One of the last Oscar contenders to drop this season is someone’s first film. Andra Day makes her feature film debut in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and could very well be the 17th big-screen newcomer to land a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Just four people have won Best Actress for their film debuts — Shirley Booth (“Come Back, Little Sheba,” 1952), Julie Andrews (“Mary Poppins,” 1964), Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl,” 1968) and Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God,” 1986) — but 12 others scored nominations. There have been five instances in this century alone: Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider,” 2003), Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace,” 2004), Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious,” 2009), Quvenzhane Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” 2012) and most recently Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma,” 2018).
Day wouldn’t be an out-of-nowhere discovery like Castle-Hughes, Wallis — both of whom became the category’s youngest nominee, a record Wallis, who was 9 at the time, still holds — and Aparicio, but more in the vein of Booth, Andrews and Streisand, all of whom rose to fame in another medium before making the transition to film. After gaining popularity with her covers on YouTube, Day released her debut album, “Cheers to the Fall,” in 2015, earning two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance for “Rise Up.” The 36-year-old is also no stranger to the Oscars, having performed the nominated tune “Stand Up for Something,” from 2017’s “Marshall,” at the Oscars with Common in 2018.
Day had a small voice part in “Cars 3” (2017), but “Billie Holiday” is her first live-action film. She delivers a fiery turn as the legendary singer, belting Lady Day’s catalogue herself, including “Strange Fruit,” her controversial song about lynching that would make her the target of the FBI, which was already on her tail on drug infractions. Playing real-life — and well-known figures — especially one whose life was beset with distress and pain, has been a tried-and-true way to catch the eyes of Oscar voters. The reigning Best Actress champ, after all, is Renee Zellweger, who took home her second Oscar for portraying another troubled icon, Judy Garland, in “Judy.”
Despite “Billie Holiday” not even being released yet — it’ll premiere on Hulu on Feb. 26, two days before the Oscar deadline — the anticipation for Day’s performance has been consistent throughout the season. She’s currently in fifth place in our overall odds, behind Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”). One Expert, Sasha Stone (Awards Daily), is predicting her to go all the way. In any other year, being in such a late release as a relative unknown, in film at least, could hurt, but truly anything goes this wacky season.
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