OCTOBER 18, 2017
For years, it has been traditional that the hottest race for the Academy Awards is for Best Actor. This year? Forget it. All of the action is with the women. To fill a Top 10 list was incredibly easy (I could have included at least 5 more contenders), so whichever 5 actresses make it into the finals, they will have definitely earned it. Let’s look at the contenders:
JESSICA CHASTAIN (“Molly’s Game”) — Chastain has come this close to winning the Oscar in 2012 for “The Help” and 2013 for “Zero Dark Thirty,” but she may have another chance this year in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut in which she plays Molly Bloom, a real-life player who ran an underground poker empire that catered to Hollywood celebrities, athletes, business tycoons and, most significantly, the Russian mob. Early reviews indicate that Chastain simply gets ahold of this powerful woman’s story and runs with it, exactly what we would expect from an actress of her caliber.
JUDI DENCH (“Victoria & Abdul”) — Oscar voters adore Dame Judi Dench, having previously nominated her seven times for the Oscar, with one win in 1998 for “Shakespeare in Love.” With her return to the role of Queen Victoria, which she first took on in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown,” that resulted in her first Oscar nomination, Dench finds herself once again in a big art-house hit that may already have been seen by most members of the Academy’s acting branch. This year shapes up to be the most competitive Best Actress race in years, so Dench may be on the bubble in terms of a nomination. But, given her pedigree, I would not bet against her.
SALLY HAWKINS (“The Shape of Water”) — Hawkins is in the Oscar club already thanks to her 2013 nomination for “Blue Jasmine,” and a Best Actress nomination seems almost assured in this Guillermo del Toro fantasy. Hawkins plays Elisa, a deaf mute janitor at a government laboratory during the Cold War who finds herself coming face to face with a creature (who is said to resemble The Creature From the Black Lagoon) and is even more surprised to find herself falling in love with the creature. In a very tight Best Actress race, Hawkins would have to be considered one of the front runners.
NICOLE KIDMAN (“The Beguiled”) — Although the June release date of “The Beguiled” might hamper its Oscar chances, I have to say that Kidman’s performance as Martha Farnsworth, who heads up a girls school in Virginia during the Civil War, is one of her best ever. The balance with which she has to deal her feelings for Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) of the Union Army is fascinating to watch Kidman handle — McBurney is the enemy after all, but he’s so attractive…– lends a terrific ambivalence to her performance and makes her a strong possibility for her fifth Oscar nomination.
FRANCES McDORMAND (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) — If you’ve ever seen the redband trailer for “Three Billboards,” you will no doubt be struck by the skill displayed by Frances McDormand, who plays the mother of a teenage girl who was raped and set on fire and now tries to shame the Ebbing police department into solving her murder. Having already won for 1996’s “Fargo,” McDormand is no stranger to Oscar, but her fierce Mildred Hayes is potentially an iconic performance. I don’t want to say that McDormand is a front runner yet, but her competitors are really going to have to step up to the plate to top this performance.
MARGOT ROBBIE (“I, Tonya”) — Yes, that Tonya. Margot Robbie stars as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, who arranged a hit on the knees of her rival Nancy Kerrigan, and from reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival, Robbie doesn’t enact Harding as a joke, but instead she sees her a a three-dimensional person who, from a young age, knew that the deck was stacked against her and did her best to plant her own flag in the figure skating world, despite those who said that someone from her lower middle-class background couldn’t make it in skating.
SAOIRSE RONAN (“Lady Bird”) — Ronan who, at age 23, has already earned 2 Academy Award nominations, may be on her way to a third as the heroine of Greta Gerwig’s new movie as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, who is traveling with her disapproving mother (Emmy and Tony winner Laurie Metcalf) on a tour of potential colleges. The rest of “Lady Bird” deals with Christine’s senior year, which is not unlike any of our high-school senior year experiences. Gerwig is said to be a sensitive director, and Ronan, who has shown in “Brooklyn” and “Atonement” that she is up for digging inside a character, which she is said to do here. Stay tuned.
EMMA STONE (“Battle of the Sexes”) — Stone, the current reigning champion in this category (“La La Land”) may be back for the second straight year for her depiction of tennis legend Billie Jean King, who, while being challenged for a circus-like exhibition match with Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), is having to grapple with her own coming out, realizing at long last that she is gay. How Stone handles these scenes is sensitive while making them perfectly understandable. It’s a terrific performance, and while the film’s less-than-earth-shaking box office may hold her back, a nomination is incredibly well-earned.
MERYL STREEP — (“The Post”) — Meryl is the great unknown in the race — Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is still being edited for all we know — but with 19 Oscar nominations under her belt, Streep has to be taken into consideration, particularly because she is playing the powerful Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, where she and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) had to decide whether or not to risk publishing the Pentagon Papers, which would put a political bullseye on The Post. Whether or not Streep is an Oscar contender can only be determined by early screenings of the film, but I for one can’t wait.
KATE WINSLET (“Wonder Wheel”) — It’s been a while since we’ve seen Kate Winslet in a film, but she’s back in Woody Allen’s latest, “Wonder Wheel.” From all reports from the New York Film Festival where “Wonder Wheel” premiered, Allen’s new film is very much in the vein of his “Blue Jasmine,” with a charismatic female performance at the center of a story about dissatisfaction with life. Winslet plays Ginny, a former actress who is now working as a waitress in a clam house and distressed because of her lot in life. Set in 1950s Coney Island (a favorite motif of Allen’s), “Wonder Wheel” captures folks who, while living near a park of dreams, have to deal with a reality that is less a dream than a nightmare.