It is slightly bizarre to even contemplate predictions right now as everything about awards season is up in the air: release dates, likely competitors, how festivals will play out. Still, it seems not even a pandemic can stop Hollywood’s efforts to reward itself, with the Oscars, Golden Globes, and others determined that the shows – albeit delayed – will go on. And so, continuing our series of “Ridiculously Early Oscar Predictions,” we arrive at our Best Actress predictions. Yes, it’s early given how little is known for sure, but this isn’t exactly a normal Oscar year.
As with our Best Actor predictions, our Best Actress picks are basically educated guesswork. Several films have yet to be screened and there is still plenty of time for Oscar submissions. No matter what happens, the upcoming season will make history as the first in which films will not have to screen in theaters to contend for Hollywood’s top prizes, which sets up some intriguing possibilities for which films could break through and snag nominations. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced earlier this summer that the Oscars would be postponed by two months to April 25, 2021, and extended release-date eligibility rules to February 28, 2021, in addition to allowing streaming-only submissions and making all eligible films available on the Academy screening library, forgoing the typical member screenings.
A number of films likely to be in the conversation have actually already screened and earned Tomatometer scores, and pundits are already singling out the major standout performances in them. Our list does include some performances yet to be seen, but for which pre-release buzz and expectations are high. With that said, some on this list may end up in the Supporting Actress category.
Whether we like it or not, the campaigns are quietly underway, the conversation has started, and we’re now ready to join it. If history and basic math tell us anything, it is that most of these names won’t make it to Oscar night, but we’re pretty confident many of them will be right up there in the awards chatter. So please read on as we break down our ridiculously early picks for 2020’s Best Actress contenders.
Don’t agree with our picks? Have at us in the comments.
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Julia Garner is having an incredible run of late. She picked up a Primetime Emmy last year for her portrayal of Ruth, the foul-mouthed trailer park grifter with angelic blonde curls, in Ozark, and weeks later she premiered her first starring role at the Telluride Film Festival. In The Assistant, Garner plays a young Hollywood assistant who works on the periphery of a high-powered producer whom she believes is preying on women. Garner is captivating as she wrestles with what do when you suspect the worst but seem to be the only person who cares. Critics say the film, told entirely from the eyes of “the assistant,” masterfully chronicles how men like the producer in the film were able to avoid accountability because those around them enabled their behavior. The Assistant was a quiet but well-reviewed release from earlier in the year, which would normally struggle to stay top of awards voters’ minds, but in this new unprecedented awards landscape, Garner is suddenly right in contention for Best Actress. If she manages to pull a second Emmy win this September, reminding Hollywood again that she’s one of the most talented actresses of her generation, she will be in a prime position to campaign for a Best Actress Oscar towards the end of the year.
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Elisabeth Moss is in contention this year with two worthy performances. One of the last films to reach theaters before the shutdown in March, Invisible Man was a surprise hit for Universal that breathed life into their stalled Dark Monsters Universe. As the tortured girlfriend of a malicious tech genius, Moss runs the gamut of emotions as she slowly descends into madness. It is all too enjoyable to watch her lose her mind, and then kick some ass, however, we know how the Academy usually feels about genre works, so it’s her role in the biopic Shirley that has the critics whispering “frontrunner.” As renowned and reclusive The Haunting of Hill House author Shirley Jackson, Moss weaves a delicate balance of shocking horror, seduction, and insanity which encapsulates the author’s writing style as well as her personal life. The Handmaid’s Tale star says she read letters between the author and her longtime partner, Stanley, and listened to recordings of the author speaking in order to develop her rich voice and unique relationship with her husband authentically. The result is a hypnotic departure from the typical biopic, featuring a performance that should catapult the two-time Golden Globe winner to the top of Oscar rankings for the first time in her career.
Jessica Chastain is no stranger to the Oscar stage, with two nominations under her belt, and she’s expected to return to the season on the back of her performance as the infamous televangelist with questionable mascara, Tammy Faye Bakker. The film centers on Tammy and her husband Jim, played by Andrew Garfield, and is based on the award-winning documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye Bakker, which chronicles the couple’s rise and very public fall. Two of the most controversial personalities of the ’70s and early ’80s, the pair were tabloid fodder for decades and arguably America’s first reality stars. Chastain is usually quite thoughtful about which roles she takes – let’s just pretend Dark Phoenix didn’t happen (the rest of the cast sure did) – so after flirting with a nomination for Molly’s Game but coming up short, The Eyes of Tammy Faye Bakker could be the one to bring her back to Oscar night. If by chance, however, the Zero Dark Thirty star still comes up short this year she won’t have long to wait; she’s set to play country singer Tammy Wynette in George and Tammy, an Oscar hopeful for the 2021-2022 season, or later as all dates are flexible these days.
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Sidney Flanigan’s heart-wrenching performance in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might be the exact kind of role built to capitalize on the current streaming-friendly season. A BBC production distributed by Focus Features shortly after the pandemic hit, the quiet indie about two girls who travel from Pennsylvania to New York to seek an abortion is a dream vehicle for Flanigan. The girls endure hardship after hardship, and the film is a difficult watch, but it’s undeniably moving and has serious social and political resonance – both of which rank high with Academy voters. In a typical year, a low-budget indie with no stars that premiered in the first half of the year would have difficulty staying in the conversation; however, as voters will have time and opportunity to watch titles from the comfort of their homes, it’s reasonable to think they will have more time to see smaller hidden gems like this. Director Eliza Hittman, already a name to watch after her award-winning feature Beach Rats, is now also in contention for Best Director alongside Flanigan’s performance.
Aretha Franklin handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her on the big screen, so expectations for her biopic Respect – starring her hand-chosen actress – are high. The Queen of Soul, as she would come to be known, lived an incredible life filled with tragedy and triumph, providing rich source material for a compelling adaptation. Musical biopics have had an impressive run as of late, with Rami Malek and Renée Zellweger taking home Oscars for Bohemian Rhapsody and Judy respectively, and as Hudson has one Oscar for a musical performance already, her chances for a repeat next year are good. Earlier this summer, a teaser trailer gave us a peek at why Hudson was perfectly cast, showing off her stunning vocals and her ability to capture the late singer’s sharp wit. Working off a script from Fosse/Verdon writer Tracey Scott Wilson, Respect will likely not fall into the musical adaptation trap of feeling like a documentary with musical breaks. With exciting young director Liesl Tommy behind the camera, and a supporting cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Mary J. Blige, Tituss Burgess, and , odds are good the Dreamgirls star could add more hardware to her trophy cabinet come next year.
An Oscar hopeful starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close? I mean, you gotta give it to one of them, right? Adams and Close have 13 Oscar nominations between them. Yes, you read that right, thirteen, and both frequently snubbed stars feature in the upcoming Netflix drama Hillbilly Elegy. Though many were sure Close had sewn up a Best Actress win in 2018 for The Wife, Olivia Colman walked home with the hardware (and our award for the best speech of the night); meanwhile, Adams has been nominated six times, though was never a frontrunner. The Appalachian biopic could finally give both their shot. With a stacked cast and an Oscar-winner behind the camera in director Ron Howard, the word is out on Hillbilly Elegy and it is expected to be the perfect vehicle for both actresses, with Adams likely a contender for Supporting. The film is based on J.D. Vance’s popular memoir and chronicles the writer’s trek back to his hometown in Appalachia and the invaluable lessons he learned about the region, his heritage, and himself along the way.
Eternals director Chloé Zhao looks to be taking a page out of Steven Spielberg’s back-to-back-films book and the result could provide Frances McDormand with her third Best Actress Oscar. Zhao shot her “vanlife” drama, Nomadland, starring McDormand, just prior to shooting the star-studded Marvel film The Eternals in London and edited the films simultaneously; Spielberg utilized the same process for The Post/Ready Player One and Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List. Nomadland centers on a down-on-her-luck 60-year-old woman who heads out on a journey across the American West after losing everything in the Great Recession. The movie is based on the investigative reporter Jessica Bruder’s best-selling book of the same name, a searing piece of immersive journalism featuring heartbreaking and fascinating characters criss-crossing the country in search of work. It is unclear how Zhao will bend the non-fiction book into a narrative feature, but as demonstrated in her award-winning film The Rider, she has a knack for adding drama to true-life subject matter. McDormand is in excellent hands.
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Killing Eve season 2 show runner Emerald Fennell is poised to repeat the show’s impressive haul on the TV awards circuit by bringing its dark comedic stylings to the big screen in her debut film, A Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan. After a powerful trailer underscored by a violin cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” lit up the internet, and an impressive Sundance debut, people have been buzzing about the quirky thriller – and particularly its star. “This is the Mulligan show, and she proves every bit at home with humor as she is with serious drama,” Amber Wilkinson of The Times wrote following the film’s premiere in Park City. The British actress plays “a promising young woman” who, after a personal tragedy, sets out for revenge by acting drunk at bars and brutally confronting the “nice guys” who take her home. Dark, funny, original, and stylish, it is yet another title without a solid release date, but we’re holding out hope this one reaches theaters this season as it’s the role that could launch Mulligan into the stratosphere after consistently serving up award-worthy performances for the past few years (Wildlife, Suffragette, Mudbound). A Best Actress nomination 10 years after her first for An Education – or better yet win – could be that final push that makes her a household name.
Thumbnail image by Courtesy of Focus Features, Univeral Pictures, & MGM