2020 Oscar Circuit: Best Actress in a Leading Role

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OSCAR PREDICTIONS: Welcome to our annual “Oscar Circuit” series – our deep dive look into each and every category that will be presented at the upcoming Academy Awards.  Each writer of AwardsCircuit.com will tackle a different category, offering up their own perspectives on those specific races. You can also see the official Oscar Predictions for that particular race by clicking on the link here or at the bottom of each article.  Make sure to include your own predicted winners in the comment section too!

And the Nominees Are:

  • Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”
  • Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story
  • Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”
  • Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”
  • Renée Zelwegger, “Judy”

NOMINEE BREAKDOWN

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

Nominated For: “Harriet” (Focus Features)
Oscar Scene: Breaking down upon realizing her husband remarried after believing Harriet was killed

Like Renée Zelwegger as Judy Garland, this nomination seemed preordained simply based on the iconic figure played. The Academy typically nominates black actors in socially or historically oppressed roles, but Cynthia Erivo manages to rise above this mold. She exudes Tubman’s preternatural abilities with assured vigor and spiritual grace. While the biopic often overuses superhero origin story tropes, Erivo imbues her interpretation of Tubman with earnest resolve whose divine manifest means tirelessly facing death’s door.

Tubman’s abolitionist accomplishments were numerous, yet Erivo refrains from glamorizing these acts of heroism. Instead, she uses the power of her voice and determined countenance to amplify a great woman who liberated her equally resilient race. With “Harriet’s” box office success ascending the value of her nomination, an EGOT achievement within reach, an impressive double-nomination (for “Best Original Song”), and playing a pivotal figure in combating the most evil aspect of American history, Erivo could be the surprise upset to halt Zelwegger’s Oscar coronation.

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber

Nominated for: “Marriage Story” (Netflix)
Oscar Scene: Monologue confession to her divorce lawyer, Nicole Shaw (Laura Dern).

Double-nominee this year for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” the most employed actress in Hollywood finally gets recognized by her peers. While this feat was all but assured given Scarlett Johansson’s celebrity clout, she’s never demonstrated a stronger tie to the craft than in 2019. Portraying a woman exhausted from putting her needs behind her husband’s (Adam Driver), Johansson finally reminds us that she’s more than just a figure of controversy. However, this doesn’t acquit her past problematic statements regarding authentic onscreen representation. The dark cloud of these career missteps may influence the Academy voting process, but the dip in accolade attention for “Marriage Story” stands to be a bigger factor in her presumed loss.

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March

Nominated for: “Little Women” (Sony Pictures)
Oscar Scene: Confiding in her mother about the frustrating pressures placed on women to either fall in love or be deemed a failure

Never before has an actress been so perfectly cast to play a beloved literature protagonist. Saoirse Ronan transcends the laudable iconoclast from page to screen in the most natural manner possible. Every fiber of her being remains true to Jo’s core, mainly because the character is so recognizably modern despite her 19th century trappings. With four nominations under her belt and the second nominee in the category from a “Best Picture” contender, Ronan should carry enough heavyweight advantage to easily secure that elusive Academy Award. Underestimating the staying power of “Little Women” seems to be a theme of the entire awards season, but unfortunately Ronan is treated like a default participant rather than how she deserves to be evaluated: the greatest performance of the lineup. This is a role Ronan was born to play since she is every bit the champion of women diversifying their talents as Jo is.

Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly

Nominated for: “Bombshell” (Lionsgate)
Oscar scene: Reliving the flashbacks of her traumatizing early encounter in Roger Ailes’ office

Charlize Theron once again disappears into a prosthetic-heavy part, this time as former FOX News anchor and sexual harassment victim, Megyn Kelly. From the outset based on how the Academy typically votes, many assumed this would surely elicit Theron’s second Oscar. However, “Bombshell” seems to have swung and missed with audiences, its muted reception a resounding stance against politicized movies having to do with daily media personalities. Theron is in a worse position than Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in last year’s “Vice;” the former political biopic was at least nominated for “Best Picture” along with its director and two additional actors. Worsening her odds is Kelly herself, who continues to tweet insensitive and ignorant remarks that only underscore her flawed character.

Renée Zelwegger as Judy Garland

Nominated for: “Judy” (Roadside Attractions)
Oscar scene: Facing her detracting audience after being booed offstage

An Academy Award is often given from having the best narrative to the podium, not always merited by the best performance of the respective honored year. “Judy’s” hackneyed script holds Renée Zelwegger back from finding even deeper nuance in the depressing final years of the legendary Hollywood star. A lot of the film is predicated on throwing a pity party for a woman larger than life, who is so much greater than the suffering she undergoes. However, with what Zelwegger is given, she radiates the fragility of a performer – still immeasurably talented – who is coming apart because her life is no longer hers to control.

The experience of being taken for granted, abused, and then tossed out by the studio system largely mirrors Zelwegger’s own Tinseltown disappearing act. Zelwegger’s newfound comeback story is the bigger narrative attraction. It paves a way for her peers to acknowledge that her brilliance hasn’t been forgotten. Whether warranted or not, Zelwegger is on a fast-track path to become the new Hillary Swank – an esteemed thespian best known for winning Oscars but not necessarily as a recurring actor for hire. Hopefully the cynicism surrounding Hollywood’s appreciation of its talent pool post-Academy Award will begin to dissipate with Zelwegger’s win.

WILL WIN: Renée Zelwegger, “Judy”

POTENTIAL SHOCKER: Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”

SHOULD WIN: Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”

SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Lupita Nyong’o, “Us”

Who do you believe is winning the “Lead Actress” Oscar? Can the Zelwegger comeback tour be stopped? Let us know in the comments below!