Going into this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, many of our Experts predicted Carey Mulligan to be named best film actress for “Promising Young Woman.” However, Viola Davis ended up pulling off an upset in that category for her performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” So with that surprise, plus Mulligan’s win at Critics Choice and Andra Day‘s victory at the Golden Globes for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” what does that mean moving forward in the Oscar race?
For now I wouldn’t take Davis’s SAG win too much into account, and there are several reasons. First, the Screen Actors Guild loves her as she has won all of her individual nominations there with the exception of “Doubt” (2008). In addition, that group rarely predicts the exact same quartet of acting winners at the Oscars. In their 27 year history, the two groups perfectly matched only eight times: 1997 (although that year’s eventual Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress, Kim Basinger in “L.A. Confidential,” tied at SAG with Gloria Stuart for “Titanic”), 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019.
Plus, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” missing out on Oscar noms for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, it looks to me like the film may not have enough support to get two acting wins, sort of like how Davis’s previous films “The Help” (2011) and “Fences” (2016) won two individual acting awards at SAG, but only one acting Oscar apiece.
SAG clearly loved “The Help” to have given it awards for its ensemble, Davis, and supporting actress Octavia Spencer. At the Oscars, though, it had surprisingly limited support: it received three individual acting nominations, but that was all the recognition it was able to get outside of Best Picture. “The Help” couldn’t even break through in below-the-line categories like Best Production Design or Best Costume Design, which on paper you’d think it easily would’ve gotten since it was a period piece. In the end, Spencer won the supporting Oscar while Davis lost Best Actress to Meryl Streep for “The Iron Lady.”
With “Fences” (another screen adaptation of an August Wilson play, like “Ma Rainey”), Davis swept through every major Best Supporting Actress precursor including SAG, where her co-star, Denzel Washington, also managed to win the lead actor race. But Washington had never won there before, so he was overdue for a prize from the guild but not the Oscars, where he’d already prevailed twice. So at the Oscars, Davis finally got her due from the academy, but Washington ended up losing Best Actor to Casey Affleck for “Manchester By the Sea,” which was a much stronger contender than “Fences” overall as it also won Best Original Screenplay and had a Best Director nomination that “Fences” lacked.
This year “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” had a SAG nomination for its ensemble cast, so that gave it a strong path to victory for both Davis and Chadwick Boseman in the lead categories. But it couldn’t make the Oscar lineup for Best Picture, which might suggest that academy members may not be as passionate about the film as the guild was.
And with Boseman looking more and more like a lock for a posthumous Oscar win in Best Actor, voters may feel “Ma Rainey” is well enough taken care of there, especially since it’s relatively unusual for a film to win acting Oscars without a corresponding Best Picture nomination ever since the number of Best Picture nominees expanded in 2009. In fact, 2011 was the only year since then that two actors won Oscars in the same year for non-Best Picture nominees: the aforementioned Streep won Best Actress for “The Iron Lady” and Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor for “Beginners.”
Davis does have her own narrative going for her: she’d be only the second Black Best Actress Oscar winner in history, following Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball” back in 2001. But there is a possibility that she could split the vote regarding that narrative with Andra Day, who plays a more widely known historical musician in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” We’ve seen how certain performances win Oscars based specifically on the roles they’re playing because in the minds of academy members, it feels as if they’re awarding the real-life historical figures (like Renée Zellweger winning last year for portraying Judy Garland in “Judy”). That could especially be true of Billie Holiday given the injustices against her depicted in that film.
The BAFTAs weren’t helpful as the only two Oscar contenders there were Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and Frances McDormand (“Nomadland“), so we ended up getting a different winner after Day, Mulligan, and Davis won the previous televised precursors, which would be McDormand. The BAFTAs decided their acting nominees using a new jury system, though, so it’s hard to say how reflective they’ll be of the Oscars. Although “Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman” are both nominated for Best Picture while “Ma Rainey” is not. So despite winning SAG, Davis will still have to watch out for multiple Oscar competitors.
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