A Guide to the 2019 Best Actress Oscar Race

If you follow this blog at all, you know that I am a certified Academy Awards junkie. I usually only do rankings of the winners, but this year I thought it would be fun to look more closely at the nominees for the biggest categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor) in advance of the ceremony.

First up, let’s look at the Best Actress nominees, because this is a great category.

The Nominees

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma

So much of Roma, a quiet, introspective examination of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood in Mexico, depends on its central character: Cleo, an indigenous woman who works as a live-in maid and nanny to a middle-class family in Mexico City (based on the woman who helped raise Cuaron and his siblings). Aparicio is perfectly matched with the film itself. She is quiet, introspective, careful not to show too much of what’s going on inside her, and achingly sublime. By the end of the movie, she’s sold you on everything Cuaron is doing and she breaks your heart into pieces–which makes it all the more remarkable that this film is Aparicio’s debut.

It’s not a showy performance, and showy performances always get the edge, but it’s perhaps the most perfect match of talent, director, and vision among the nominees.

Glenn Close in The Wife

Glenn Close, The Wife

The Wife generated Best Actress buzz for Glenn Close when it was released in August (after being held for a year by Sony in order to help with the film’s Oscar chances), but it quickly faded into the background amid middling reviews. Close herself managed to stay in the conversation thanks to some deft campaigning that reminded audiences and voters that although Close has given many classic performances, she has never won an Oscar.

Her fortunes changed at the Golden Globes, when Close gave a truly wonderful acceptance speech that vaulted her back into the conversation and gave her frontrunner status. There are some, however, who begrudge the narrative that Close deserves to win in order to correct past errors (in my alternate Oscar reality, Close would already have an Oscar).

So I was prepared to dislike The Wife when I saw it, and I was shocked to discover that not only did I like it, I think Close is magnificent in it. She plays a wife who gave up her dreams of being an author in order to support her husband’s career. When he wins the Nobel Prize for literature, decades of carefully withheld resentments and disappointments threaten to come out. Part of why this performance is so successful is that Close manages to hint at her character’s internal life without contradicting the careful facade she’s spent decades establishing. It’s wonderful work from an actress who knows exactly what she’s doing.

Olivia Colman in The Favourite

Olivia Colman, The Favourite

The difficulty with The Favourite is that three actresses give wonderful performances in it, which crowds the field quite a bit. And although all three actresses are co-leads, Fox Searchlight was faced with a dilemma about how to campaign them so they didn’t split their own votes. There was some thought that Olivia Colman would be placed in the Supporting Actress category (you could definitely make an argument that her performance is the smallest of the three), but in the end it was decided that she would compete as the leading actress while Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz would both be submitted as supporting performances.

Playing Queen Anne, a vainglorious monarch who doesn’t quite have the head for ruling even though she loves the perks and the power, Colman manages to be both sharply funny and simultaneously sad. Her Anne is mean-spirited, vain, and spoiled but also profoundly sad, lonely, and full of longing. Colman walks these lines with great skill.

Lady Gaga in A Star is Born

Lady Gaga, A Star is Born

Lady Gaga’s performance as Ally, a star singer on the rise (with a famous love interest on a downswing) stands out among this crowd because Gaga makes Ally so refreshingly down to earth. Her early insecurities don’t feel exaggerated like, say, Emma Stone’s infomercial performance in La La Land. She’s just a regular girl with talent who finds the strength to go after her dreams.

Despite that, I must admit that this is my least favorite of the nominees. Gaga reveals great, charming skill as an actress and she executes her part very well, but she doesn’t do anything on the scale of her fellow nominees. My ultimate measuring stick is to ask myself if anyone else could have done just as well in a performance, and Gaga’s is the only one where I feel certain another actress could have taken over.

Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

I do think McCarthy is underrated as an actress (partially because she tends to default to predictable performances and movies for a comedic actress), but when she gets material that’s up to the task, she’s excellent. She does wonderfully unexpected things in Bridesmaids, and she brought sharply observed pathos to her portrayal of Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a departure from her usual films but it also feels like a perfect bit of casting.

McCarthy plays Lee Israel, an alcoholic writer who resorts to forgery when the publishing world spits her out. Interviews with McCarthy show a wonderful empathy and understanding for her character. She does great things in the movie–managing to capture repressed anger, repressed sadness, and both exhaustion and mania. I wouldn’t give her the prize but I absolutely believe McCarthy deserves to be in this field.

Should Win/Will Win

Of the nominees, I would vote for Olivia Colman. Her humor and sadness are the most delicate balancing act among the nominees–and they give The Favourite the depth it needed in order to land properly.

But out here in the real world, it looks like a two-way race between Lady Gaga and Glenn Close, with Close in the lead for the win.

My Personal Nominations

I haven’t seen Julia Roberts in Ben is Back yet, but she would probably be my contender to replace Lady Gaga in this field. Viola Davis comes close for Widows, but I’m okay leaving her out given this year’s crowded field of actresses. Emily Blunt was a delight in Mary Poppins Returns, but I’m okay leaving her out. Many people are bullish on Toni Collette in Hereditary but… I am not.

Ultimately, if you swap Gaga for Roberts, I think we’re there.

Up next: A Guide to the 2019 Best Actor Nominees

2019 Best Actress Oscar Nominees

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