A quick dive into Best Actress history as films about women storm the awards race

By Joey Nolfi
September 22, 2017 at 07:55 PM EDT
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Kerry Hayes/Fox Searchlight; Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures; TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

If this year’s Oscar cookie crumbles the way most pundits suggest, we could be looking at a resounding reminder that the future (for the Academy, at least) is indeed female, as the Best Actress race prepares to become one of the most contentious in recent memory, with an overwhelming number of previous winners or nominees (Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Sally Hawkins, Saoirse Ronan, Judi Dench, Frances McDormand, Annette Bening, Jessica Chastain, and Kate Winslet) gunning for a nod. It’s also poised to set a nearly unprecedented standard for the category if each of its nominees appear in films that also have Best Picture traction.

Looking back on Oscar history, however, it’s clear the relationship between Best Actress and Best Picture is one defined by distance. Since 1997, only two Best Actor winners have appeared in films not nominated for Best Picture: Forest Whitaker in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland and Jeff Bridges in 2009’s Crazy Heart. That number quadruples to eight for women. With a greater call for more women in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood at large, what do those statistics mean for the Best Actress race ahead?

First, let’s take a peek at Oscar history

Looking back on the Academy’s 89 prior ceremonies, the first of which recognized films released between 1928 and 1929, the Academy’s highest category for individual pictures has somewhat consistently failed to sync with its most esteemed prize for female performance. A few statistics to consider:

  • Since the first Oscars ceremony, Best Actress has been awarded to a Best Picture winner 11/89 times (12.4 percent)
  • The Best Picture winner has only received a Best Actress nomination 27/89 times (30.3 percent)
  • Only twice has each Best Actress-contending film also been nominated for Best Picture: in 1939 and 1940
  • The Best Actress category has been dominated (meaning at least 3/5 nominees) by films that also contended for Best Picture just 22/89 times (24.7 percent)
  • The most recent Best Actress winner to correspond with a Best Picture victory is Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby, which is also the last Best Picture winner about a female character

How does that set the stage for today’s race?

Between 1997 and 2008, there wasn’t a single year where a majority of Best Actress contenders came from Best Picture nominees. That began to change when the Academy shifted its perspective on its most prestigious category, opening the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10 (and later to a sliding scale between five and 10, based on nominations voting) starting with 2009 — which also happened to be the first ceremony since 1996 to buck the aforementioned statistic. Since then, at least 3/5 Best Actress nominees appeared in Best Picture contenders on four separate occasions. In 2012, Naomi Watts was the only nominated actress whose performance was not from a Best Picture nominee, the first time such a thing had happened since 1977.

The period post-2009 is of utmost relevance to the 2017-18 race, as many voters who decided each subsequent contest are still in the Academy today. And as the Academy continues to push for a more inclusive structure (a diverse crop of 1,779 new members have been invited to join in recent years), Best Actress has slowly regained traction in the Best Picture field.

It’s important to note that since 2007, when it comes to male performances, the Academy tends to favor actors portraying real-life figures. Six of the last 10 Best Actor winners interpreted actual historical figures in their respective films; cut that in half for Best Actress champions. Best Actress nominations also typically come for films that have little traction in other categories, if at all (Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night; Julianne Moore for Still Alice; Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball; Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole; Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl; Charlize Theron for Monster… the list goes on).

Melinda Sue Gordon/Fox Searchlight

Again, that could change this year, as key contenders like Streep (The Post), Stone (Battle of the Sexes), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Dench (Victoria and Abdul), and Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) make headway following strong debuts on the fall festival scene. Robbie perhaps stands to gain the most among a category rife with acting mainstays; her path (for playing controversial ice skating figure Tonya Harding in the Craig Gillespie-directed biopic, which won runner-up for the TIFF People’s Choice Award) as the traditional “lone newcomer” (Ruth Negga, Brie Larson, Felicity Jones, Quvenzhane Wallis, and Rooney Mara come to mind as other young, first-time nominees who occupied the slot in recent years) could be set if Oscar voters embrace the crowd-pleasing film, purchased by a relatively untested distributor, Neon, as the hottest acquisition of Toronto.

Courtesy of TIFF

That said, characters rooted in fiction have made bigger waves on the fall festival circuit than their reality-based counterparts. Hawkins currently leads the pack with 11/21 experts (including EW’s Sara Vilkomerson) slotting her performance in The Shape of Water in the pole position, with McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Chastain (Molly’s Game), and Winslet (Wonder Wheel) generating heat for created characters as well.

The Shape of Water and Three Billboards bounded ahead of the competition in the Best Picture race with stellar reception at Telluride, Venice, and Toronto, and both films are driven by female characters. With Venice’s Golden Lion in the bag for the former and the TIFF People’s Choice honor sitting on the latter’s mantle, these films could be the first since Million Dollar Baby to answer the million dollar question: Can films starring women finally find their way back into the big Oscar picture?