Making sense of the refreshingly messy Best Actress Oscar race

This whole time we thought Best Supporting Actress would be the season-long wackadoodle race, but nope. After Yuh-Jung Youn‘s Screen Actors Guild Award win on Sunday for “Minari,” she’s arguably the favorite, and the race has at most narrowed down to her and Critics Choice Award winner Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”) as they are the only Oscar nominees who are up at BAFTA. But fret not! As Best Supporting Actress starts to solidify, Best Actress is here to take over the reins as the most chaotic race of the year.

Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“) took home the lead actress SAG Award on Sunday in a mild upset as she was in second place in our odds behind Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”), who, as of this writing, remains the Oscar favorite (though probably not for long). That means a different woman has won the three precursors so far, the others being Mulligan earning Critics Choice, and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) taking the drama Globe and Rosamund Pike (“I Care a Lot”) surprising with the comedy/musical Globe. None of these four women are nominated at BAFTA and Pike isn’t up for the Oscar. The BAFTA field does include the two other Oscar nominees, Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) and Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”), the only Best Actress contenders to hit every precursor but also the only ones who have yet to collect any hardware.

Just utter pandemonium. Love it. After so much consensus in the acting winners in recent years, we need this craziness. And at this point there is still no definitive frontrunner. Are they all equally strong or equally weak? Let’s look at where they stand now.

SEE Full list of SAG Awards winners

Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
For a stretch late last year, as “Ma Rainey” premiered on Netflix, Davis topped the Oscar odds, but she slipped back as “Promising Young Woman” surged and all the buzz around “Ma Rainey” started to center on Chadwick Boseman. SAG was a huge get — 19 of the 26 winners went on to win the Oscar, though Davis herself was not one of them for “The Help” (2011) — but it was also not entirely surprising since Davis is the Queen of the SAG Awards. This was her sixth win and fifth individually, and she has not lost an individual category since her supporting nomination for “Doubt” (2008). With three individual film wins, the others for “The Help” and “Fences” (2016), she’s tied Renee Zellweger as the most awarded actress in SAG Awards history. Actors love her. But we cannot ignore the fact that “Ma Rainey” underperformed at the Oscars, missing Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. With Best Actor assured for Boseman and the entire membership voting for winners, is “Ma Rainey” really strong enough to be the first non-Best Picture nominee to claim both lead Oscars? Davis does have the added narrative of becoming the second Black Best Actress winner and the most awarded Black actress at the Oscars. That hasn’t been as loud as it could be yet, but that will probably change when voting starts April 15.

Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
The thing with Day is that she could be the strongest nominee in the race or the weakest. We just don’t know because all she has is the Globe. She lost Critics Choice, was snubbed by SAG and didn’t even make the BAFTA longlist while her film did in some categories. She’s a lone nominee at the Oscars and those who’ve won Best Actress tend to be sweepers, the most recent being Julianne Moore for 2014’s “Still Alice.” Day’s film is weak, its late rollout also affected by the move to Hulu, so there’s a question of whether it’s being seen as well. If it is, though, she has the baitiest performance of them all, transforming into a doomed real-life star, that the academy historically likes to reward. Like Davis, she, too, has the narrative of becoming the second Black Best Actress champ.

SEE Viola Davis just joined this elite (and very recent club) with her bookend lead actress SAG Award win

Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”
Poor Kirby. She’s the least discussed of the five as a possible winner, but as aforementioned, she is one of two women to make every precursor, so that’s nothing to sneeze at. There was a point in the season when some thought she might be snubbed, but she’s defied expectations every time. An Oscar win would be a big surprise unless she also upsets at BAFTA next week. Kirby has a baity role as well — hell, a baity first act if that’s all voters watch — but she’s also the sole nominee for her film, and if you’re comparing her and Day, the latter has the edge with the Globe under her belt.

Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
We’re all out here losing our minds over Best Actress and McDormand truly DGAF to even Zoom for 10 minutes. Hero. Will she even show up to the Oscars? Anyway, McDormand hasn’t won anything yet, but she could very well take BAFTA and has all the ingredients to take advantage of a split field: She’s in the Best Picture frontrunner, is highly respected and has gotten raves for her performance. But her subdued turn is also not typical Oscar fare, especially for a third acting Oscar, and she just won her second one three years ago. “Nomadland” could easily be the type of film that everyone votes for in Best Picture without necessarily going for the lead as well, like how “The Shape of Water” (2017) won without Sally Hawkins… who lost to McDormand. But if “Nomadland” snags Best Picture, McDormand is getting a third Oscar anyway as a producer.

Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”
Spare a thought for “Promising Young Woman” stans. It’s been a wild roller coaster ride for them. Piggybacking off release buzz, Mulligan became the Oscar frontrunner after “Promising Young Woman” nabbed four Globe nominations and she’s remained there as the film continued to perform well at guilds, but Mulligan doesn’t have much to show for it except a Critics Choice Award. She was predicted to win the Globe and SAG but lost both — no one has won the Best Actress Oscar with those two losses. “Promising Young Woman” got six BAFTA nominations, but Mulligan was snubbed by the jury, so she has no more chances to assert herself before the Oscars. Her role and performance also aren’t Oscar catnip — “challenging” as they would euphemistically say. But the dark comedy is, on paper, the second strongest film after “Nomadland” as it got nominations for Best Picture, directing, acting, writing and editing. Can overall support for the film lift her to a win? Possibly, but it’s starting to feel like Mulligan’s performance is the kind people like to nominate but not award.

Oscar predictions for Best Actress
Precursors have gone to different women

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