Who’s Ahead in Best Actress?

This weekend saw the (limited) release of Todd Field’s TÁR, which means moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles finally got to experience the excellence of Cate Blanchett’s powerhouse performance that critics have been raving about since the fall festivals. Essentially as soon as the film debuted in Venice, Blanchett became the Best Actress frontrunner (supplanting Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Michelle Yeoh), and over the past month, her position has only been further secured. She’s enjoyed “career-best” rave after rave after rave – which is no small accomplishment for someone with a career as commendable as Cate Blanchett’s – and it even seems as if she could be approaching “undeniable” status with the sheer command she displays over her craft in TÁR, allowing her to operate in an entirely different dimension compared to her fellow contenders.

However, let’s not forget that it is only October after all. Sometimes, an early-year frontrunner is able to remain #1 throughout every phase of awards season (as Will Smith did, just last year), and other times, they can stumble as soon as we reach the televised contenders, with the industry lining up behind another – occasionally more “accessible” – nominee (Kristen Stewart and Jessica Chastain say hello). So while Cate can easily call herself #1 right now, that might not remain the same all the way to March, especially when facing some other very compelling contenders. Let’s not forget that Michelle Yeoh still has a lot of love, as do rising challengers like newcomer Danielle Deadwyler and Ms. Michelle Williams (who, despite her category move, still poses a threat here). Therefore, excluding potential nominees whose category has yet to be confirmed (like the supposedly “supporting” Carey Mulligan and Margot Robbie), here are who I believe to be the top ten contenders for the Best Actress trophy as of today, along with the advantages and disadvantages of their campaigns.

Cate Blanchett – TÁR

Cate Blanchett in TÁR

PROS: Aside from all of the career-best raves I already referenced in the introduction, Cate Blanchett also has one clear advantage above all of the other Best Actress contenders thus far: simply put, she is just widely seen as “the frontrunner” at the moment, with a narrative emerging that this is “her year” (something the posters for TÁR take advantage of quite well, with her last name larger than the film’s title), despite the fact that she’s already won two Oscars. In fact, I don’t think Blanchett’s prior wins hurt her at all. Instead, she has the respect (and talent) of a performer worthy of such a distinction as being a “three-time Oscar winner” (alongside the likes of Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Frances McDormand) especially with a performance like this, where she offers such a full-bodied portrayal of a complex and complicated woman whose story is so rarely shared onscreen. It’s not only one of the best performances of Blanchett’s career, but one of the best performances ever, period.

CONS: “Complex” and “complicated” really undersells the thorniness of Lydia Tár, an abusive and manipulative narcissist whose poor treatment of her peers and “improper” relationships with her students lead to her own downfall over the course of TÁR. Cate Blanchett’s magnetism in the title role is usually enough to keep audiences captivated nevertheless, but still, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that “bad women” rarely win Best Actress Oscars (for every one that does, like Kathy Bates, there are hundreds that don’t, like Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, and Olivia Colman, in recent years). And not only is Lydia quite a prickly person, but TÁR as a whole can be called “cold” or “challenging,” which has some worried that it might be locked out of top categories like Best Picture or Best Director. I’m not ready to go that far yet (I don’t buy the comparisons between this and Spencer, since Todd Field and Cate Blanchett ≠ Pablo Larraín and Kristen Stewart), but I do think it’s something to consider when Cate’s closest competitors play more “personable” parts in less “fierce” features.

Michelle Yeoh – Everything Everywhere All at Once

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

PROS: As mentioned earlier in this piece, Michelle Yeoh was the “de facto frontrunner” in Best Actress prior to Cate Blanchett’s arrival onto the scene, and that love hasn’t gone anywhere just because Blanchett might’ve pulled ahead ever-so-slightly. Yeoh’s campaign feels like a “career coronation” in many ways. The international superstar has never received this much Oscar attention before (though she did come close in 2000 with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and a nomination for her work in Everything Everywhere All at Once is a way to nominate all that Yeoh has offered to art over her four-decades-long career that has spanned genres and countries. Additionally, unlike TÁREverything Everywhere All at Once is not only a relatively “warm” movie, but also a Best Picture frontrunner, with raves from critics and crowds alike. Starring in a film with this fervent a fanbase could boost her considerably.

CONS: For as much as people seem to love Everything Everywhere, we must also acknowledge that this too is an unconventional Oscar contender (a multiversal action extravaganza with butt plug battles?), and additionally, there’s no precedent for a performance like Yeoh’s going all the way to a win – in fact, it’s often hard just for “genre” performances to be nominated. I think the love for Yeoh individually (and the urgency to acknowledge her career) will keep her safe from a snub, but we do have to take into account the fact that this doesn’t quite fit the mold of a “Best Actress winner.” While she does get a few big emotional beats in the film, there’s no “transformative” element to her performance (which often gives contenders in this category a boost, as last year’s winner Jessica Chastain can attest), and for most of the movie, the role is very action-oriented instead of dramatic (with some comedy thrown in as well), which usually isn’t the Academy’s bread-and-butter. There’s a world where EEAAO overperforms so much – and Yeoh is simply so beloved – that she overcomes this, but I’ll remain cautious for a little bit longer.

Danielle Deadwyler – Till

Danielle Deadwyler in Till

PROS: Of my top three at the moment, Danielle Deadwyler easily has the most “Oscar-friendly” role on paper (and in execution). While Cate Blanchett could be “too cold” or Michelle Yeoh could be “too genre,” Danielle Deadwyler plays the emotionally gripping (and extremely baity) part of a grieving parent seeking justice for their child’s death, with several overwhelming outbursts and stirring speeches to showcase her talents. The story of Emmett Till is also – unfortunately – always a timely one, and after 94 years of all white Best Actress winners aside from Halle Berry, you could find that this is the year (and the role) where voters want to finally change that, especially since certain actresses have come so close recently (Viola Davis, twice) that you can tell that the urgency is there.

CONS: Danielle Deadwyler will be a fresh face to almost all of The Academy this season, and while actors have won Oscars relatively early on in their careers from time to time, it’s still quite rare, especially in Best Actress, where honoring one’s “career” usually factors into a winning narrative. Likewise, though Till has been well-received thus far, there’s a very good chance that Deadwyler ends up being the film’s only Oscar nomination when all is said and done, which would lower her chances to upset Blanchett considerably. The last lone nominee in Best Actress to win was Julianne Moore for Still Alice, though she was a sweeper and she benefitted from the “it’s finally her time” boost (and before her, it was Monster‘s Charlize Theron, all the way back in 2003, who had a massive transformation to help her make her case).

Michelle Williams – The Fabelmans

Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans

PROS: Michelle Williams is one of the most “overdue” actresses working today, and in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, she’s said to give one of her best (and biggest and baitiest) performances to date as the emotionally troubled mother of Gabriel LaBelle’s Sammy, who serves as Spielberg’s surrogate here. Additionally, The Fabelmans will not only be one of the most beloved – and widely seen – movies of the season (look no further than its TIFF People’s Choice Award win for evidence), but it’s also the current Best Picture frontrunner, which gives Williams a big boost when it comes to her winning chances. And hey, even if it loses the big prize when all is said and done, that didn’t stop stars like La La Land‘s Emma Stone and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s Frances McDormand from still taking home their trophies, which served as both honors for them alone and “consolation prizes” for their films.

CONS: Williams isn’t a lead in The Fabelmans, plain and simple. The movie belongs for LaBelle, and even though Williams has the largest female role in the film, she’s no more a lead than Patricia Arquette was in Boyhood, or Caitríona Balfe was in Belfast. That can definitely hurt her, as going up against three win-worthy and undeniably lead performances in this Best Actress race from Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, and Danielle Deadwyler will only make Williams’ pale in comparison (for the discrepancy in screen time alone). On occasion, actresses believed to be “supporting” have won lead Oscars (The Hours‘ Nicole Kidman, Walk the Line‘s Reese Witherspoon, The Reader‘s Kate Winslet, The Favourite‘s Olivia Colman), but just as many have not (American Beauty‘s Annette Bening, In America‘s Samantha Morton, The Devil Wears Prada‘s Meryl Streep, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘s Viola Davis), so this is a very risky proposition for Williams.

Olivia Colman – Empire of Light

Olivia Colman in Empire of Light

PROS: She’s Olivia Colman. It’s as simple as that. No matter how mixed the reviews for Empire of Light are, the fact remains that a) the Sam Mendes-helmed love letter to movie theaters is prime Oscar bait and b) Olivia Colman is a living legend in this industry, essentially adored by all. This would be her fourth nomination in just five years, and while that sounds absurd to say, it makes total sense when you look at how fast her star has rose ever since her Oscar-winning performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, which made her one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. Furthermore, she’s said to be doing reliably riveting work in Empire of Light – playing a schizophrenic movie theater manager who starts up a relationship with a new employee 20 years her junior – which will only make her campaign even mightier.

CONS: No matter who you are, if your movie is getting mixed reviews (and you’re not giving a “career-best” performance – which, for all the positive notices, Colman doesn’t seem to be doing here), you’re not a lock. Few actors are that teflon, and while Colman may be on her way there, I still don’t think this role, for this film, is something that we can say is a “sure thing” after it fell flat on its face at the fall festivals, despite how beloved she is. There’s undoubtedly still a path for her, and I’ve had her in and out of my top five for a few weeks now, but unless Empire of Light experiences a massive comeback with the industry awards, she may be on thin ice.

Viola Davis – The Woman King

Viola Davis in The Woman King

PROS: She’s Viola Davis. It’s as simple as that. We’re talking about the most-nominated Black actress in Oscar history here, who also happens to be turning in some of the most compelling work of her career in The Woman King, which she has also led to be a decent-sized hit at the box office, all things considered. Additionally, last time she was up for an Oscar (for 2020’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), she came within spitting distance of winning, showing that the love for Ms. Davis hasn’t died down whatsoever and is still as potent as ever. And while there are other contenders who will make their way up the ranks in the months that follow, Davis has the advantage of being in the “consensus five” at the moment, and many feel comfortable slotting her in for a SAG nomination given how much that voting body adores her specifically (she’s won six of her ten nominations thus far), which would certainly strengthen her campaign.

CONS: Though The Woman King has a path to a Best Picture nomination, it’s far from a sure thing, as a) its nom ceiling isn’t too high (Costume Design seems like the next likeliest bet for it), b) its box office is respectable but not undeniably strong, and c) it will also have to weather some (admittedly “troll”-influenced) controversy over the course of its campaign. And while this is indeed a role that allows Davis to flex her dramatic muscles at times, it’s also a very action-heavy part, which, as mentioned earlier with Michelle Yeoh, isn’t always what The Academy trends towards in the acting categories (and Davis doesn’t have the protection of a Best Picture frontrunner like Yeoh does to still elevate her). And while she is in what many people deem to be the “consensus five” at the moment (Blanchett, Yeoh, Williams, Colman, and Davis), she’s arguably the least safe, as Danielle Deadwyler is on the rise with a more Oscar-friendly movie, along with other more conventional contenders lower on my list.

Naomi Ackie – I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Naomi Ackie in I Wanna Dance with Somebody

PROS: We all know that The Academy loves a biopic, and one starring one of the most famous performers who has ever lived will surely be on their radar, especially if “The Whitney Houston Story” becomes a big hit over the holiday season, thanks to its prime Christmas release date. And though Ackie is a “fresh face,” she’s already starred in the Star Wars franchise, received critical recognition for her work in the third season of Master of Noneand won a British Academy Television Award for The End of the F***ing World. Perhaps all of this has been building up to her “breakout” moment, especially since biopics are often a surefire away to introduce a “new star” to the masses (Rami Malek, Andra Day, and even this year’s Austin Butler).

CONS: Is the movie going to be good? Biopics are horribly hit-or-miss these days (though The Academy does even go for some of the “misses” on occasion as well), and some had poor reactions to I Wanna Dance with Somebody‘s first teaser trailer – though I think we need to see a little bit more before passing final judgment on the final film. Likewise, though some don’t trust Kasi Lemmons to deliver here – since her latest biopic projects Harriet and Self Made did admittedly receive mixed reviews – she still has a decent track record of getting her stars nominated (Cynthia Erivo and Octavia Spencer earned Oscar and Emmy nods, respectively). But will Ackie be too fresh a face – and IWDWS release too late – for her to break into this race?

Emma Thompson – Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

PROS: Five-time Oscar nominee – and two-time winner – Emma Thompson was one of this year’s earliest Best Actress favorites alongside Michelle Yeoh, after her Sundance sex comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande became one of the most acclaimed films of the fest, with most praise being directed towards Thompson’s playful and poignant lead performance in particular. It’s a rare – and almost nonexistent – role for an older woman (where she gets to reclaim her sexuality onscreen and show that she’s not done living just yet), and after coming so close to an Oscar nomination with 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, might this be the part that brings Thompson back after over 25 years? At the very least, she should be able to count on some Golden Globe and BAFTA recognition.

CONS: Always look out if you’re a “lone nominee.” Your performance – and narrative – have better be pretty damn strong to go head-to-head with competitors who hail from more prominent contenders across-the-board, even if you are a “name.” Additionally, because Good Luck to You, Leo Grande comes from Searchlight, will they already have their hands full with both the big Best Picture player The Banshees of Inisherin and their other Best Actress bet, Empire of Light‘s Olivia Colman? Sure, Thompson can likely count on that aforementioned love at the Golden Globes (because of the category splits by genre) and BAFTA (because of “home-court advantage”), but when it comes to the Oscars’ final five, there might be others who have “the full package.”

Jennifer Lawrence – Causeway

Jennifer Lawrence in Causeway

PROS: Jennifer Lawrence is one of the last movie stars we have left, and though she was absent from the industry for a few years there (following 2018’s Red Sparrow), she’s a huge reason why last year’s Don’t Look Up was such a hit Netflix, and let’s be real – she’s still riding the high of her iconic 2012-2015 run, where she headlined The Hunger Games franchise and earned three Oscar noms (and a win!) by starring in three David O. Russell films (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy). This year, she has Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway on deck, which finds Lawrence giving her most internalized and understated performance since 2010’s Winter’s Bone – and receiving some of the best reviews of her career, as well. After Don’t Look Up served as her reintroduction-of-sorts, is Causeway where awards bodies will fully embrace her again?

CONS: Aside from Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence has fared best with awards with her more “bombastic” performances, such as Silver Linings and American Hustle. For as worthy as her work in Causeway is said to be, “subtle” acting can sometimes struggle to connect with the industry (with the rare exception), who gravitate towards “showier” – and more “transformative” – contenders, of which there are many this year. I’ll also have to reference that “lone nominee” argument again, as that applies to Lawrence as well, and when you stack her performance up against those from the top competitors in this category, it’s sadly easy to see how her stirring work will get lost in the shuffle, barring a “save” from the Golden Globes or Critics Choice.

Zoe Kazan – She Said

Zoe Kazan in She Said

PROS: Zoe Kazan has been working her way up in the industry for years now – truly breaking out with 2012’s Rudy Sparks after strong supporting roles in Revolutionary Road and It’s Complicated – even earning Emmy and Critics Choice nods in the past decade for Olive Kitteridge and The Big Sick, respectively. She Said, the adaptation of the 2019 novel of the same name that chronicles New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s efforts to break the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations, provides Kazan with the biggest role in film that she’s ever been given, and even though she technically co-leads with Carey Mulligan, early sources say that Kazan alone will be campaigned in this category (fitting, given that Kantor – the reporter she plays – is the one who got the story in motion), which means she’ll have no internal competition here.

CONS: This is a tough one. Both Kazan and Mulligan are said to give strong performances in She Said, but the early consensus from private screenings is that Mulligan is the film’s better acting bet, which can explain why she may be shifted to a supporting play, where there’s less competition than in lead (and where “category fraud” can make you stand out amongst the other contenders). This seems to suggest that the studio may prioritize Mulligan over Kazan, and given that she’s already a “fresher” face in this year’s field and doesn’t have the benefit of giving some “show-stopping” transformation or something (instead mostly playing it straight as a steadfast journalist), she could fall into this group of “good-but-not-nomination-worthy performances,” when other ladies in the line-up have bigger narratives or roles.

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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