Just when Viola Davis‘ path to her second Oscar began to look slippery after her Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards losses, the Screen Actors Guild Awards crowned her Best Actress for Netflix‘s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” over presumed frontrunner Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”). As it’s the only precursor award Davis raked in, she would be the first person since Halle Berry (2001’s “Monster’s Ball”) to nab the Best Actress Oscar with solely a SAG Award in the bag.
Like Davis, Berry had a rocky start to the season by missing out on a Critics Choice Award nom and losing the Best Drama Actress Golden Globe Award to Sissy Spacek (“In the Bedroom”), who also ended up taking home Critics Choice. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman scooped up the Best Comedy/Musical Actress Globe for “Moulin Rouge!” While Davis landed both Critics Choice and drama Globe bids, she was bested by Mulligan at the former and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) at the latter.
For both Berry and Davis, the SAG Awards was the last stop en route to the Oscars since neither was nominated at the BAFTA Awards. Berry wasn’t eligible and shortlisted until the following year — when she lost to Kidman for “The Hours” (2002) — while Davis was left out under the newly implemented jury system. The good news for Berry was that her two precursor-winning Oscar rivals, Kidman — whom BAFTA nominated for “The Others” over “Moulin Rouge!” — and Spacek, didn’t pull ahead in her absence. They fell to Judi Dench (“Iris”), who was also Oscar-nominated that year.
Since Day and Mulligan also did not make the cut at the BAFTAs this year, Davis could similarly benefit from her arguably two main challengers not advancing in her absence. And like in 2002, the Best Actress BAFTA this year went to an Oscar nominee, Frances McDormand, for Best Picture frontrunner “Nomadland.” Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) was also cited by the British academy this year but, like Renée Zellweger (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) in the 2001-02 race, she is the only Best Actress Oscar nominee to come up empty-handed at every turn.
Like Berry in 2002, Davis is thereby heading into the Oscars as one of four precursor-winning nominees in the category. But now who has the edge? In the 20 years that the BAFTA, Critics Choice, Golden Globe and SAG Awards have been precursors, no Best Actress Oscar champ has triumphed with just a BAFTA, Critics Choice or Golden Globe Award. The closest is Kate Winslet, who won the Best Actress BAFTA for “The Reader” (2008) en route to the Oscar, but she had won the other precursors for the film in the supporting category. Meanwhile, since the first SAG Awards ceremony in 1995, two have done so with only a preceding SAG Award, Berry and Susan Sarandon for “Dead Man Walking” in 1996, which could be promising for Davis.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the actress won the SAG Award. Her victory for “Ma Rainey” is her fifth individual one following her wins in lead for “The Help” (2011), supporting for “Fences” (2016) and TV drama actress for “How to Get Away with Murder” (2015-16). She also has an ensemble trophy for “The Help,” hasn’t lost an individual category since her supporting bid for “Doubt” (2008) and joined an uber-elite group with her bookend lead actress triumph. Plus, her transformative turn as blues singer Ma Rainey is right up SAG-AFTRA’s alley. While it’s easy to therefore chalk up her renewed success to “they just love her,” you shouldn’t discount that, unlike the Critics Choice Awards and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, SAG-AFTRA (like BAFTA) has actual membership overlap with the motion picture academy.
What’s notable is that both Berry and Davis, however, only faced three of their Oscar competitors at the SAG Awards, with Globe champs Kidman and Day being the absentees in the respective lineups. The difference here is that Day actually beat Davis at the Globes, whereas Kidman triumphed in a category separate from Berry’s. As the Oscars will be the first time Davis and Day face off since Critics Choice, it’s hard to tell where exactly they are in relation to each other in the race.
While both “Ma Rainey” and “Monster’s Ball” were not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, the former performed better with five overall bids, as opposed to the latter with two, the other for Best Adapted Screenplay. “Ma Rainey” is currently forecasted to parlay three of its five citations into victories — actor for Chadwick Boseman, costume design and makeup and hairstyling — which would make it the first movie since the expansion of the Best Picture lineup in 2009 to take home more than two Oscars without a corresponding Best Picture nom. It would pull off an even bigger accomplishment if both Boseman and Davis triumph since it would be the first time in the academy’s 93-year history that a film wins both lead categories without being nominated for Best Picture .
These are certainly tough odds for Davis to overcome, especially since she (unlike Berry at the time) is already an Oscar winner for “Fences” in supporting actress and voters might not want to go back to the well this soon. And it wouldn’t be the first time a SAG Award victory didn’t translate for her at the Oscars, as she didn’t end up winning for “The Help.” But if it does translate this time time around and she follows directly in Berry’s footsteps, it would only be too fitting, given that she would become just the second Black Best Actress champ after Berry in Oscar history.
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