Let’s Talk About The Best Actress Nominees

Photo: Liz Parkinson/Netflix

This article originally appeared in Gold Rush, a subscriber-only newsletter about the perpetual Hollywood awards race.

It’s a quiet week on the Oscar front, as the circus took a break to let the Grammys have their moment. So let’s take stock of what’s habitually the most dramatic of the four acting races: Best Actress! This was a very competitive year for Best Actress — you may have heard that some women we thought would be nominated weren’t — and in a departure from historical precedent, our Oscar lineup features four women from Best Picture nominees. (It’s more commonly two or three, though the 2022 ceremony had zero, which goes to show how the Academy typically treats female-led stories.) As we get into the thick of the season, two women appear to have pulled ahead. But this is also a race that’s seen some shocking upsets, so prepare for expectations to be upended.

In the most regrettable act of woman-on-woman violence since that time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler told a joke about Taylor Swift, Bening likely beat out Margot Robbie for the final Best Actress spot. How? The best explanation is that her Nyad performance hit the sweet spot for the Academy’s “meat and potatoes” voters. The now-five-time nominee underwent a physical transformation to play an inspirational real-life figure, in a film that Netflix made sure was widely seen. While the sports biopic has become something of a punch line, it’s not terrible, and Bening probably benefited from her winning double act with Jodie Foster, who was nominated in Supporting Actress. Finally, don’t overlook the fact that, as one writer-director told me, “People vote for their friends.” Bening, who is on the Academy’s Board of Governors, has a lot of friends.

At Venice, Maestro had the bad luck to premiere the day after eventual Golden Lion winner Poor Things, which set the tone for Mulligan’s bridesmaid season — nominated everywhere, winning nowhere. Variety’s Clayton Davis wondered if she might have been better served by committing light category fraud and running in Supporting, but though that category does tend to be friendlier to long-suffering wives, even there she might have been hurt by a lack of clear narrative. Mulligan’s An Education nomination was the arrival of a prodigious new talent, and her Promising Young Woman one was a “congrats on the comeback” nom. Her Maestro performance, while exquisite, perhaps doesn’t stray far enough from the well-heeled roles that have become the English actress’s bread and butter.

Oscar watchers hoping for maximum drama have hit upon an intriguing possibility: What if Hüller, not Emma Stone, winds up taking Best Actress at BAFTA, which is even warmer toward European contenders than the Academy? It’s certainly possible — while the Brits nominated Poor Things in a bunch of craft categories, they notably left it out of Director and Supporting Actor. (Though given the juries … truly, who knows.) The German actress deserves to get some hardware out of her remarkable year, but if that upset happened, I venture it’d be better news for Lily Gladstone, whom BAFTA snubbed, than Hüller herself. As we saw with Cate Blanchett and Austin Butler last year, even when BAFTA diverges from conventional wisdom, that doesn’t necessarily presage the Oscars doing the same.

With apologies to the other three nominees, this race still looks like a showdown between Stone and Gladstone. The arguments for Stone are legion. She turns in a showy, physical performance, making a difficult transformation look effortless. She’s top-lining a film that’s all about her journey, and that journey happens to be an uplifting tale of female self-actualization. (It must be said that not everyone finds it quite so uplifting.) When it comes to the precursors, the fact Stone got in over Gladstone at BAFTA seems to indicate she’s got the edge with the international contingent. Still, she’s won before, and not that long ago. While that’s not always a deal-breaker for voters, it does cut down on Stone’s “Why now?” factor.

By now we’re well acquainted with the conventional wisdom on why Gladstone shouldn’t win. She plays second fiddle to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. She’s absent for long stretches in the film’s final act. She doesn’t wow you with a transformation. And yet, if you’ve seen the reaction whenever she wins a precursor award, you can feel the love pouring from the crowd. Voters seem to be buying Gladstone as the heart of the movie — a point I think DiCaprio’s Best Actor snub weirdly underlines — and in a category that often rewards first-time nominees, she has the benefit of being an exciting new face. You can’t deny, either, the historic potential of making Gladstone the first Native American woman to ever win Best Actress. The BAFTA snub narrows her path, though: Gladstone will have to hold serve at SAG, or else risk losing momentum in the thick of phase-two voting.

One woman’s performance is voter catnip; the other has the perfect narrative. Whichever triumphs will be a sign for where the Academy is heading as it approaches its centenary.

In a favor to awards columnists everywhere, the Academy made a shocking announcement on Thursday, announcing a whole new category out of the blue. Starting with the 2026 ceremony, the Oscars will hand out a trophy for Best Casting. The move was long sought by casting directors — watch the 2012 documentary Casting By for more background — but had previously been opposed by the directors branch, who argued that they were the ultimate authority on casting. Maybe this is the Academy getting them back for snubbing Greta Gerwig?

The Academy says it’ll take the next year to iron out exactly how the category will work and who’ll get the trophy. So far, that varies by precursor. The Independent Spirit Awards have a special prize named after Robert Altman that goes to the film’s director, casting director, and ensemble. Two other ceremonies give prizes just to the casting director. The Casting Society of America has the Artios Awards, which hands out eight different trophies in categories divided by genre and budget level. (They also have a “Zeitgeist Award.”) Since 2020, the BAFTAs have also had a casting trophy, which in its brief history has been awarded to the casting directors of Joker, the coming-of-age film Rocks, the West Side Story remake, and Elvis.

That’s a motley assembly, and it speaks to the uncertain nature of what exactly a casting Oscar would be rewarding. Will voters give it to casting directors who made genuine discoveries, or will they take it as the Oscars’ equivalent of SAG’s Best Ensemble prize? In other words, if it were around this year, would the front-runners be Ellen Lewis of Killers of the Flower Moon and Susan Shopmaker of The Holdovers, or Oppenheimer’s John Papsidera and Barbie’s Lucy Bevan? Either way, this new category seems likely to exacerbate the post-2009 trend of Best Picture nominees hoovering up all the craft nominations.

I like the addition, not least because it gets us back up to a nice round 24 categories. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel sorry for the industry’s stunt professionals, who have been lobbying for years — often with Vulture’s help — to get their own Oscar, too. If it’s any consolation, a few pundits predict that this move clears the deck for a Best Stunts trophy in a few years, which would then give cause to move the Shorts prizes to the Governors Awards. That’d be a win for everyone. (Except for the Shorts filmmakers, but they know what they did.)

On the face of it, Perfect Days, the Japanese submission nominated for Best International Film, would seem to be the polar opposite of Barbie. It’s basically Mindfulness: The Movie — a gentle character study of a middle-age Tokyo toilet cleaner (Kōji Yakusho) whose unwavering routine and analog lifestyle illustrate the quiet beauty of the everyday. If you’re American, witnessing his labors feels like gazing into another world: So *this* is what it’s like to live in a country with robustly funded public goods!

Perfect Days is about as unimpeachable a piece of art-house cinema as you’ll see. It comes from Wim Wenders, the famed German auteur, and had its world premiere at Cannes, where Yakusho won Best Actor. But as Neon opens the film in limited release this week, I’m reminded that this little movie also has one thing in common with the biggest film of the year — it’s spon-con, too!

You see, all the exquisitely designed public toilets in the film were actually funded by an NGO called the Nippon Foundation. (Whose first chairman, incidentally, was a suspected war criminal.) They comprise the Tokyo Toilet Project, the brainchild of Koji Yanai, whose father is the billionaire founder of Uniqlo. Yanai conceived of the initiative as a way to spotlight Japanese craftsmanship and civic spirit ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and he recruited a series of star architects to build them. And as a recent New York Times feature details, after COVID disrupted the Olympics, it was Yanai who reached out to Wenders with the idea for a project publicizing the toilets. He originally envisioned a series of shorts; Wenders, who counts Yasujirō Ozu as a major influence, decided to do a feature instead.

I’m just saying: To any Jacobin writers reading this, the door is wide open for you to write a review slamming Perfect Days as a dastardly neoliberal propaganda.

Art

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