The Oscar Race is a funny thing. It’s sort of like the notion of the flavor of the month, y’know? For a moment in time, a movie, or an actor, or whatever, will be highly touted and the world will be dead solid certain that this person or film or whatever is going to be the frontrunner for the Best Thing Ever, and no one or nothing can get in its way. This is especially true in the weeks and months leading up to a release, before anyone actually gets to see anything. They — and you know who I mean when I say “They” — prognosticate about how good a person or thing is going to be, and then they either clap themselves on the back for their foresight, or they dismiss their earlier thought and move onto the next.
It happens annually, without fail, and it’s always irritating. When I was still on Twitter, a couple of years back now, I got into it with a guy who runs an Oscar account, chastising him for talking about Oscar movies in April. I mean, seriously, who cares? Can’t we just enjoy the movies and the performances and the artistry and come back around to it after Thanksgiving?
One of the few bright spots about what the pandemic did to the movie business is that the whole Oscar Season thing was pushed back to around Christmas and even then it sort of felt like it was in the background. I heard a few things here and there, but mostly I was able to push it to the background. Maybe part of that is that I was out of the country for the entire month of December, but I know that I never felt overwhelmed by predictions or conversation or anything else. It was just movies coming out on one streaming service or another, or maybe on VOD, and that’s all there was to it.
Of course, “the background” is not “vanished altogether.” And “never felt overwhelmed” isn’t “didn’t notice any at all.” There was certainly some of it out there, and what there was proved to be just as silly as normal. Were any of the projections right? Sure. But there are also plenty of examples of movies and performances that are shunted aside once the buzz wears off. The list is long and far from esteemed. Remember how much people were looking forward to the adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch? Or a few years back, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies? More recently, how about Tenet? This was the year that Christopher Nolan was finally going to break through with the Oscars, right? Then again, maybe not.
Even the predictions they nail can be frustrating because it’s like they have the attention span of a drunk gnat. Right after they got themselves all worked up in a lather about how spectacular Viola Davis was going to be in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, they started looking forward to the next one. And the next after that. And after that. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the nominees, and we’ll get more into it.
They are Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman, Frances McDormand, Nomadland and Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman.
See, Davis’s movie came out first in mid-December, and the buzz about it was enormous. In my opinion, the movie itself wasn’t very good, but both she and her co-star, Chadwick Boseman, were every bit as dynamite as advertised. That didn’t stop Them from immediately looking forward to Mulligan’s movie, coming out a week later, and then, once They saw that, They couldn’t stop talking about Kirby’s work, and then, once They saw how good she was, They couldn’t stop talking about McDormand or Day. (They talked about Sophia Loren there for a while, too, in The Life Ahead, though that obviously didn’t work out. Same with Rosamund Pike in I Care a Lot.) They probably don’t even realize They’re doing it. Or They can’t help themselves. Either way, it’s a sickness.
First and foremost, both Day and Kirby are tremendous in their respective movies, but I think it sort of works against them that their movies either aren’t very good (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), or are otherwise completely forgettable (Pieces of a Woman). Day especially has that air of her nomination being the reward for her work, with no real chance of winning. There’s also the fact that this is the first real on-camera acting she’s ever done, aside from a few short films, a little voice-over work, and a cameo as a nightclub singer in the 2017 biopic Marshall. It doesn’t happen very often that someone is recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on their first time out, and every now and again that person wins (see, for instance, Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls, 2006), but it’s rare. Andra Day is indeed terrific as the legendary singer — it helps that Day is a great singer herself, and a star in the R&B world, not that this necessarily translates to good acting — but, again, the movie isn’t great, and then there’s the fact that she’s not the only nominee playing a legendary singer, and the other one has more acclaim. That doesn’t help, either.
Kirby is in sort of a different situation. Her star has been rising for a while now, after years of smaller supporting roles. Then she snagged the part of Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown (which landed her an Emmy nomination), a cool extended cameo in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and then the female lead of the Fast & Furious spinoff, Hobbs & Shaw. This was sort of the next logical step, taking the lead in an Important Movie that really showcased what she can do as an actress. Make no mistake, she really is tremendous in the film, playing a pregnant woman who has to overcome a horrible tragedy and learn how to deal with loss, especially in the film’s devastating first half-hour, when everything goes horribly wrong. Kirby is only 33 years old (her birthday was Sunday. Happy birthday, Vanessa!), and she will undoubtedly be back here soon, but she’s not going to win this award. Not this year.
I think Frances McDormand was briefly the frontrunner here, and just as with everything she does, she is remarkable in Nomadland. She is in just about every frame of the film, which she spends working almost exclusively with non-actors. Director Chloé Zhao cast people genuinely living the modern nomadic life, and while they’re all really good, there’s something special about an actress who can work with them and make it appear seamless. McDormand has won this award twice already — in 1997 for Fargo, and then again three years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — and not so long ago, I’d have put my money on her winning a third one here. She legitimately deserves it as much as anyone, but I also think her candidacy peaked too early. Even though her movie came out after Davis’s and Mulligan’s, I think that the enthusiasm for the film when it first hit Hulu carried over to her performance and its award chances. But then the awards started to be handed out, and while she was nominated for every major one, she didn’t win any of them.
That’s because, for the most part, they were being won by Carey Mulligan. Up until the SAG Awards happened, I would have thought there was no way she was going to lose. She’s another rising star, has been nominated before (for An Education in 2010), and is as good a young actress as there is working today. She hasn’t done any action movies yet — though that would be pretty cool — but that’s not something to hold against her. As the title character in Promising Young Woman, she plays the dark comedy and the drama well, and when things get especially bleak she still maintains a presence that would be next to impossible for any other actress to pull off. It’s dynamite from the first frame to the last, and it has thus far paid off with nominations in both critics’ circles and the Golden Globes. Now, I am not one to put any faith in the Globes as an Oscar forecaster, especially since Andra Day won the trophy for Best Actress in a Drama, but the SAG Award is different. If she’d won that, I’d say she’s a shoo-in.
But she didn’t. Viola Davis did. The most nominated Black actress in Academy Awards history (this is her fourth, winning her the honor free and clear over Octavia Spencer, with three), and the only Black actress in history to get a second nomination for Best Actress (her first was for The Help in 2012), won the SAG Award, and with that, she threw everything into disarray. The thing is, it’s certainly deserved, as she is magnificent in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but then again she is, like McDormand, pretty much that in every role. She is maybe the best actress in the business, period.
And yet, that flavor of the month thing led me — along with all of Them — to believe that she had sort of passed the lead back to Mulligan. The buzz of Mulligan’s performance, combined with the reception her movie got from both critics and audiences alike, surely would push her ahead of Davis in the race to the podium. But after the SAGs, I’m not so sure.
The common perception is that the winner of the SAG wins the Oscar. It doesn’t always happen, but it is pretty regular. Last year, all four SAG winners took the Oscar, which is the eighth time it’s happened. Other than that, in the 25 years since the SAGs became a thing, 11 times it was three of four, four times it was two of four, and three times it was one of four. It has, I should mention, been a perfect match two of the last three years. Will it be this year?
I’m going to say it’s not. I love Viola Davis, I love her work in the movie, but I happen to believe that more people will watch and love Promising Young Woman than Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, thanks to the former’s nods for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, none of which the latter earned. Remember the Supporting Actress essay? When I talked about Glenn Close losing to Olivia Colman in this race two years ago? I think that’s why Mulligan is going to take it. This is her time.
WHO SHOULD WIN: Carey Mulligan, by the slimmest of margins over Viola Davis and Frances McDormand.
WHO WILL WIN: Carey Mulligan