Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:
Today, Lisa Leaheey of Critical Critics is here to look at the nominees for Best Actress.
Critical Critic LisaPas here to give you an overview of the contenders for the 2021 Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role. As we well know, this is a category stocked with some of the most legendary winners in the business, including Jane Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jessica Lange, Helen Mirren, Kathy Bates, and the incomparable Meryl Streep. This year’s list of nominees brings together some of the most remarkable actresses of our age, and frankly, they’re all spectacular talents. But as Connor MacLeod famously reminded us, “There can be only one.” Let’s get to the nominees, shall we?
To begin, I’ll honor my home state of Rhode Island by highlighting one of its most transcendent natives – the incomparable Viola Davis. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Davis plays eponymous blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who refuses to loosen her grip on any control she has. She is fearless and feisty, and Davis fully disappears into the role; she is truly electric on screen in Rainey’s emotional blend of wrath and indignance. Davis has been nominated twice for Actress in a Supporting Role (winning for her powerhouse performance as Rose Maxon in Fences), and twice now for Actress in a Leading Role. She has already won accolades from the Black Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Indie Critics, and the Screen Actors Guild; will this be her year for that Leading Lady Oscar?
Next, we’ll swing from the blues to jazz, and Andra Day’s embodiment of legend Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Winner of the African-American Critics’ Association Best Actress award and this year’s Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Day bursts forth visually and aurally in her screen debut. Lady Day’s turmoil flows through Audra Day’s eyes and voice, and she truly is the sole shining star of the whole affair. The movie itself is clunky and underwhelming, but it’s certain this won’t be the last we hear (or see) of the electric Ms. Day.
Vanessa Kirby’s performance in Pieces of a Woman is the sole nomination for the film, which follows the agonizing experience of a couple enduring an unspeakable loss. Supported by Ellen Burstyn (whose name should have been called for Actress in a Supporting Role, but I digress) and Shia LaBeouf, Kirby’s visceral anguish and gut-wrenching grief anchor the film through an unimaginably painful eight months. As Martha, Kirby shifts between catatonia, despair, and fury, and her desperate attempts to continue living after such a tragedy elevate a film that struggles in a number of other ways. We’re not simply watching Martha’s torment; we’re feeling it ourselves, and that skilled provocation is why Kirby absolutely has earned her nomination.
Continuing down the road of emotional isolation, we arrive at the nomination of 2-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, whose quiet performance as Fern contrasts some of the louder, more aggressive roles in this category. In Nomadland, Fern is a self-reflective, private soul who has lost everything in the Recession, and travels the country in her van, joining other nomads in makeshift communities that are as malleable as amoebas. People come, go, and come back again as Fern navigates her “houseless” life of temporary work and arm’s-length friendships; McDormand excels at bringing characters like Fern to life, complex women who seek to control the world around them, yet know full well that it’s not possible. She is a woman who has faced adversity and has come out the other side with her own wisdom on life; she will not give over control to anyone. McDormand has already been recognized by the BAFTAs, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, among others, and she is a serious frontrunner for this category.
Finally, we arrive at the final nominated performance for the category: Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a med school dropout who spends her days working as a barista and her nights baiting “good guys” into the potential for a one-night stand with a young woman who’s had too much to drink. Over the course of a number of “dates,” Promising Young Woman’s Cassie leans, lurches, and laughs her way into the apartments of numerous men who promise they’re just checking in on her to ensure her safety. Just as these individuals are about to engage in sexual assault of an inebriated young woman, Cassie reveals her sobriety and jolts them out of their malicious intents. Mulligan’s performance of a woman seeking revenge for a dear lost friend is magnetic; she is simultaneously coy, devious, aloof, sharp, and jaded, and it takes only a look to wrap any man around her little finger. Once nominated in this category for her performance in An Education, Mulligan emerges with her best shot yet for taking home an Academy Award. Already recognized by the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Mulligan is another frontrunner for the top honor.
So who will win? As amazing as Andra Day and Vanessa Kirby are in their respective roles, I feel they’ll be edged out by Davis, McDormand, and Mulligan, all three of whom have been nominated before. This would be Mulligan’s first win, whereas Davis and McDormand have delivered acceptance speeches in the past. Davis truly does disappear into her role as Ma Rainey, but I think the Academy will narrow down to Fern or Cassie. Fern is far more understated than Cassie, and certainly leaves far less havoc in her tracks. Personally, I’m pulling for Carey Mulligan for this category. Comparing the two, McDormand is more subtle this year, and while I believe Nomadland will be bringing home a number of other statuettes, Actress in a Leading Role won’t be one of them. McDormand’s Fern is frequently overshadowed by the non-actor nomads who round out the cast of her film, but Cassie? You can’t tear your eyes away from her, a common experience for anyone familiar with Mulligan’s work. Her wily, vengeful Cassie is a character no one will forget anytime soon, and it’s my assertion she will be rewarded for her talents on Oscar night.