Category Circuit: Previewing This Year’s Best Actress Race at the Oscars

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We’re still many moons away from the Academy Awards, but the Best Actress awards conversation waits for no man or beast. There are already several strong contenders that have emerged during the first seven months of the year. The biggest question will ultimately be whether the actresses in films that have already come out will have the staying power to see them through a traditionally Oscar-heavy autumn season.

There’s also the looming presence of the unknowable future: some films and actresses are included in the Best Actress conversation based on their perceived strength despite not being released yet. Only time will tell if they end up making the right connection with Oscar voters necessary to secure a nomination.

The Ingenues

Traditionally, the Best Actress category has been quite friendly to young actresses, especially compared to the Best Actor category. 32 actresses under 30 have won for Best Actress, whereas Adrien Brody in “The Pianist” remains the sole Best Actor winner under 30. It’s not uncommon to see women sweep in and dominate this category very early on in their career; recent years have seen Emma Stone, Brie Larson, and Jennifer Lawrence all walk away with the award. Four women have won Best Actress for their very first feature film, but no debut performance has ever won Best Actor.

This year, there’s an active roster of young Best Actress contenders who are stars on the rise. Awkwafina, known primarily for her comedic work as the sidekick of Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians,” puts in an emotionally honest, career-defining performance in “The Farewell,” a tremendous dramedy that has been wooing audiences everywhere it goes. There’s also Honor Swinton-Byrne’s wide-eyed, deeply resonant performance in “The Souvenir,” which has been a favorite of critics since it premiered at Sundance.

Although “Harriet” won’t be released until November, the Harriet Tubman biopic stars Cynthia Erivo, who dominated 2018 with scene-stealing performances in “Bad Times at the El Royale” and “Widows,” and has been generating serious awards buzz. There’s also significant potential for Jodie Turner-Smith, who will be starring alongside Daniel Kaluuya in the Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime drama “Queen & Slim.”

The Veterans

Every year, there’s usually a place among the list of nominees for actors who have either been nominated or won an Oscar previously. While there are certainly plenty of examples of one-hit wonders who strike gold in a single film and then never get another shot at the big stage, there are also the Oscar darlings who turn up on the regular. A quick reminder that Meryl Streep has been nominated 21 times, 17 in the Best Actress category alone.

If there are two things the Academy likes, they’re biopics about one of their own and a good comeback story. That’s why it seems very likely Renee Zellweger, who won an Oscar for “Cold Mountain” back in 2003 but ended up taking a six-year hiatus and has only recently returned to acting, should get some attention for her work as Judy Garland in “Judy.” Julianne Moore won a Best Actress Oscar in 2014 for “Still Alice” and has been receiving positive reviews for her performance in “Gloria Bell,” although the film’s very limited release may temper its Oscar expectations.

It feels a little ridiculous to be saying that 25-year-old actress Saoirse Ronan deserves an Oscar by virtue of her impressive body of work, but arguably she does. And depending on how “Little Women” shakes out, she might earn one. Cate Blanchett, professional chameleon, and two-time Oscar winner is on our radar for her off-kilter yet somehow aspirational performance in “Where’d You Go Bernadette?”

Although space movies have a somewhat shaky track record at the Oscars, Natalie Portman certainly stands a chance with “Lucy in the Sky.” And Meryl Streep is starring in “The Laundromat” this year, a based-on-a-true-story political drama about the Panama Papers, so you can’t rule her out.

The Wild Cards

Toni Collette walked so that Florence Pugh could run. We’re in a very critically palatable era of horror cinema at the moment, and having Collette in the conversation during awards season last year for “Hereditary” really opens that door for a genre that has traditionally been ignored by the major award shows. Florence Pugh puts in a soul-shattering performance in “Midsommar” as an anxious, deeply traumatized girl with a terrible boyfriend on a bad (summer) trip.

In a similar vein, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in “Us” is both hauntingly balletic and deeply disturbing. Both could conceivably turn up on the final list of nominees — their only real barriers are the last vestiges of snobbery deriding the inclusion of horror films at the Oscars and, in the case of “Us”, whether voters will remember Nyong’o’s performance nearly a year after its March release date.

What are your Best Actress predictions? Tell us in the comments!

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