Bottom center photo design by Shawna X
Who’s going to win Best Actress at this year’s Oscars? It’s anyone’s game, and that is the beauty of this phenomenal category. Each of the five nominees celebrated a major win during awards season. Not having a clear frontrunner is a win-win; not only does this make for an unpredictable Oscar night, but it’s also (most importantly) a testament to the nominees’ varied work. These women play wide-ranging characters and deliver extraordinary performances, any of which would be deserving of an Oscar. Let’s take a deeper look into their roles.
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
BAFTA winner for Best Actress
To quote Chloé Zhao, “there are not many people out there as strong as Frances McDormand looking you in the eyes.” In creating the character of Fern, who might be McDormand’s alter ego, Zhao needed someone who would fit in the environment. She needed a good listener…someone who would absorb her surroundings, go with the flow, and also be deeply invested in the people she comes across. Frances McDormand’s screen presence is one of the strongest in film history, and her familiarity works to the film’s benefit as Fern becomes a guide for the audience to explore this nomadic world with. Whether it be working at Amazon, polishing rocks, or running a badlands spa, McDormand lends herself fully to the role. There are some playful moments in the film where the actor and character mesh. “Try McD,” suggests Fern when a receptionist can’t find her name on a camper registration list. McDormand’s performance is a magnificent blend of nuances, powerful stoicism, and surprises.
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
SAG Award winner for Best Actress
The film begins with a lineup out the door of a show in Barnesville, Georgia. Ma Rainey is introduced mid performance. As Ma states later on in the film, what counts most for her is the voice inside, not what people think of her. It’s a wonderful choice to establish this character on stage, focusing on the power of her voice, which Viola Davis embodies so wonderfully. Davis gives a brilliantly complex performance. Easily one of the most talented actors working today, she pours her heart into Ma Rainey and delivers with such fascinating embodiment. It’s a layered performance that makes you want to spend more time discovering Ma. Davis opens a window to compelling dynamics and brings an immaculate level of detail to exploring her character.
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Critics Choice Award winner for Best Actress
On board with writer-director Emerald Fennell every step of the way is the star of Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan. Mulligan delivers a tour de force that will be eagerly revisited for years to come. She’s outstanding in an immersive and harrowing way, as she portrays Cassie with a haunting truthfulness that is heartbreaking. Her acute ability to embody all the candy coated tonal shifts and also maintain a grounded approach is remarkable to watch. She carries the film powerfully, and shares compelling screen time with a supporting cast of characters who mostly represent a societal smoke screen of sinister behaviour and toxic misogyny.
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Golden Globe winner for Best Actress
For her passionate first lead acting role, musician Andra Day explores another musician in the legendary Billie Holiday. Even while the film itself does not nearly match the performer’s commitment, Day delivers astonishing work and shines above the material. She channels a remarkable level of charisma, commitment, and presence in every scene. Day is the shining star of this film; her stunning vocals and the overall transformative quality she brings to the role are a winning combination. She exudes an outstanding laser focus and carries the entire film on her shoulders.
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
Volpi Cup winner for Best Actress
With an unrelenting focus on moments of discomfort, and an absolutely draining first act, the film has an unwavering emotional charge. Vanessa Kirby is the glue holding all the fragments together with a knock-out performance that is soul-stirring beyond the screen. It’s a performance that will linger for a long time. There’s one striking scene, more of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, of Martha sitting on her sofa while Sean proposes a road trip to Seattle. The two just had a conflict about their baby’s room. He’s talking in the background, promising how good Seattle would be for them, while she pulls a mimicking face. It’s a testament to Kirby’s skill that she’s given such a lived-in portrayal full of remarkable detail. What remains the key piece of this film, from beginning to end, is the powerhouse performance by Vanessa Kirby.