly could have, and their absence allows for Thompson and Passing to distinguish themselves from Cruz’s performance.
Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos
Substitute Nod: Probably the biggest snub of the entire Oscars ceremony is that Alana Haim wasn’t nominated for Licorice Pizza, so I’m correcting that oversight here. How does she compare to Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball? Well, it’s all about the inner workings of the entertainment industry. Haim is a professional musician as well as an actress, and just like Lucy and Desi, her work is a family affair, as she fronts the band, Haim with her sisters, and her entire immediate family essentially plays themselves in relation to Alana in the movie.
But unlike Kidman’s take on Lucy, Alana had a much more demanding role. Alana Kane is a flawed character. She’s intelligent but rudderless, ambitious yet constrained, assertive yet manipulable. She has to wade her way through tons of difficult situations, not the least of which includes the inherent sexism of 1970s Hollywood, the demands of her family, and the arrested development of Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine. She navigates it all with such incredible skill that it’s almost impossible to believe that this is her first acting role. More importantly, Kidman’s version of Lucille Ball is set up to be the smartest person in the room because Aaron Sorkin’s format demands it. Alana becomes the smartest person in the entire film through determination, growth, actual character development, and adjusting to the situations she faces. Kidman is declared the best, but Haim actually works to earn the title. Kidman has to be right in all things, Haim works her way into the right position. Kidman postures throughout, Haim stands up for herself.
Kristen Stewart – Spencer
Substitute Nod: If we’re simply going for a better performance, I’d nominate the actual corpse of Princess Diana. She’d certainly show more emotion and be better at reacting to stuff. But for more practical purposes, my vote goes to Renate Reinsve from The Worst Person in the World. Both films depict someone with severe self-doubt at a transitional period of her life. The big difference is that with Norway’s submission, the lead character is allowed to concede that her problems might be at least in part of her own doing.
It goes back to this same problem with both Jessica Chastain and Nicole Kidman’s nominations. All three of these movies position their heroines as blameless victims of someone else’s sins, because just like the leads in Disney live-action sequels, it’s somehow thought that showing women as being anything but perfect is somehow sexist. Reinsve doesn’t pull any of that bullshit as Julie. The entire film is about putting her love life in perspective, figuring out where she went right as well as where she went wrong, the self-awareness and insight being key in making her a likeable character. She gives a multi-faceted performance because she’s allowed to be a normal person who – gasp – makes mistakes, and the mixture of regret and good humor she shows as she takes several personal inventories is one of the most refreshing turns I’ve seen in a while.
1) Olivia Colman
2) Penélope Cruz
3) Nicole Kidman
4) Jessica Chastain
5) Crashing My Car In A French Tunnel
6) Kristen Stewart
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, strictly speaking it’s the only category that a porno film could never win. Yeah, think about that for a while. It’s Costume Design!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you enjoy any of these performances? What do you think of my substitute suggestions? Seriously, how badly did the Academy fuck this one up? Let me know!