Oscar Deep Dive: Actress in a Leading Role

NOMINEES: Cynthia Erivo, Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson, Saoirse Ronan, Renée Zellweger


The Short Take

Renée Zellweger is going to win her second Academy Award this year for her performance as Judy Garland in Judy. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when exactly these things happen, but somewhere along the way, the Best Actress in a Leading Role competition became a foregone conclusion. 

My best guess is that it was during the roughly two weeks in September between the 10th and 25th. First, on September 10th, Judy received a thundering ovation after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which Zellweger broke down on stage in the face of such an outpouring of love. Buzz grew, and reached an explosive level when Kyle Buchanan penned a glowing feature in The New York Times released on September 25th that traced Zellweger’s career and personality. It stopped just short of officially endorsing her for the award. Zellweger is quite good in a movie that never lives up in full to Garland’s towering legend. It is a tortured and shattered performance of a woman coming apart. In other words, it is everything the Academy loves: a great performance that is also a dynamic physical transformation into a beloved historical figure. 

There is a minute chance that someone swoops in to win the award in the same fashion that Olivia Colman surprised everyone by beating Glenn Close out last year, but Zellweger has won every prerequisite award and has the momentum. If someone else does happen to surprise, though, my money is on Saoirse Ronan, who also happens to be the actress I think is most deserving. With the general feeling that Little Women was left out of too many categories, a surge to recognize the movie’s main performance could push Ronan to a win. With this being her fourth nomination, she is also reaching the ‘it might be time to give her an award’ portion of her career. This is unlikely, but one can wish that Ronan’s work rises to the top.


The Long Take

The Academy is nothing if not imminently predictable. They, if we are to generalize the voting block into one mass, have consistent interests. When it comes to lead performances, they flock to two facets over everything else: loud performances that pronounce “I’m ACTING,” and dramatic physical transformations in which  an actor alters their appearance, even better if that’s to embody an important historical figure. Look no further than Rami Malek’s win last year for Bohemian Rhapsody, or the five year stretch from 2004 through 2008 when each Best Actress went to a performance that fits squarely in the previously mentioned parameters. I point this out not to discount the work done by the performers rewarded for their performances, but rather to malign the fact that the Academy struggles to expand its definition of what constitutes great acting. Acting is so much more than Method, and in the hands of a master subtlety is more affecting than sobbing and flying china. All this brings us to this year’s batch of nominees.

To begin, it is necessary to point out that Cynthia Erivo is the only actress of color nominated for an Oscar this year, which is troubling in a multitude of ways. The obvious issue at play is the continued inability of the Academy to consistently recognize work by men and women of color, and it is an issue that becomes even more egregious when you start to run down a list of unrecognized performances that includes memorable work from Alfre Woddard, Awkwafina, and Shuzhen Zhao on par with any of the nominees. I highlight this not to distract from Erivo’s performance, but to put it in the context that she herself put forth: “It’s not enough that I’m the only one.” Nonetheless, Erivo is a multi-talented actress who came to the forefront during a starring run on Broadway in The Color Purple back in 2015 and is well-deserving of this nomination (she also, to digress for a moment, is an Oscar nominee who I had the fleeting chance to meet on the Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016) red carpet where she was a joy to speak to even for a few moments). Harriet is broadly a paint-by-numbers biopic that plays right into the Academy’s historical brand of catnip, but Erivo rises above the holdrum to make Harriet Tubman more than a history lesson come to life. Erivo’s deft facial control more than once brought to mind Maria Falconetti’s performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) which bodes well for Erivo’s future film endeavors. She won’t win this year, but I imagine this is only the first of many Oscar nominations on the way to an eventual win.

We may have spent most of the summer and fall talking about how it was to be the year of Brad Pitt, but with roles in two Best Picture nominees and two nominations of her own, Scarlett Johansson is having a moment. She was delightful in Jojo Rabbit, even if the nomination seems questionable to me, but there is no denying that her work in Marriage Story is the superior performance. Much of the coverage of the movie focused on Noah Baumbauch’s rise to Oscar auteur, or Adam Driver’s continued dramatic dominance, but Johansson is equally as deserving of praise. Nicole is a woman suddenly presented with the chance to achieve something bordering on her dream life if she can somehow navigate out of the abyss that is her dissolving marriage. She is equal parts relatable and caustic, and Johansson traverses the requisite mood changes in masterful fashion. She seems just as comfortable having a quiet conversation with her son, owning a serio-comic moment when she has to coach her sister on how to serve the divorce papers to her soon-to-be-ex-husband, or finally having the screaming match between man and wife that we all expected. That last scene is no doubt the “Oscar scene” because it is the loudest and most modulated up acting in the movie, but it is only one part of a layered turn. Johansson will lose this category, but with her first two nominations this year and a schedule clear of Marvel commitments, I expect her to walk away with a trophy within the decade.

Charlize Theron’s turn as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell and Renée Zellweger’s work as Judy Garland in Judy are performances of a piece. Zellweger’s work is far superior to Theron’s, but they nonetheless rely on similar approaches. Both women have gone to great lengths to emulate real-life figures through a combination of physical ticks, make-up, costuming, and vocal coaching. Both play these women at a tenuous moment in their personal histories that cause us to question the way that we consume media. Yet, fundamentally, Bombshell is an ensemble piece where Theron shares the stage with a number of other big name performers while Judy is unequivocally Zellweger’s show. Theron never moved beyond imitation in my eyes: she seemed so intent on capturing Kelly’s appearance that it lost an edge of theatrical nuance. Zellweger did not fall into this trap, instead seeming to use Garland’s look and physicality as a jumping off point for a more comprehensive performance. We see Judy as the loving mother who can’t quite find a way to care for her children, the tortured insomniac who just desperately wants to sleep, and as the performer who could be the greatest star in the world one night, and a drunken mess the next. Theron, and this is in great part due to the failings of an unimaginative script and narrow directing, doesn’t flex her acting muscles in the same way. She is no doubt a dead ringer for Kelly’s look, but even in the most emotional showdowns the performance seems hollow, which cannot ever be said about Zellweger. Judy may be an unimaginative bit of filmmaking, but watching Zellweger sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the end of the movie is as shattering as it is beautiful. She has done great work and she will win the Oscar for it come February 9th. 

And now, at the end, I will get on my Saoirse Ronan soapbox. Ronan is that rare child actor who became a successful and talented adult without the requisite public drama that often accompanies such a transition. At 26 years old, she has already delivered memorable and stirring performances for the past 13 years. She’s been acting longer, but I’m picking the otherwise largely forgettable Atonement (2007) adaptation as the point at which she really kicked things into gear because it also marks the first of her four Oscar nominations. Over those years she has shown a breathtaking range, from the raw action of Hanna (2011) to the melancholic romance of Brooklyn (2015). Since her turn in the latter film, her recognition has finally grown to match her talent. Brooklyn was her first nomination in this category, which was followed by the same for Lady Bird (2018), and now capped with a fourth for her work as Jo March in Little Women. Her performance in Greta Gerwig’s instant classic is the soul of an astounding film. She cycles through a staggering array of tones: unbridled joy when dancing out on a porch away from the party inside, barely tempered agony sitting on the beach with her sister, and a showstopping resolve as she furiously writes her novel. Ronan grows in and out of each of these emotions, making each as captivating as the last. Her performance has large “Oscar moments,” but is much more defined by the quiet spaces in between. It is my favorite performance of the year, and maybe it’s simply wishful thinking, but if anyone might sneak in and surprise, it seems it would be Ronan. 


The Bottom Line

WILL WIN: Renée Zellweger – Judy

SHOULD WIN: Saoirse Ronan – Little Women


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