Oscar history shows the chaotic Best Actress race comes down to Viola Davis vs. Andra Day

The most exciting contests to watch this Oscar season is the race for Best Actress. After the top contenders split major precursor awards, many of us are left scratching our heads wondering, is there a front-runner at all? Or is this a total crapshoot? But a closer look at the history of those confusing precursors brings some very telling tea leaves. This is a two-woman race between Viola Davis and Andra Day.

The Critics Choice, Golden Globe and SAG Awards combo has been at play since 1995. Since then, the Globes has the best track record, with 22 eventual Best Actress Oscar champs taking home a prize from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Yes, the HFPA doubles its odds by handing out trophies in both drama and comedy/musical categories, but the stat remains. This year’s winner, Day, gets a boost as her performance in “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday” won over all of her Oscar rivals.

The next most accurate precursor is SAG, where 20 of the last 25 Oscar winners were celebrated by their industry peers. Davis’ win here for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” certainly puts her on an upward trajectory, but things get more complicated as we dive deeper.

The Critics Choice Awards have predicted 15 of the last 25 Oscar champs, putting Carey Mulligan in the running for “Promising Young Woman.” Or does it?

Mulligan may have toppled her competition with the top Critics prize, but there have been zero, yes zippo Oscar champs in this category that have lost both the Globe and SAG. A win for Mulligan would be a major turn of events that’s certainly possible, but not probable. To her credit, she’s also the first woman to win Best Actress at the Critics Choice Awards and lose both the Globe and SAG.

The best news for Day is that no woman has won the Oscar for Best Actress without winning a Globe for their performance since Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” (2001); she lost to Sissy Spacek that year for “In the Bedroom.” This happened just two other times since 1995 when Susan Sarandon lost the Globe for “Dead Man Walking” to Sharon Stone in “Casino” and Frances McDormand lost for “Fargo” to Madonna in “Evita.”  That was way back in the 90’s. So does Day have it in the bag? Not yet!

Although Berry, Sarandon and McDormand lost their Globes, there is one thing they all have in common. They rebounded by winning SAG Awards. In comes Davis’ path to victory. While her odds have greatly decreased with the Globes stat, she can rest assured her peers have given her a glimmer of hope at the Oscars. A feat that hasn’t happened since 2002, but still has precedence

So what happens when an actress like Day takes home the Globe, but loses at both Critics Choice and SAG? This has happened to Oscar winners four times since 1995. Nicole Kidman snagged the Globe before winning the Oscar for “The Hours” (2002). On her path to victory she lost at Critics Choice to Julianne Moore in “Far From Heaven” and SAG to Renée Zellweger in “Chicago.”  Marion Cotillard won for “La Vie En Rose” (2007) after losing Critics Choice and SAG prizes to Julie Christie in “Away From Her.” Meryl Streep took home the Globe and Oscar for “Iron Lady” (2011) after being taken down by Davis at Critics Choice and SAG. And most recently, Olivia Colman won a Globe for “The Favourite” (2018) before her surprising Oscar win over Critics Choice and SAG winner, Glenn Close (“The Wife”).

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There are some troubling statistics for Day, however. Kidman, Cotillard, Streep and Colman won just the Globe stateside before taking home Oscar, but each of them also won a BAFTA. Day wasn’t even nominated at the BAFTAs this year, but neither were Davis or Mulligan. That prize went to McDormand in the Best Picture frontrunner, “Nomadland.” Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) was nominated there as well, but has come up empty-handed at every turn. Bad news for McDormand though. Nobody has won only a BAFTA and then an Oscar since Critics Choice and SAG have been in play.

And what about winning SAG after losing the Globe and Critics Choice Awards like Davis did this year? That’s happened twice before, with both Berry and Sarandon mentioned above. Like the Globe, Berry lost the Critics Choice Award to Spacek. After losing her Globe to Stone, Sarandon lost the Critics Choice Award to Kidman in “To Die For.” Should Davis take home the Oscar, she would follow their path.

What this boils down to is that this crazy race for Best Actress really comes down to two women: Davis vs. Day. Sure, Mulligan has a glimmer of hope with her Critics Choice win, but it would be historic and she isn’t helped by the fact that these are the weakest precursor of the three. Although Davis may look handicapped by the overwhelming Globe stat in Day’s favor, she is helped by the fact that Day didn’t just lose the Critics Choice Award, she was completely snubbed at SAG and BAFTA. It’s definitely a tight, two-woman race, and the slight edge, statistically, probably favors Davis. Mulligan can cross her fingers and hope to make history. McDormand and Kirby seem all but out of this race.

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