Is the 2023 Oscars Best Actress Race as Simple as It Seems?

Cate Blanchett in TÁR

Contrary to popular belief, although many think that Cate Blanchett’s name is already etched on the 2023 Oscars’ Best Actress trophy for her towering work in Todd Field’s TÁR (a belief that received a bit more backing this past Friday, when Blanchett won the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Actress award), we’re still – somehow – only in December, so this race is far from over, and there’s sure to be many more twists and turns that await. Yes, Blanchett remains the frontrunner. But is she invulnerable? No. Who could potentially topple her? Well, that’s what we’re about to discuss.

To properly consider who could conceivably take down Cate Blanchett in Best Actress, we have to look at who’s next likeliest to get an Oscar nomination in this field when all is said and done. Though there’s been relentless debate about the makeup of the final field all season, in recent weeks, many predictors and pundits have oddly seemed to settle on a conventional – but credible – consensus five: TÁR‘s Cate Blanchett, Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Michelle Yeoh, The Fabelmans‘ Michelle Williams, Babylon‘s Margot Robbie, and Till‘s Danielle Deadwyler. After Blanchett, it makes sense for Yeoh and Williams to fill out the top three alongside her – both have received their fair share of tribute awards this season (Yeoh earned TIFF’s Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award and the Palm Springs International Film Awards’ International Star Award, while Williams picked up the Gotham Awards’ Performer Tribute), and both lead what many agree to be the top two films in this year’s Best Picture race, Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Fabelmans. These will be two of the most watched movies of the season, and Yeoh and Williams are both well-known and beloved stars (and a four-time prior nominee, in Williams’ case), so they should be safe.

Margot Robbie in Babylon

Next up, despite the fighting over whether Margot Robbie or Danielle Deadwyler are fourth or fifth, I’m gonna give Robbie the edge, at least for now. Yes, the review embargo for Babylon has yet to break (look for full-length thoughts from almost all of Film Twitter™ on Friday, December 16th), and those initial reactions seem to indicate that reception could be pretty divisive, but here’s where I stand: no matter what critics ultimately think of it, essentially every Academy voter is going to watch the new movie from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle starring Oscar winner Brad Pitt and two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie about a critical period in Hollywood history, while Till, unfortunately, runs the risk of being one of the more underseen movies not just in the Best Actress race, but in the 2022-2023 awards season overall. It came and went in theaters, and it’s really only competitive in this one category. Conversely – no matter what you think of its Best Picture prospects – Babylon, in spite of all its division, is still a major crafts contender (and the current frontrunner for many in Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score) alongside Robbie’s Best Actress bid, so it’s likely to be a higher priority for many, further elevating Robbie in this race.

And let’s just mention those prior two nominations of hers – both of which were for films (I, Tonya and Bombshell) that weren’t as big of contenders across-the-board as Babylon – one more time and remind everyone that she remains one of the biggest stars in the biz right now, currently campaigning to high heaven to crack this category. There’s this weird bias that the Internet – and Film Twitter™, in particular – seems to have against both Robbie and Babylon which has only grown ever since the film’s first reactions were more mixed than expected, but let’s take a second to take a step back from all the online squabbling and look at the facts: she’s a Big Star™ doing Big Work™ in Babylon (that some might call the best of her career) and she clearly wants the recognition with how much she’s already putting herself out there on the press tour. If she can come as close as she did to an Oscar nom for Mary Queen of Scots (earning SAG and BAFTA nominations despite that film’s inability to really register elsewhere outside of the crafts categories), there’s little doubt in my mind that voters will still come calling for her here. I wouldn’t call her as much of a “sure thing” as Yeoh and Williams – and certainly not Blanchett – but in the end, I think she’ll still be fine, even if it does worry me to have such a solid “top four” this early on.

Danielle Deadwyler in Till

But, back to Deadwyler. The only reason I think she’s the most vulnerable of this consensus five at the moment is because she’s likely to be her film’s sole nomination – it’s no knock against her the power of her performance which, if you were asking me, should be putting her in a position to win. However, I do think this could be a year like 2020, in which the ultimate consensus five – Nomadland‘s Frances McDormand, Promising Young Woman‘s Carey Mulligan, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Viola Davis, The United States vs. Billie Holiday‘s Andra Day, and Pieces of a Woman‘s Vanessa Kirby – essentially stuck together all season (save for ceremonies like BAFTA, which were juried, or SAG, where Day’s film debuted too late for her to truly contend). And Kirby, whom I see as Deadwyler’s equivalent (since both would be sole nominees for their films), was able to hold tight, even though she was arguably fifth when all was said and done (she was the only nominee who never won a televised award, as even Day, who was also a lone nominee, won the Golden Globe, which elevated her profile a bit).

Deadwyler’s performance, like Kirby’s, could just be so undeniably powerful that it draws attention and acclaim no matter how “small” her film is compared to her competitors, and she, like Kirby, would be a first-time nominee, so there’s not much of a difference in terms of their overall standing in the industry either (but Kirby did win the Volpi Cup for Pieces – something Cate Blanchett nabbed this year for TÁR – so that admittedly gave her an additional advantage). Deadwyler did bounce back from her Indie Spirits snub this past week when she took home the Gotham Award for Outstanding Lead Performance, besting the likes of Blanchett and The Whale‘s Brendan Fraser, but since this was decided by a committee of five voters – and Deadwyler wasn’t there to give a speech – I unfortunately don’t think it affects her chances too much in the long run (though good publicity is always welcome).

Viola Davis in The Woman King

Who’s threatening to take Deadwyler out? I think Empire of Light‘s Olivia Colman and The Woman King‘s Viola Davis are neck-and-neck, and it’s hard to tell who’s ahead of the other right now, as both have equal advantages and disadvantages. Both are Oscar winners and have been additionally nominated multiple times (three times total for Colman, four for Davis), and they’re widely seen as two of the most talented and respected actresses in the business. Colman has the more Oscar-friendly film – a “love letter to cinema” that also tackles timely social issues – and stronger studio backing (underestimate Searchlight at your own risk), but worse reviews (a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes). Davis has the movie with stronger critical and commercial reactions (a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 99% Audience Score and an A+ CinemaScore), but it wasn’t as big a hit at the box office as some of this season’s strongest “populist” pictures (with $92 million worldwide against a $50 million budget, it still hasn’t broke even), it’s courted a bit of controversy (however misguided – and racially-motivated – it may be), and historical action epics aren’t always the Academy’s bread-and-butter these days (for every Gladiator, there’s a The Last Duel).

Still, Davis might get a bit of a leg up if The Woman King really hits big with SAG – I expect it to get an Ensemble nom there as well as a Best Actress nod for its valiant leading lady, Ms. Viola Davis (whom voters absolutely adore) – though I can still see Deadwyler rise above at the end of the day for being in the more Oscar-friendly film and having the more nominated performance overall across all voting bodies. I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s Naomi Ackie remains another wild card, as the film is said to start screening this week, but early trailers and clips haven’t been all that promising; still, you’d be a fool to count out a biopic written by Anthony McCarten, who wrote The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne, Darkest Hour‘s Gary Oldman, and Bohemian Rhapsody‘s Rami Malek all to Oscars (and got nods for The Two Popes‘ Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as well). There’s also other former winners contending like Good Luck to You, Leo Grande‘s Emma Thompson and Causeway‘s Jennifer Lawrence, but they may struggle to gain a foothold due to how small their films’ profiles are (and there’s two-time prior nominee Rooney Mara who’s contending for Women Talking, but she’s less a “real lead” in the film and more a sacrificial lamb so that there’s one less woman contending for that film’s Supporting Actress nominations/wins, though her poignant performance would absolutely deserving of attention here).

Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans

Right now, I see no strong reason to sway from the consensus five – Blanchett, Yeoh, Williams, Robbie, and Deadwyler – and of these five, I think Yeoh and Williams stand the strongest shot of actually challenging Blanchett for the wins at the industry awards. I think Deadwyler will be impacted by being her film’s likely sole nominee, as the last winner to win in spite of that fact was the vastly overdue and formerly nominated Still Alice‘s Julianne Moore, and before that, it was Monster‘s Charlize Theron, who was undergoing a massive transformation. And while I do believe Robbie – who was once seen as the pre-season frontrunner in some circles (I even had her predicted to prevail) – will net a nom in the category at the end of the day, Babylon‘s division will likely keep her from the trophy unfortunately.

Conversely, both Yeoh and Williams will benefit from the growing Best Picture buzz for their films. Williams could either be The Fabelmans‘ second win after Steven Spielberg in Best Director on its path to Best Picture, paralleling Nomadland‘s Best Picture/Best Director/Best Actress path two years ago, or she could be a consolation prize for it alongside Spielberg, like how La La Land still took home Director and Actress (and a few techs) even though it ultimately wasn’t winning the top prize anymore (oh, and no matter whether you think Williams’ performance is “actually supporting” or not, it’s still undoubtedly showy in a way Academy voters will eat up so oh well, she’s a contender). Yeoh, meanwhile, can coattail the growing love for EEAAO that continues to increase by the day (especially given that the film is… essentially a celebration of her entire career at points), and this possibility becomes more likely if she, along with her film, sweeps the SAG Awards, which are the last major televised industry awards this year before Oscar voting opens up. If the love is so overwhelming – and Yeoh gives a speech that’s just so stirring – she could seal the deal in the home stretch.

But, for now, I do think Cate Blanchett remains the frontrunner, especially as she continues to rack up win after win after win after win (and her Volpi Cup looms over this entire race, having also recently been awarded to Best Actress winners Emma Stone and Olivia Colman). Blanchett is simply so revered as an actress across the entire industry and around the entire world for her consummate craft that a legend like this giving what many people deem to be the “best performance of her career” may make her “undeniable” the whole way through. There are valid concerns with TÁR for sure (the film’s coarseness/coldness, for one), but Blanchett, already a two-time Oscar winner, has a “name” that allows her to transcend those critiques and require respect from her peers all the same. As I said at the start of the piece, we’ve still got a lot of race left to run, but for now, it looks like it’s all coming up Cate – unless either of the Michelles have anything to say about it.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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