Why Oscar voters shouldn't forget about these great lead actress performances
If an award-worthy performance is unveiled in March, does it even make a sound?
The raves came in fast and furious for Lupita Nyong'o's dual turn in Jordan Peele's Us upon the film's spring premiere at SXSW, and while the previous cycle's Academy Awards had been handed out just a few weeks prior, Oscar buzz was already building. The film skewed a little commercial and genre-heavy for Hollywood's biggest prize, true, but Nyong'o's transformative, career-redefining performance — playing both a mother of two who's harboring deep secrets, and a villainous doppelgänger who loves a good pair of scissors — felt like the best kind of Oscar bait. Having made her name in Hollywood for her brutally interior work in 12 Years a Slave (for which she won Best Supporting Actress), here she revealed her talents in a totally different, fantastically excessive mode. In her EW review of Us, Leah Greenblatt wrote, "Nyong'o's extraordinary performance(s) almost single-handedly — or double-handedly, really — makes the movie."
The only problem: The movie was released theatrically in March. There's a reason studios and distributors crowd so many of their biggest contenders into the fall season; it's when campaigning informally launches, when categories begin taking shape, when voters start racing around L.A. to catch exclusive screenings and pop in DVDs of those they missed. As September comes to a close, we've learned an enormous amount in the past month about which movies and actors are fit for the long haul, and which won't go the distance. Why else would the Marriage Story team jet around the world, from Venice to Telluride to Toronto, in a little over a week?
Jordan Peele, it bears mentioning, bucked the trend with his brilliant first feature, Get Out: It went on to score nominations for Best Picture and lead actor Daniel Kaluuya, and won Best Original Screenplay, despite hitting theaters in February. But Us, while another huge commercial success, wasn't quite the Zeitgeist phenomenon of its predecessor, and leaned a bit harder into horror-film conventions. And let's just stick with the recent history of Best Actress: Last year, the only represented film not to premiere in the fall was Glenn Close's The Wife, which was pretty close at Aug. 17 — and even that, as we know, likely suffered from the relative distance. In the five years before that — for a total of 25 performances — only two nominations were for films released before fall: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins).
But this year, one hopes the story might change a little bit and that Nyong'o, along with a few others, are remembered going into the season of critics' accolades and precursor nominations. This week sees the U.S. release of Judy, for which Renée Zellweger is being touted — not incorrectly — as the overwhelming Best Actress frontrunner. She's riding great reviews, a comeback narrative, and the kind of inside-showbiz story that voters gravitate toward. But she's also benefiting from what is being presumptively called a weak field — weak, if only because some observers are merely looking at the thin slate to emerge out of the fall festivals. Beyond Zellweger, there's Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, who's terrific in the film if a little outshined by costar Adam Driver, and Cynthia Erivo, whose Harriet is perhaps too underwhelming to take her all the way, good as she is. We haven't seen Charlize Theron (Bombshell) or Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) yet, but for fall premieres, that's about it.
Perhaps it's time to rethink the category this year: More great lead-actress performances than we can list reached theaters before Labor Day. Nyong'o, given the popularity of Us and sheer intensity of her performance, stands the best chance, currently, of sneaking into the final five. But there's also Emmy-winner Elisabeth Moss showing a completely new side of herself as a self-destructive rock star in Her Smell; Julianne Moore at her best since her Oscar-winning Still Alice in the nuanced character study Gloria Bell; and Emma Thompson hitting hilariously high notes as a fading talk-show host in Late Night. Not only are each of these three worthy of inclusion in this (or any) year, but — like Nyong'o — they're awards powerhouses. Voters don't have to look very far here; they know who these women are.
And we'd be remiss if we didn't single out Awkwafina, who proves herself as a powerhouse dramatic actress in The Farewell. The young rapper-comic occupies an interesting space in this discussion. The Farewell ranks among the year's best-reviewed films and appears to be Sundance's most lasting breakout. Each year, the festival yields at least one big Oscar contender, meaning it sticks around as a contender for (at least) a full calendar year: Call Me by Your Name (2018), Manchester by the Sea (2017), Brooklyn (2016), Boyhood and Whiplash (2015), and so on. (This year's Oscars, it's worth noting, was a very rare exception.) The Farewell, also featuring Lulu Wang's beautiful autobiographical script and Shuzhen Zhou's great supporting turn, may very well join that company. But to bring it back around, Awkwafina feels like a fresh, worthy, distinctive choice anyway — even if her movie is already out of theaters. As talk of a stale Best Actress field continues to mount, it feels appropriate to look at what's come and gone to find a little life.