Carey Mulligan, Frances McDormand, Viola Davis Stand Out in Strong Crowd of Lead Actresses

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassie” in Emerald Fennel’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN — Courtesy of Focus Features

We have officially entered the last month of Oscar eligibility and an important week for our acting races. The Hollywood Foreign Press will announce their Golden Globe nominees on Wednesday, followed by the Screen Actors Guild on Thursday. The Academy’s largest branch is Acting, therefore SAG is generally the strongest indicator of the direction of the acting and Best Picture races. (With only two recent exceptions, it is rare for a Best Picture winner not to be nominated for SAG’s Cast Ensemble.)

While there are fewer than 100 members who vote for the Golden Globes, the glitz and glam of the season’s first televised awards show gives it a superficial boost among Academy voters. It isn’t a guarantee, but Golden Globe winners tend to find themselves with subsequent Oscar nominations too.

We recently looked at the race for Lead Actor, a category that is on track to be the most diverse lead actor lineup in Oscar history. Similarly, the nominees for Lead Actress could also be an unprecedented wealth of diversity. Of course, we’ve sung this tune before. Just last year, in fact, the Academy passed over a similar opportunity when they ignored Golden Globe winner Awkwafina and SAG nominee Lupita Nyong’o, leaving Cynthia Erivo the only non-white actress in the category. Since Halle Berry became the first Black lead actress to win in 2001, only six actresses who are Black, Indigenous, or women of color have been nominated and none of them have won.

This could be the year it finally changes for real, even though at the moment it feels like a race between two main contenders: two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and one-time nominee Carey Mulligan. Both women shine in their very opposite performances. Mulligan is a bold trauma victim in a candy-colored spider’s web of a dark comedy/thriller. The film — and her performance — are anything but subtle. Mulligan’s Cassie challenges stereotypes and smashes the culture that enables bad men.

In sharp contrast, Frances McDormand is reserved and introspective as Fern, a woman who gives up the dwindling vestiges of her familiar world to go out on the road. Fern’s journey is one of quiet contemplation. She embraces solitude like a warm blanket, building for herself a new life and new experiences. Where Mulligan is audacious, McDormand is quietly powerful.

Viola Davis in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’. — Courtesy of Netflix

Viola Davis is likely to receive her fourth Academy Award nomination this year for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She won the prize for Supporting Actress in 2016’s Fences, another film adaptation of an August Wilson play. Davis is outstanding in the role of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, though the story centers largely on Chadwick Boseman’s Levee during a long day of recording. Logic dictates that if Boseman is a frontrunner to win in Lead Actor, Davis is all but assured a place in this lineup. It’s a very competitive category, though, and her Ma Rainey isn’t as clear cut a lead as the film’s title would suggest.

Netflix has another fierce contender in Vanessa Kirby, whose work in Pieces of a Woman is daring and unlike anything else we’ve seen this year. The film itself has some issues with story and pacing, but Kirby cloaks herself with grief and despair in a performance that is drenched in heartbreaking realism.

Zendaya and John David Washington star in MALCOLM AND MARIE — Courtesy of Netflix

It seems an unlikely scenario, but Netflix could very well find themselves with three nominees this year if Zendaya is able to carry her current popularity over to the Academy. The acting showcase that is Malcolm & Marie could lead to an Oscar nomination for the young actress who just last fall stunned viewers when she won the Emmy for her work in HBO’s Euphoria. This category frequently (though not always) makes room for at least one up-and-coming star and no one fits that bill more than Zendaya.

But, like we said, the year is competitive and there are plenty of others who could just as easily make their way into the Lead Actress lineup. Among other rising stars, Nicole Beharie shines in Miss Juneteenth as a mother working through a challenging relationship with her teenage daughter while also seeking her own next steps in life. Sidney Flannigan navigates challenges far beyond her young age in the abortion-themed drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And Andra Day is mesmerizing as the infamous jazz singer in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

(L-R) Steven Yeun and Yeri Han star in MINARI — Courtesy of A24

A new face to American audiences though not new to the business, Yeri Han is part of a stellar ensemble in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. With her onscreen husband, Steven Yeun, and onscreen mother Youn Yuh-jung emerging as probably nominees in Lead Actor and Supporting Actress, and with Han’s recent Spirit Award nomination, there is a possibility she could garner enough support to join her castmates in April. Especially if Minari does as well overall as fans and A24 hope it will.

And then there are a few veterans hoping to return to the Dolby this year. Sophia Loren returns to the screen in another Netflix title, The Life Ahead. It is her first feature film since Rob Marshall’s Nine a decade ago. Loren was the first actor to win an Oscar for a non-English language film when she won Best Actress for Two Women in 1962. She followed that up three years later with another nomination, and then received an Honorary Oscar in 1991.

Three time nominee Michelle Pfeiffer could make her way back with comedy/drama French Exit. The film itself has received mixed reviews, but Pfeiffer continues to be praised as a standout which could translate to a fourth nomination. Elisabeth Moss, meanwhile, no stranger to Golden Globes and Emmys, was magnificent last year in Josephine Decker’s Shirley. A well-timed campaign could reignite enthusiasm for her fictionalized version of the writer Shirley Jackson and land her a first nod from the Academy.


Courtesy of Netflix

Then we have two other perpetual Oscar nominees from Netflix. Hillbilly Elegy may have been widely panned by critics, but the film and star Amy Adams have received an almost polar opposite reaction from general audiences. Some in the industry really like the film and Adams could surprise with her seventh nomination. And finally, we have learned over the years never to count out the one and only Meryl Streep. This year she stars in The Prom and Let Them All Talk. With 21 nominations and 3 wins to her name, we must never overlook Streep when considering our predictions.

Predicted Nominees

  1. Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman (Focus Features)
  2. Frances McDormand, Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)
  3. Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
  4. Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman (Netflix)
  5. Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie (Netflix)

Which are your favorite performances from Leading Actresses this year? Comment below and share your thoughts and predictions!

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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