Unexpectedly during this year’s awards season, the acting categories have become relative locks compared to others like Picture, Screenplay and the technical categories. Usually, while a couple of actors win every precursor award and are racing to Oscar glory, there are one or two uncertain picks. Last year, Best Actress was completely all over the place. Lady Gaga seemed like the favourite, then Glenn Close began to win big, and eventually, Olivia Colman took home the ultimate prize.
This year, we don’t have a repeat of that phenomenon. In all 4 acting races, the same person has won every major precursor (barring various critics’ association awards). They are Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern, and the odds of them repeating their success on Sunday seems all but confirmed. But as a contrarian myself, I can’t help but hypothesise a potential shock, and after looking at the four awards, the only one that I can see possibly causing an upset (possibly being the operative word, not probably) is Best Supporting Actress.
Let me explain. It is true that Laura Dern has been sweeping the awards since the Golden Globes last month. At that point her most serious competition, Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, had a chance, but momentum never materialised for her and she was shut out of the Oscar nominations completely. You’d think then that with the early rival out the way, Laura Dern has it in the bag. Odds are that’s right, but on closer look at the other nominees, there is a path to an upset.
Let’s break this down a little. My guess is that if Laura Dern is to be defeated, it will be by either Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit or Florence Pugh in Little Women. The logic surrounding these possible upsets are two Oscar favourites, a sense of feeling the need to give to a previously underrated favourite, and the passionate desire to reward a newcomer. When it comes to Pugh, if you look at notable publications, she is the nominee many think deserves to win. Her performance in Little Women is scene stealing, rehabilitating a previously hated character and making her sympathetic and likeable. She is also helped by a sense that she’s had an incredible year, also starring in the likes of Midsommar and Fighting with my Family. Pugh is on the rise, and how better to reward her than with a statuette for a performance many are calling the best in the category?
When it comes to Johansson, the logic in giving it to her is less to do with her performance, but to do with her presence at this year’s awards. She’s nominated twice, once in this category and also in the lead Actress category for Marriage Story. There is the possibility that some in the Academy will want to see her win something, to acknowledge that she’s had a barnstorming year. In truth, her leading role is the one that is the most acclaimed, so why award her arguably less exemplary work in Jojo Rabbit?
The answer to that comes down to the differences in discussion surrounding the lead Actress frontrunner, Renee Zellweger, and Dern herself. I don’t personally understand it, but there’s a lot of love for Zellweger’s turn in Judy. It’s probably because of biopic favouritism but I just don’t see a surge for any other performer in that race. But if you think about it, not many people are particularly passionate about Dern’s role in Marriage Story. Yes it’s great, but most were more impressed by Johansson and Driver in the movie. The narrative behind awarding Dern rests squarely on how liked she is within Hollywood and how hard she’s worked throughout her career.
It’s her turn, as some voters might say. But who else had that narrative last year? Glenn Close in The Wife. She had an even stronger narrative of not receiving an Oscar throughout her career and she now holds a record for most acting nominations with zero wins. This is only Dern’s third nomination, and she will continue to work for years, so the narrative isn’t as strong. There’s equally strong sentiment over Johansson, who has delivered stunning work throughout her career, from Lost in Translation to Under the Skin. In another narrative, this is just as much her year as it is Dern’s.
Of course, this is all conjecture, and the precursors show that Dern is probably a shoe in. But logic does suggest that the Academy has looked to alternatives in the past when it comes to similar narratives. Johansson has a lot of goodwill, two nominations and an excellent career, just like Dern. Pugh is a newcomer, receiving most of the “should win” columns in the major trades. Like Colman last year, the Academy could be bowled over by a shock performance, taking out the favourite with a narrative. I’ll be interested to see where this race goes come Sunday.