Last year’s Oscar race for Best Actress was over before it even started. Renee Zellweger became the instant frontrunner as soon as “Judy” premiered in the fall. She predictably swept all of the major precursor awards, making her presentation with the Academy Award all but a formality. This year’s derby is turning into a very different story. First, Andra Day pulled off a shocker at the Golden Globes, taking Best Drama Actress for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Then Carey Mulligan rebounded at the Critics Choice Awards, winning Best Actress for “Promising Young Woman.” But Mulligan’s momentum was suddenly stalled as she was overlooked by BAFTA, even as her movie made the Best Film lineup.
If you’re hoping that the upcoming SAG Awards will provide some clarity to the contest, don’t hold your breath. The Best Actress rollercoaster ride might take yet another twisted turn. Here are five reasons why Viola Davis, who just received her record fourth Oscar bid, will probably win the SAG Award for Best Actress for Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
1. She’s Viola Davis.
There are some actors who are just adored by other actors. Viola Davis is one of them. Now a 10-time SAG nominee, she holds an impressive five statuettes. She’s notably won in every film category, with Best Actress and Best Cast for 2011’s “The Help” plus Best Supporting Actress for 2016’s “Fences.” She also has two trophies on the television side for “How to Get Away with Murder.” Both times, she overcame SAG heavyweights Claire Danes in “Homeland,” Julianna Margulies in “The Good Wife” and Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey.” Her TV resume is a key factor in this contest. A large chunk of the SAG electorate works primarily on the small screen. Support from these voters gives Davis an undeniable advantage over opponents better known for feature films. That means that Viola could once again get away with murder at the SAG Awards.
2. She delivers the most theatrical performance in the field.
SAG voters typically go for showy performances over subtle ones. That’s good news for Davis, whose emphatic acting is the centerpiece of the show biz-centered “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Not only does she play an entertainer, she gets to sing and show it up whenever she’s on screen. Meanwhile, Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” and Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” deliver considerably more subdued turns. If it’s flashiness that catches the eye of SAG, it’s Davis who catches the prize.
3. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has been more widely seen than the other nominees.
This has been a most unusual year. Movie theaters have been closed in much of the country, and most actors have been out of work. Fortunately, they’ve had their Netflix to keep them company. And “Ma Rainey” has been streaming there since December. It’s quite likely that far more SAG members have screened the film than other titles like “Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman.” That Netflix availability gives Davis a major edge over both McDormand and Mulligan, whose projects haven’t been as accessible to the average SAG cardholder.
4. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has multiple SAG nominations.
This might be the strongest argument of all. “Ma Rainey” has three SAG citations, and Davis is the only lead actress contender in a Best Cast nominee. In tough SAG races in recent years, the contestant in a Best Cast vehicle has usually prevailed over the one who wasn’t. Consider Sean Penn in “Milk” over Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Meryl Streep in “Doubt” over Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” Davis in “The Help” over Streep in “The Iron Lady,” Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook” over Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln” over Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master,” Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” over Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies,” Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight” over Dev Patel in “Lion,” and Rami Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody” over Christian Bale in “Vice.” And while it’s possible to win on a single SAG nom, most who have done so were overwhelming favorites – like Christopher Plummer in “Beginners,” Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” Julianne Moore in “Still Alice,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant,” Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour,” Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” and Zellweger in “Judy.” My point here is that more overall SAG support for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” could help Davis top both McDormand and Mulligan, who are the lone SAG representatives of their respective pictures.
5. She gets the Chadwick Boseman bump.
The late Boseman is turning into a jumbo Oscar lock. He handily defeated Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” at the Golden Globes. He’s expected to steamroll through the remainder of the awards season, with the next stop at SAG. Boseman’s coattails will undoubtedly benefit Davis. Unless they do some serious ticket splitting, many SAG voters will be inclined to check off her name as well as his. Honoring her will be another way of celebrating him, as she’ll sing his praises when she accepts the award. In short, expect to hear Ma Rainey singing at SAG – as both Davis and Boseman blow away the blues.
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