One of the early talking points of last year’s awards season was the number of female-driven narratives leading the way, including “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Carol.” Naturally, that made for a competitive race for lead actress. But we have an even tighter derby this time around.
Demand for this year’s five actress slots is such that some campaigns would be forgiven for trying their luck in the less competitive supporting field. And it wouldn’t be the kind of “category fraud” that sparked strong feelings last year, when unambiguous leading performances like Alicia Vikander’s in “The Danish Girl” or Rooney Mara’s in “Carol” were shuffled to supporting.
For example, in A24’s “20th Century Women” — which premiered as the New York Film Festival’s centerpiece selection Oct. 8 — Annette Bening could be argued as a force in either category. She’s pronounced as a ’70s Santa Barbara matriarch, but the ensemble revolves around Lucas Jade Zumann’s coming-of-age adolescent as the central node. A supporting push for Bening wouldn’t be egregious; indeed, she and her excellent co-star Greta Gerwig could both turn up in a category that often finds room for two actresses from the same film.
Violas Davis, meanwhile, is reprising a role in Paramount’s “Fences” that won her a Tony for lead actress; however, the same part brought Mary Alice supporting recognition for the original Broadway production 30 years prior. Reportedly expanded for the film, it’s a role that could still be perceived as either/or, but its sheer emotional magnitude may tilt the scales for lead.
Both A24 and Paramount are keeping their options open. But what is the competitive leading landscape these campaigns might be hoping to avoid?
Emma Stone is the strongest in the field. Her “La La Land” performance already won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and is no doubt poised for many more.
Perennial Oscar favorite Meryl Streep, meanwhile, is never a bad bet. Her delightful exuberance in Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a charmer.
Meanwhile, in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” a festival favorite that was picked up by Fox Searchlight in Toronto, Natalie Portman gives a refined performance of grace amid anguish, a striking contrast to the macabre mania of her first Oscar-winning role, in 2010’s “Black Swan.” Portman’s late arrival in the race makes the category that much tighter.
Then there’s Ruth Negga in Jeff Nichols’ marriage-equality period piece “Loving.” She gives exactly the kind of quiet, internalized performance that could struggle in the wake of the “bigger” displays. A similarly low-key portrayal comes from Amy Adams in “Arrival,” but Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi thriller could leave voters more bewildered than moved.
Also in the mix: Jessica Chastain, stellar as a lobbyist shark in “Miss Sloane,” a film with “Michael Clayton” echoes that casts the “Zero Dark Thirty” actress in a new light; Isabelle Huppert, who, in the Cannes players “Elle” and “Things to Come,” reminds us why she’s still one of the best in the game (and somehow still unsung by the Academy); Rebecca Hall is getting attention for the Sundance bow “Christine”; and Emily Blunt, the stand-out in “The Girl on the Train,” with many declaring her work the only reason to buy a ticket.
There are even more to consider. Worthy contenders from earlier in the year include Kate Beckinsale (“Love & Friendship”), Sally Field (“Hello My Name is Doris”) and Susan Sarandon (“The Meddler”). Still to be seen are Taraji P. Henson in the uplifting “Hidden Figures” and Marion Cotillard in WWII spy yarn “Allied.”
This rich variety of performances should make for an exciting race — and a stark contrast to the uncharacteristically thin-by-comparison lead-actor contest.
But that’s a whole other column.
Keep track of all the ups and downs of this year’s lead actress Oscar race at the category’s dedicated predictions page.