OSCARS WATCH 2017: THE LESS-DEPRESSING CAMPAIGN: BEST ACTRESS

Yeah, this was originally supposed to be Best Actor, but some news came out today, so this one became more relevant. Sue me. 

Remember how last week, I said that the Best Picture race was gonna be a series of smaller films jockeying for position rather than any one film dominating the field?

Yeah, that’s not happening here.

To be fair, it almost never does in the Acting races. Usually there’s a few key frontrunners coming out early on that quickly get whittled down to an obvious two-person race or even one-person domination by nominations time. There’s rarely a shocking winner in these categories, barring a rogue Supporting win here and there.

Much of that is because the kind of acting that impresses the Academy and snags nominations tends to be fairly easy to pick out. None of what I’m about to say takes away from the technical achievements that lie therein, and there have been countless all-time performances that have won this award.

But the Oscars reward big, showy, emotionally tough performances. Remember, Acting is the biggest branch in the Academy, and they easily connect with what they know is difficult or draining to pull off. Essentially, we have to find out “Who if I was an actor would impress me the most?” Subtlety and minute performance work will tend to go unrecognized for the ones that are obvious bravura performances. God love her, it’s why the predictions for Kristen Stewart will never come true, no matter how many European awards she wins.

Then the rest of our rules still apply. What does the Academy think looks impressive? What do they think will seem important? We have here too the idea of internal actor politicking. Has an actor earned their position for an award? In other words, has an actor been around long enough that it’s time to recognize them? Will we have another chance later or is their time? The Academy loves recognizing favorites, but they love crowning actors as important by giving them their official recognition as “One of the Greats.”

All that said, let’s get into the race.

SURE THINGS 

Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land

Barring a complete shocker, one of these two will be the 2017 recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actress.

I chose to do this one today because the news came out that Viola Davis would be officially competing in the Supporting Category for her performance in Fences. Given that Davis was already a Tony winner for the same role, and that the movie is an odds-on favorite as an Oscar powerhouse, Davis’ presence in this category was fierce competition. Now that she’s moved to take the Supporting Actress category for her own, the choice becomes much more stark.

In one corner, Portman has been receiving raves for Jackie. It’s a film that seems to minimize her weaknesses (dialogue) and maximize her strength (body language and physicality). Her hypnotic, controlled performance seems to be what launched this film from a little known into a late winter juggernaut. Combined with the film’s thematic relevance (a film about Kennedy’s assassination and the iconography of his death released during an America in upheaval), this is the kind of draining, all-consuming performance that really knocks the Academy’s socks off.

In the other, Stone is perhaps the biggest part of the near-universal adoration of La La Land. Though the film is largely a two-hander, Stone is apparently the emotional core of the film and by and away its most impressive aspect. An all-in, heart on her sleeve performance with a wide emotional range in a film that everyone loves? No brainer. That and the fact that Stone has long been a Hollywood darling, much like Larson was last year, means that there’s the popular perception that it’s time to recognize her skill.

In case you can’t already tell, I think this is Stone’s award to lose. Difference in performance and skill aside, the fact is that the movie they’re in matters. I’m curious how many people connect with Jackie outside of Portman’s performance, given comparisons I’ve seen to Under the SkinLa La Land is a crowd pleaser that’s gone front-runner for Best Picture. Even if it doesn’t take that award, the positive feelings towards the movie itself will easily transfer onto Stone.

Emma Stone should go ahead and start prepping her speech now.

MAYBE THINGS:

Amy Adams, Arrival 
Annette Benning, 20th Century Women
Jessica ChastainMiss Sloane
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

As locked up as the award is, it’s still important to look at the rest of the nominations. These are still recognitions and still matter in driving forward these films and the actresses in them.

The first three on our list have somehow never won, perpetual Oscar bridesmaids.

Amy Adams (SERIOUSLY. NEVER. I KNOW, RIGHT?!) is the anchor of Arrival and popular connection with the surprisingly emotional movie could lead to popular connection with her central performance.

Annette Benning (SERIOUSLY? NOT EVEN FOR AMERICAN BEAUTY?) apparently owns the ensemble of 20th Century Women and is A24’s best chance to push a bit more prestige onto its distribution.

Jessica Chastain (THERE IS NO JUSTICE), a 3rd Rail favorite, has a role in the gun  control drama Miss Sloane. While little is known about this one, Chastain gives consistently strong performances. And appearance of relevance could be important. If the movie’s alright and she’s really good, she could be a surprise entry.

Next up, some newbies to this world.

Taraji Henson is still tearing it up on Empire and we’re about to see if that magic can strike twice. Hidden Figures looks to be an acting showcase and Henson is the center of it all. If Hidden Figures works well, expect Henson to launch up the list.

Isabelle Huppert is certainly not new to acting or awards. Girl could have a whole shelf of her European nominations. But the shocking, uncomfortable Elle is attracting raves for her performance, and Cotillard’s nomination for Two Days, One Night proves that we can always expect a surprise or two from abroad. Huppert might leave too much of an impression to be left out.

Ruth Negga apparently goes full saint in Loving, playing things quiet and physical and deeply emotional. Loving‘s Oscar favorite status means that she’s gonna be in front of a lot of eyeballs, and the Academy always wants someone to root for.

Then, as always, never count out Meryl Streep. Florence Foster Jenkins seems to have come out to a soft thud, but Streep has pulled much more out of much less. Remember that she got nominated for Into the Woods. Nothing is impossible.

Right now, if you asked me, I’d probably say Annette Benning, Ruth Negga, and Amy Adams are your most likely other 3. We’ll see how the race changes.

UPDATES:

Best Picture:

Move Moonlight from Maybe Thing to Sure Thing: The official theatrical release of Moonlight has begun and in addition to attracting even more critical raves from almost every corner not named Armond White, the film broke Limited Release records in its NY/LA theaters. This is about the clearest signal I’m going to get that this thing will be a force to be reckoned with.

Jackie as a Maybe Thing: While I still have my skepticism about the film’s wider release, it has to be said how striking that trailer was and how much the thematic relevance might hit home. I could see this one being a surprise dark horse in the race.

NEXT WEEK: Best Actor (for real this time)

 

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