Out-performing ‘the boys’: how the Oscars’ best actress contenders rate this yearApril 23, 2021
Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin stirred up a hornet’s nest seven years ago when he claimed that the winner of best actor at the Academy Awards routinely had to clear “a much higher bar” than the winner of best actress.
The creator of The West Wing who won an Oscar for The Social Network said Cate Blanchett gave a terrific performance to win for Blue Jasmine but “nothing close to the degree of difficulty for any of the five best actor nominees” that year.
Terrific performance: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.Credit:Focus
In an email leaked by the hack on Sony Pictures, Sorkin said Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook for doing “what a professional actress is supposed to be able to do”.
And while Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep could “play with the boys”, Sorkin said there were not many tour-de-force roles for women. It was tough talk that sounds strangely old-fashioned.
The five women nominated for best actress this year outperform what Sorkin called “the boys”. And you could add another one: Zendaya, who excelled as a former drug addict and actress in Malcolm & Marie.
Only Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep can “play with the boys”: Aaron Sorkin.Credit:AP
Favourite to win best actor on Monday is the late Chadwick Boseman, who plays an ambitious and cocky jazz trumpeter driven to despair in a racist music industry in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
In the two other strongest performances, Anthony Hopkins is an elderly man struggling with dementia in The Father and Riz Ahmed is a rock drummer and former addict who has to accept deafness in Sound of Metal.
But with Hollywood inching towards being more inclusive – sensing financial opportunities, responding to fury over lack of representation with more powerful producers emerging from marginalised groups – there seem to be more roles for women that are rich, complex and human.
This year’s Oscars suggests that streaming services are contributing to more female and more African-American directors telling stories they care about. Here’s how the nominees rate …
ANDRA DAY IN THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY
A singer in her first major movie role, Day plays heroin-addicted, beaten-up, FBI-hounded jazz singer and activist Billie Holiday. She swears, she’s a haunted soul in jail, she goes nude without vanity and she performs the classic Strange Fruit and other songs convincingly. In preparation, Day lost 17kgs and took up smoking and drinking gin to get the right “gravel” in her voice.
Why she will win: It’s a brave and complex portrait of a complicated woman.
Why she won’t: The movie is not as widely loved as the performance.
Andra Day in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.Credit:Paramount Pictures
VIOLA DAVIS IN MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
An Oscar winner for Fences and previous nominee for The Help and Doubt, Davis is unrecognisable as world weary, bossy, sexually-ambivalent blues singer Ma Rainey – a survivor in the 1920s racist music industry. As in Fences, she plays a fierce woman in an adaptation of an August Wilson play.
Why she will win: The compelling transformation.
Why she won’t: The movie often still feels like a play.
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.Credit:AP
FRANCES MCDORMAND IN NOMADLAND
A two-time Oscar winner for Fargo and Three Billboards who also has a nomination for producing Nomadland this year, McDormand plays widowed Fern, who has to take itinerant jobs across middle America to stay alive. Acting opposite real-life nomads, she brings a quiet dignity to a woman finding her own path, and plays a nude scene without vanity.
Why she will win: Her warm humanity in a challenging film to make, travelling across the country.
Why she won’t: It’s a more understated performance than whoever wins.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland.Credit:20th Century Studios
CAREY MULLIGAN IN PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
A former nominee for An Education, Mulligan plays a feisty, troubled former medical student who confronts toxic male behaviour – firstly in bars then by seeking revenge on her best friend’s rapist. She carries off a complicated character – sassy waitress, angry force of nature – as the movie switches from savage black comedy to dark thriller.
Why she will win: She has made the character a #TimesUp icon.
Why she won’t: It’s a more comedic performance than whoever wins.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.Credit:Focus Features
VANESSA KIRBY IN PIECES OF A WOMAN
A first-time nominee best-known for playing Princess Margaret in The Crown, Kirby plays Martha, a Boston woman whose life turns dark when she loses a baby. In a movie with a loose semi-improvised feel, she is in close-up for a 24-minute birth scene. Then Kirby holds down extreme emotions as her partner and mother break under the strain, and Martha works towards acceptance.
Why she will win: Intensity under pressure.
Why she won’t: It’s an odd, freewheeling movie.
Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman.Credit:Netflix
THE LIKELY WINNER
Performances as real-life singers with troubled lives always play well with Oscar voters – witness Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf – so either Viola Davis or Andra Day. But anyone would deserve it this year.
The Academy Awards are on Monday.
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