2020 Oscar Category Breakdown: Best Actress

Today is Best Actress, the single most wide open acting category in years. We thought Supporting Actress was gonna be the difficult category this year and that turned into a veritable walk in the park compared to this. The last category I can remember off the top of my head being this wide open was maybe Best Supporting Actor 2012 (between Waltz, Jones, Hoffman, De Niro and Arkin).

We have, for the first time since Best Supporting Actress 2000, a situation where every single precursor has gone to a different nominee. Though whereas in 2000, the fifth nominee (who won without any precursors) wasn’t nominated anywhere else, here, the fifth nominee was. So you’re left with four people who split and the fifth who’s lost everything. Which means you’re either picking who makes the most sense on paper or which precursor feels most impactful. Which means… you’re basically just guessing and hoping for the best.

So let’s just get into the guessing.

Best Actress

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Straightforward category. We had the top four locked all the way through and only the fifth spot was open. But given all the other contenders (Zendaya, Sidney Flanigan, Amy Adams), none of them made as much sense as Andra Day did on a pure performance level. Plus Day won the Globe (her only precursor). So once that happened, you knew she was the logical fifth choice. And so we got the obvious category which, while I think it’s limited in scope given all the incredible female lead performances we had this year, is a solid enough category.

5. Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman — She’s one of two people who were nominated in every precursor category this year and is the only one not to come away with any wins. So with her having lost to every single nominee all the way through the race, I can’t really call her anything other than fifth choice here. Plus there’s that other fact that only 11 Best Actress winners ever were their film’s only nomination, and the only two that’ve happened in the past 25 years (when we’ve had four precursor) were clear winners (Charlize Theron and Julianne Moore). Plus it’s her first nomination and there isn’t some swell of ‘let’s vote for her’ out there. It’s more of a ‘the nomination is the reward’ deal. There’s no real case to be made for her outside of fifth.

4. Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday — She has the Globe, which is generally acknowledged as the ‘lesser’ of the four precursors, even though a lot of eventual winners came from the Globes and possibly only the Globes. But it’s more the fact that she hasn’t had much traction in most of the precursors and the fact that the film has gotten the most mixed reviews on this list and she’s her film’s only nomination, which… as I said for Kirby… has only happened 11 times ever. While I feel like she could snag a few votes from people who don’t like the three choices above her, I’m not sure, statistically, she rates any higher than fourth. Though I might try to sneak her third because…

3. Frances McDormand, Nomadland — She just won 3 years ago for Three Billboards, and that was her second. Are they really gonna give her a third and a third so soon? Meryl doesn’t even have 3 in Best Actress. Jodie Foster was stopped from getting 3. I don’t really see her winning on that alone. There’s a lot of gatekeepers out there who will make that a factor in their decision-making. So, while she does have a BAFTA win and that is a big deal… I feel like I personally think Andra Day has a better shot at winning this category than she does. Only she and Kirby were nominated at BAFTA, so to me what happened was, voters saw the list, saw only two Oscar nominees on it and said, “Which is more likely to actually win there?” And that’s how she won. Could be way wrong on that, but given everything I know about the Oscars and Oscar voters, I can’t see her being the likely winner here. I just can’t. She felt like a fourth choice throughout the entire race until she won BAFTA. I know you have to take it seriously, but I also don’t see them doing it.

2. Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman — She’s only got the BFCA win, but given the new BAFTA voting system and given the general question about normal Golden Globes voting on top of what seems to be really obvious reactionary meddling this year in particular (though again… maybe not), part of me wonders if she would’ve or could’ve won either or both. But I can’t base my decisions on ‘what if’s. As it stands, she’s the person with a precursor who feels the closest thing to a favorite of the four people I’ve mentioned. She felt like a de facto favorite going in, and absent someone blowing her out in the precursors, she still feels like the potential most likely winner here. I still question whether the role or the film might be too ‘difficult’ for most voters. But given the film has Picture, Director and Editing nominations, you have to think they liked it, right? It’s not like Nightcrawler or Gone Girl, which got next to no nominations. To me, pound for pound, she makes the most sense if you just look at everyone having a single precursor apiece and aren’t looking at what the precursor was. But, because we do have to look at everything, I can’t really make her anything more than second choice here.

1. Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — SAG has always been the gold standard in guessing the acting categories. In Best Actress in particular, they’re 19/26 all time (though one of those misses was them giving Kate Winslet Best Supporting Actress for the performance she won the Oscar for, so really it’s 20/26 with an asterisk). So absent Mulligan or anyone else having two precursors to her one, she’s gotta be considered the favorite. Plus, she’s Viola Davis. Everyone loves her. Which both helps her on a pure voting level but also might hurt her when you consider this category just because — she’s almost never lost SAG. Ever. In terms of solo nominations (and not Ensemble nominations), she lost her first nomination for Doubt but has since won every single award she’s been nominated for at SAG. Which includes a win for Best Actress in 2011 for The Help… when she ended up losing the Oscar to Meryl. That weighs very heavily on my mind, aside from the fact that the role itself is very much a supporting role in the film. She’s only here because she’s Viola Davis and her character is in the title of the film. I firmly believe that if she wins, it’s because they wanted to vote for Viola Davis. But that doesn’t preclude her from winning this and honestly, in a year like this, makes as much sense as almost anything else they can do. So I don’t see any reason not to consider her the favorite here, even if my gut keeps bringing me back to Carey Mulligan winning this in the end. Though again… maybe not. Dunno. But right now, going into the ceremony, these feel like the most accurate standings for how each nominee sits in terms of likelihood of winning.

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