I know, there aren’t a lot of contenders to rank right now. But there’s nothing wrong with getting ready, right? I’ll keep adding the winners of the Academy Award for Best Actress as they happen and we’ll see what this list looks like by the end of the decade. If you would rather browse completed lists in the meantime, feel free to do so.
First, some notes on how I do this. I will comment on whether or not a win was deserved but worthiness alone cannot impact the ranking. Also, please note that for me, these are fluid lists. As I revisit and rethink the winners, I may decide to move rankings around. My list, my rules.
2. Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
It would be tempting to lob a complaint similar to the one I had against Will Smith, the Best Actor winner for this same year, at Jessica Chastain. That is to say, it would be tempting to say that while Chastain does a great impression of televangelist Tammy Faye Baker, she doesn’t dive deep into the interior. The difference here is that so much of Tammy Faye really was about the surface–and Jessica Chastain really seems to understand that quite well. And there are moments when an almost desperate yearning seems to radiate from her very being, which feels appropriate for the role.
Just like the 2020 Actress race, this was another barnburner. It genuinely felt like any one of the five nominated actresses had a shot at a win (and at different points of the campaign process were favored to take the whole thing). While Penelope Cruz seemed to be surging toward the finish line, it was ultimately Chastain who emerged victoriously.
Should have won in 2021: In my opinion, it should have gone with the nominee whose chances at winning deflated the earliest: Kristen Stewart, who was pivotal to making Spencer work and who was truly revelatory.
1. Frances McDormand, Nomadland (2020)
Best Actress has become one of the best categories in any given Oscar year if you ask me. At no time was this more true than 2020, when there was no frontrunner and any one of the nominees could have easily emerged as the winner. Only one nominee, Vanessa Kirby, got through award season without a major televised award. Even so, all five were easily worthy winners. You could argue that McDormand, who had won her second Oscar a mere three years earlier, got the edge on her competition because she starred in that year’s clear Best Picture winner, Nomadland, which she also produced.
Interestingly, McDormand’s second and third Oscars were for performances that deal with grief, and yet they couldn’t be more different. Three Billboards, which I called a Garbage Movie, is about grief that expresses as rage. Nomadland is much quieter. In it, McDormand settles into life in a van-dwelling community of nomads after losing her husband, her job, and her home in quick succession in the economic collapse of 2008. As she weaves from location to location and job to job, McDormand imbues the film with a natural curiosity and kindness. It’s a master class in subtlety–the kind of performance that doesn’t always catch the Academy’s attention but deserves all the recognition it gets.
Should have won in 2020: Even though I would have been happy with any of the nominees winning, McDormand was and is my choice. Here’s how I made up my mind after a lot of thought: McDormand’s performance is absolutely essential to make Nomadland work. It wouldn’t be anywhere near the movie it is without her delicate, empathetic work.