By John H. Foote
I remember years in the seventies and eighties when the Academy was hard pressed to find five worthy Best Actress contenders, the problem being there were just not enough great roles and performances for women. For the last 10 years there has been a bounty of great work from actresses, enough to fill two five nominee categories each year and this year, despite the COVID crisis, has not prevented actresses from shining.
The last 40 years of acting on film has seen some extraordinary performances from both men and women, astounding work such as Sissy Spacek in Coal Miners Daughter (1980), Diane Keaton in both Reds (1981) and Shoot the Moon (1982), Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment (1983), Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1982), Silkwood (1983) Out of Africa (1985), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Adaptation (2002), Doubt (2008), Julia and Julie (2009) and The Iron Lady (2012), Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream (2000), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013), Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine (2010), Natalie Portman in Jackie (2016) and so many other too numerous to name.
Here are the 10 frontrunners (I think) for the five nominations for Best Actress.
CAREY MULLIGAN IN PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Talked about scorching the earth! In a brilliantly dark performance that is curiously jaunty, Mulligan is nothing less than astonishing as Cassie, as young woman who was raped in college and now keeps a detailed black book on all the men she has got even with. She goes into a bar, pretends to be drunk, is taken home by the man, and the moment they cross a line with her, she is instantly, and terrifyingly sober. Mulligan is truly frightening as a woman burned and hellbent on revenge, not just for herself but for womankind. Like a Harley Quinn made real life, she is bother terrifying yet oddly comic in the blackest way.
FRANCES MCDORMAND IN NOMADLAND
This two-time Academy Award winning Best Actress will go for number three with her superb performance in Nomadland, one of the year’s best films. Fern, plus 60, portrayed by the actress, has suddenly lost everything when the industry in her small town dries up and pulls stakes, essentially killing the town. Having lost her job, her husband and her home, Fern hits the road in her van and becomes a modern-day nomad, a wanderer. In doing so she discovers her inner strengths; she discovers herself as a human being like one she had never known before. McDormand is brilliant in her silences, that fertile mind never ceasing to be in motion. A wonderful performance, though I question how she might have three for Best Actress, and the screen’s greatest actress, Streep, does not?
VIOLA DAVIS IN MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Viola Davis as we have never seen her before, strutting her stuff in a bold, confident performance as Ma Rainey, the mother of blues music in Chicago via the twenties. With gold teeth, her skin shimmering with sweat, her eyes focused on whoever she is speaking too, though she usually speaks down to them, Ma is a stunning creation from one of our greatest actresses. The Academy wants to honor this actress, and this could be the ticket to an overdue Best Actress award. Light years from her wounded wife in Fences (2016) for which she won Best Supporting Actress; her range is apparently limitless.
VANESSA KIRBY IN PIECES OF A WOMAN
Best known to audiences for her work on the first two seasons as Princess Margaret in The Crown in which she was splendid, how great to see Kirby landing a role suited for her gifts. For the first hour of this powerful film, Kirby portrays a woman in the throes of a difficult labor in her home with an uncertain midwife. It must have been exhausting to shoot the sequence, yet the actress creates a shattering portrayal of the agony women go through in childbirth and then the devastation emotionally when the child dies. Kirby is never less than astonishing in the role and commands the screen with a quiet ferocity we cannot take our eyes from.
SIDNEY FLANIGAN IN NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
In an explosively subtle performance, Flanigan is exceptional as a young girl from rural Pennsylvania who finds herself pregnant and unable to abort the fetus without parental consent. Her cousin finds places in New York where they can go for an abortion, so steals some cash from the grocery store where she works, and they board a bus to New York. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong and the evolution of Flanigan’s young girl is deeply moving as we watch her grow up before our eyes. A powerful film placed on the shoulders of this exceptional actress.
SOPHIA LOREN IN THE LIFE AHEAD
It was 1961 when Loren won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Two Women, the first actress to win in a Foreign Language Film, launching her to stardom in North America. Nearly 60 years later she might be in the running for Best Actress again for her lovely, moving performance as an elderly ex-hooker who takes in the wayward and cares for them. Into her charge comes a young boy needing mentoring, needing a parent, a friend, and Loren becomes that person. The film echoes Central Station (1998), the superb film from Walter Salles, but Loren makes this her own with a delicate, deceptively hard-edged performance. At 86 she might be a nominee and there is no sentiment here, she deserves to be among the final five.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER IN FRENCH EXIT
Welcome back to the Oscar race Michelle. Though she deserved a supporting actress nod for White Oleander (2002) it did not come to pass, but make no mistake it should have, just as she should have been nominated for The Age of Innocence (1993) and Batman Returns (1992). Here, as a nearly broke socialite who moves to Paris to live out her last days, she is wonderful. With her are her son, and her cat, who happens to be her reincarnated husband. Both delightful and very sad, she is the glue holding this bizarre film together. So very great to see one of the finest actresses in movies back.
MERYL STREEP IN THE PROM
Twenty one times Streep has been a nominee for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, winning twice (only twice?) for Best Actress and once for Supporting (only once?). Can or should, an actress be nominated for her work in a dreadful film? Maybe. It has happened before, but in this day and age of awareness, could Streep, the most oft nominated actress in cinema history, land a nomination for her performance as the vain actress in The Prom? Being Streep she could indeed, though the Academy did ignore her for Mamma Mia (2008), possibly the worst film of her career. She knocks her big number out of the park and never loses a beat as the arrogant self-serving Broadway star, but man the film is just terrible. Having worked in the theatre a number of years I know people like this, so there is no question as to the realism. These people exist. Streep being Streep could indeed land a nomination which would bring about howls of outrage because she is just not in the running to be there … right?
ELISABETH MOSS IN THE INVISIBLE MAN
If there is an actress pushing 40 who is recognized as brilliant yet has not broken through with the Academy, it must be Elisabeth Moss. Known for her television work on The West Wing, Mad Men, and most recently The Handmaid’s Tale, she was nothing short of astonishing in The Invisible Man. Portraying an abused woman who leaves her bullying partner, she is shocked to begin to believe he did not commit suicide as everyone thinks but found a way to be invisible and ruin her life. Moss is extraordinary, elevating the story in every way. Talk about turning the average into something stunning!
KATE WINSLET IN AMMONITE
For a while Winslet seemed to get a nomination because she was Winslet, the work often did not support the nomination. Frankly she did not deserve to win the Best Actress award she took home for The Reader (2008) but did indeed deserve to win for Revolutionary Road (2008) that very same year. The Golden Globes had the good sense to award her Best Actress for the latter and Best Supporting Actress for the former. She is very good as a Victorian period fossil hunter who falls in love with the young woman, she is charged with essentially babysitting. Flawless acting … again.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.