Inside the Oscars' best-actress battle royal

Forget the men: A banner crop of leading ladies, including Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett, rule the Oscars’ deepest and most dynamic race

By Kyle Buchanan

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Published: Fri 23 Dec 2022, 11:16 PM

By their very nature, awards shows are designed to exclude, barring all but a few from the glory of earning a nomination.

Still, this year’s race for the best-actress Oscar is so stacked with contenders that I’m ready to comb the academy bylaws for a workaround. Are five slots really enough to honour a field this formidable? Couldn’t we swipe a few more from the wan best-actor category, at least?

The truth is, even 10 slots would barely scratch the surface of what the best-actress race has to offer. Many of the season’s most acclaimed films, like Tár and Everything Everywhere All at Once, have given career-best signature roles to their leading ladies, although only one woman can collect the Oscar. Meanwhile, a vast array of up-and-comers, actresses playing against type and underdogs worth a second look will be vying simply to make the final five. Here are the women contending in this season’s most exciting category.

The front-runners

In the fictional world of Tár, the conniving conductor played by Cate Blanchett has been showered with an absurd amount of awards. By the end of this season, Blanchett herself may keep pace with her character.

The two-time Oscar winner’s bravura performance — she learned German, orchestra conducting and piano for the role — has netted the most notable prizes so far: In addition to nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards, Blanchett won the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival and a pair of leading trophies from the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The last time Blanchett triumphed with the critics groups on both coasts, she was well on her way to winning her second Oscar, for Blue Jasmine.

If she wins her third, the 53-year-old would be the youngest woman ever to reach that milestone. (Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand and Ingrid Bergman are the only other actresses to have won three Oscars each for their performances, while Katharine Hepburn holds the record with four.) But those laurels could also count against Blanchett in a race where her strongest competitor has never even been nominated and is angling for a historic win.

Michelle Yeoh came close to snagging a supporting-actress nomination for Crazy Rich Asians (2018), but this time, she’s undeniable: The 60-year-old’s leading role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, as an ordinary woman who becomes the multiverse’s last hope, should earn Yeoh her first Oscar nod.

The role shows off everything Yeoh is capable of — including her athleticism, precise character work and sense of humour — and she has teared up in interviews while discussing how rarely a movie like that is offered to an Asian actress. In a recent awards roundtable, Yeoh told the other actresses, “I honestly look at all of you with such envy because you get an opportunity to try all the different roles, but we only get that opportunity maybe once in a long, long time.” Indeed, no Asian woman has ever won best actress, and after 94 ceremonies, the only winner of colour in the category remains Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball.

Can Yeoh pull off a landmark victory? It may help that she has a more sympathetic character arc: While Blanchett’s Lydia Tár compels and confounds in equal measure, Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang learns to drop her guard and let love in. But the competition in this category is fierce, and Blanchett isn’t the only heavyweight she’ll be contending with.

For playing a character based on Steven Spielberg’s mother in The Fabelmans, Michelle Williams is likely to score her fifth Oscar nomination, which puts her behind Glenn Close and Amy Adams as the three living actresses who’ve been nominated the most times without having won. That gives Williams a potent “she’s due” narrative that could siphon votes from both Blanchett and Yeoh; it helps, too, that she gives her all to the part, playing a vivacious woman whose spirit couldn’t be contained by her marriage.

Till star Danielle Deadwyler won the first lead-performance trophy of the season at last month’s Gotham Awards, and she’ll need that momentum to overcome striking snubs from the Independent Spirits and Golden Globes. Still, her emotionally precise performance as the mother of Emmett Till has Oscar-friendly heft, since voters often gravitate toward an actor playing a historical figure.

It’s rarer that Oscar voters make room for an action heroine in the best-actress category: Although Sigourney Weaver earned a nomination for Aliens, Charlize Theron found no traction for Mad Max: Fury Road. But there’s more to what Viola Davis does in The Woman King than just wielding a spear. Her fierce warrior is weary, and her battle yells pack a cathartic punch. If the movie can make it into the best-picture lineup, Davis should be swept in.

Damien Chazelle’s debauched Hollywood dramedy Babylon has earned wildly mixed reviews, but the director helmed two Oscar-winning performances — Emma Stone in La La Land and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash — and that pedigree has pushed Margot Robbie into contention for her role as a fledgling actress convinced of her own star quality. Nominations for I, Tonya and Bombshell prove that voters like Robbie in ambitious-striver mode, although the movie is stuffed so full of characters that she can’t quite dominate the proceedings like some of her best-actress competition.

The women waiting in the wings

Can two Oscar favourites overcome muted streaming launches in a year when theatrical contenders reign supreme? Good Luck to You, Leo Grande hands Emma Thompson a frank showcase role that had Oscar pundits buzzing at January’s Sundance Film Festival, but the film’s quiet June debut on Hulu drew fewer headlines. And despite a best-picture win this year for CODA, Apple TV+ still struggles to get all those Ted Lasso and Severance viewers to watch exclusive movies like Causeway, although the film features a strong, back-to-basics lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence.

At least Blonde managed a streaming debut that got people talking, though the punishing Netflix drama about Marilyn Monroe had some awfully loud detractors. Can its star, Ana de Armas, rise above those pans? She managed a Golden Globe nomination, at least, and Oscar voters love to single out a rising ingénue, but the film will prove a tough sit in a year with plenty of better-received options.

In the first hour of Empire of Light, Olivia Colman plays a movie-theatre worker who opens herself up to an appealing romance, but in the second, the character goes off her meds and the movie goes off the rails. Even if those two halves don’t quite cohere, Colman definitely gets some big moments to play, and the actress has so quickly become an Oscar mainstay (over the past four years, she has been nominated three times and won once) that she should be considered a perennial option for the final five.

Rooney Mara is spirited and sensitive in Women Talking, but the studio’s decision to campaign her as a lead actress is tenuous: In this ensemble drama about conflicted Mennonite women, Mara has scarcely more screen time than Claire Foy or Jessie Buckley, who are being positioned as supporting-actress contenders. Then again, Mara is no stranger to category high jinks: Six years ago, she was nominated as a supporting actress for Carol, even though she was clearly playing that film’s protagonist.

The dark-horse contenders

If social media memes could be counted as accolades, Mia Goth would surely give Blanchett’s haul a run for her money: The young actress’s work in Pearl, in which she plays a farm girl who’d kill for stardom, has Twitter awash in Goth GIFs. Ti West’s Technicolour horror drama isn’t the sort of thing that Oscar voters usually go for, but Goth is fearsomely committed, knocking out a tour de force, eight-minute monologue that’s topped only by a sustained closing shot of the actress smiling until she cries. At the very least, it’d make for one memorable Oscar clip.

I hope that as the membership of the academy grows ever more international, more powerhouse performances will be recognised in languages other than English. In Park Chan-wook’s South Korean noir Decision to Leave, Tang Wei is a terrific femme fatale, while Léa Seydoux delivers her finest work as a single mother in the French drama One Fine Morning. And Oscar voters who regret snubbing Vicky Krieps for Phantom Thread could make it up to her by checking out the royal drama Corsage, in which she plays Empress Elisabeth of Austria with beguiling irreverence.

Comedic actresses are too often undervalued by Oscar voters, but Aubrey Plaza spent 2022 proving she was capable of much more: Fans of her breakout performance in HBO’s The White Lotus should check out her dark, edgy work in the drama Emily the Criminal, which earned nominations from the Gothams and Indie Spirits. And Nope, which topped the Times critic A.O. Scott’s list of the best films of the year, boasts a charismatic star turn by Keke Palmer that recently earned a win from the New York Film Critics Circle, even if the group had to pretend she gave a supporting performance to get her out of the way of Blanchett’s leading win. Normally, I’d discourage that kind of category fraud, but in this crowded year, I sympathise with the desire to bend some rules.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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