Oscars hindsight is 20/20: Why we should have called that Frances McDormand upset for Best Actress

Frances McDormand made history on Sunday by becoming the seventh person to win a third Oscar for acting. This shocked 32 out of 33 Expert journalists whom we surveyed for their predictions, perhaps owing to the fact that this was the first time that Best Actress was foretold by only BAFTA of the televised precursors.

Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) took the Golden Globe, then Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) claimed Critics Choice and Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) won the support of the Screen Actors Guild, only for McDormand to upset all of them, as well as the season’s perpetual bridesmaid Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”). Here is how we underestimated McDormand all season:

Mulligan’s frontrunner facade

It is easy to forget that McDormand swept the critics’ awards early in the season before Mulligan gained momentum. In fact, by Metacritic‘s count, Mulligan’s surge merely allowed her to match McDormand in total Best Actress wins, as opposed to supplant her outright as queen of the circuit. The rise of Mulligan’s bigger, bolder and buzzier performance upended the derby. Playing against type made this tour de force a fitting Oscar vehicle for Mulligan, whose quieter work has suited period dramas, including “The Dig” most recently.

The release of “Promising Young Woman” over the winter holidays yielded goodwill from the online community that put pressure on film critics to reconsider a performance that they merely admired in their initial reviews. This momentum culminated in the Golden Globes showering “Promising Young Woman” with nominations in early February, propelling Mulligan to the top of Gold Derby’s racetrack odds — for the rest of the season.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

The rest of the season did not exactly support this notion of her as an unstoppable force. Despite being the favorite across all ceremonies, Mulligan lost the Globe and the SAG Award and was even omitted from her home turf’s nominee list at BAFTA, where overhauled judging procedures diminished it as an Oscar simulation anyway. What helped predictors stick with Mulligan despite these blows was the absence of a strong challenger.

With Viola Davis and Andra Day also snubbed at the BAFTAs and in films snubbed by the Oscars for Best Picture to boot, neither was able to confirm that her surprise victory had been more than a blip. Where prognosticators failed was in their underlying assumption that Mulligan was the contender being challenged as opposed to a challenger herself to the real favorite, McDormand. Mulligan’s measurable momentum in televised wins failed to materialize beyond the blip of Critics Choice, a distant memory by Oscar voting in late April.

McDormand’s winning momentum

McDormand was on screen for nearly every frame of “Nomadland,” so it follows that fans of the film had to have been fans of her performance. Being the face of a film beloved enough to have swept the season’s Best Picture prizes might have been enough to help her over the line in a tight race.

Speculation that Mulligan would have won BAFTA if she had been nominated proved never to be more than a theory and an unimportant one at that. Winning an Oscar takes momentum, and the reality is that BAFTA’s benefits never materialized for her regardless of why she was snubbed. Mulligan did not get to win over voters with a reaction or speech. McDormand, on the other hand, had the luxury of being nominated by BAFTA’s jury, so Oscar voters who overlap with BAFTA’s membership could get used to marking her name on a Best Actress ballot.

It is no coincidence that BAFTA has been a bellwether of upsets in this race. These include Olivia Colman (“The Favourite,” 2018), Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady,” 2011) and Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose,” 2007). Whether voters circle the same names out of ease, intuition or even just muscle memory, this was a leg up for McDormand with the British bloc of the academy.

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