On January 29, Emma Stone (“La La Land”) took an important step in the march towards Oscar by winning the SAG Award for Best Actress after what looked like a nail-biter against Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”). It might still be too early to decisively call the race for her — BAFTA will have its say next, and the British and American academies have a significant membership overlap — but Stone’s candidacy is starting to remind me of the Best Actress contest from 18 years ago, when Gwyneth Paltrow won for “Shakespeare in Love.” Here are five reasons why Stone might be on the same path to victory.
1. She plays an actress.
Hollywood gets a lot of flack for patting itself on the back by awarding films about the greatness of show business (“The Artist,” “Argo” and “Birdman,” to name a few recent examples), but even though “Shakespeare in Love” had ostensibly loftier subject matter, it’s fundamentally also a romantic showbiz comedy the same way “La La Land” is. Paltrow starred as Viola de Lesseps, who loves theater and aspires to be an actress but is rejected because women aren’t allowed in the profession. Stone’s character also has frustrated acting aspirations, though in the 21st century she doesn’t have to don a fake mustache to audition. But surely voters can still relate.
2. She stars in a feel-good romance.
Oscar voters usually don’t take upbeat stories and comedies seriously enough to award them top prizes — they generally prefer weightier fare that make the Oscars feel more socially or culturally relevant — but every once in a while the academy likes a happy ending, and that’s what happened when “Shakespeare in Love” beat the presumed frontrunner, the tragic World War II epic “Saving Private Ryan.” This year “La La Land” similarly faces heavier dramas like “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” and is expected to run the board.
3. She’s riding the wave of a Best Picture juggernaut.
Paltrow’s lighthearted performance might have had trouble getting traction if “Shakespeare in Love” hadn’t been such a powerhouse overall. Of course, at the time we didn’t realize just how strong a contender it really was — again, “Saving Private Ryan” seemed to be the out front — but there was no mistaking the strength of the 13 nominations “Shakespeare” earned. And what’s more, Best Picture winners often carry an actor into the winner’s circle with them, even if it’s not a traditional Oscar-bait performance, like Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” and Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.” Now “La La Land” has even more support with a record-tying 14 nominations, and it’s currently projected to sweep even more dramatically than “Shakespeare,” which won seven. So by that standard Stone starts to look like an even safer bet.
4. She’s an ingenue.
You could count on one hand the number of men who have won Best Actor before their 30th birthday, and you’d only need one finger — it was Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) at age 29 in March 2003. But the Oscars love ingenues in the Best Actress race. Paltrow was 26 when she prevailed for “Shakespeare,” and that doesn’t even put her in the top 10 for youngest winners. Numerous other up-and-coming 20-somethings have claimed Best Actress, from 25-year-old Grace Kelly (“The Country Girl” in March 1955) all the way to 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook” in February 2013). This year Stone, the youngest nominee in her category at age 28, fits that mold perfectly.
5. She’s in a close race with a dramatic actress playing a historical role.
But Stone doesn’t give a big, showy performance, you might argue, and she’s up against Portman’s epic transformation in “Jackie.” True, but that’s not unlike Paltrow’s contest, when she was also up against a showier performance in an iconic historical role: Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth.” On paper, Blanchett was in an even stronger position than Portman is in now: “Elizabeth” was nominated for Best Picture, while “Jackie” is not, and Blanchett had never been nominated before, while Portman is a recent winner, so there may not be any urgency to reward her again.
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