Oscar Experts Typing: Who will round out the Best Actress final 5?

Welcome to Oscar Experts Typing, a weekly column in which Gold Derby editors and Experts Joyce Eng and Christopher Rosen discuss the Oscar race — via Slack, of course. This week, as critics awards kick off, we revisit Best Actress.

Christopher Rosen: Hello, Joyce! It’s Friday and as the New York Film Critics Circle votes for their favorites of the year, we’re here typing about the Best Actress race. Last year at this time, the New Yorkers bestowed their award on Lady Gaga for “House of Gucci,” a thunderclap that sadly didn’t lead her to Oscar glory (despite my hopes and dreams) — a good reminder to take all these critical precursors with a dash of salt. We haven’t seen all that much movement in the Best Actress race and the top five in our combined odds is pretty stable: Cate Blanchett, Michelle Yeoh, Michelle WilliamsDanielle Deadwyler and Margot Robbie. Never one to go to far afield from the pack, I have that exact five in my predictions — and while Blanchett is still my top pick, I remain veryclose to swapping Williams into the pole position. But before we get into who might win in three months, let’s discuss the fifth spot here. I feel like everyone expects Cate and the Michelles to make the cut, and Deadwyler feels pretty stable too — even if “Till,” like so many other prestige dramas, failed to make a dent with audiences. I swapped Viola Davis for Robbie soon after seeing “Babylon,” a predictable outcome for me, but one I’m happy to defend on its merit: Robbie is just a ball of fire in Damien Chazelle’s movie, and she kind of storms through the movie with such confidence and bravado that it’s easy to imagine voters going for her. I was trying to think of a comp and landed on Jennifer Lawrence in her David O. Russell era — though I think “Babylon” is leaps and bounds better than “Joy” and has a lot more to say than “American Hustle.” Lawrence got three nominations for those Russell movies, and while the academy has grown in the years since “Joy,” I still think voters like to see brassy turns like Robbie’s in contention. This isn’t to say Davis wouldn’t be deserving: she’s awesome in “The Woman King” and it’s a performance we haven’t really seen her give previously on account of its physical nature. This week, Matthew Stewart pulled out his stopwatch and reported that Davis is “only” in 33 percent of “The Woman King” as compared to the 40 percent for Thuso Mbedu — which is definitely irrelevant when it comes to whether or not Davis should get into Best Actress since she’s the title character of the film and, at worst, a co-lead, but probably something people could use to bet against her all the same. You’ve still got Davis in there, so what do you think of her chances?

joyceeng: Is it even a Viola Davis campaign without a debate over her category placement? If she does get into Best Actress, it would be funny that her “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Woman King” performances are shorter than her Best Supporting Actress-winning turn in “Fences.” Again, I don’t care — do what you gotta do, I say. We discussed in September how Davis and Mbedu were co-leads but Mbedu would be run in supporting, as is usually the case with mentee roles (Ethan Hawke is on screen for a minute longer than Denzel Washington in “Training Day”). Davis has the status and performance to get in, and unlike a lot of Oscar hopefuls, “The Woman King” was actually a box office success. It’s a crowd-pleasing good time and the campaign has revved up in the past week as SAG voting starts Monday. As we all know, Davis is the SAG queen. That group also favors populist and early stuff, so no one should be surprised if “The Woman King” manages to snag noms for Davis, Mbedu and in ensemble. I also don’t think there’s anyone who’s down on the movie, whereas “Babylon” is going to be very polarizing. Robbie can easily get in with that energized, attention-grabbing turn, but I can also see its permanent “on-ness” being a turnoff. This week also brought the premiere of “Empire of Light,” which hits theaters (and not that many) next Friday. Remember the days when Olivia Colman was in the top five? We didn’t even mention her this week in our pre-critics awards predictions, but she is the best part of Sam Mendes‘ love letter to cinema, which is gorgeous and has a lot of interesting ideas that don’t quite gel. If that fifth spot remains open, do you see the queen of upsets ascending into the final lineup?

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Christopher Rosen: Man, “Empire of Light.” I got back to my Telluride screening when the older couple in front of me walked out saying, “We just watched an Oscar winner.” If they only knew! I agree there is so much to like and appreciate about “Empire of Light,” especially Colman’s raw performance. But the movie really doesn’t come together in a satisfying fashion and I think it’s one of those “awards movies” that maybe could’ve used more time in the incubator. I also worry that it’s very underseen. Screeners for it went out this week, but will that be enough to push her through? It’s funny, Best Actress has long been very competitive — and I think the top six are really formidable — but we’ve definitely seen some of these contenders fall off if only because of visibility. Colman feels like she’s in the same boat as Jennifer Lawrence, another former winner I worry just hasn’t made enough noise this season to make the leap. But let’s shift here to the top of the category. Blanchett is still the favorite and we’ve got her locked into first place in our respective picks. I feel like she’s run a great campaign thus far – in so much as, she hasn’t really campaigned at all. We all know she’s getting in, so might as well save focus for Phase 2 when it really matters. Do you think Blanchett can go wire to wire here, or will she get picked off by one the Michelles?

joyceeng: Blanchett is the one to beat, but she’s not unbeatable. She also doesn’t need to do a clean sweep and I don’t think she will as SAG will probably be her weakest link. They did toss her a nomination last year for “Nightmare Alley,” but that was a slithery femme fatale role and it’s not like she was ever winning. The other contenders have more SAG-friendly performances, so even if she dominates the season and goes on to win the Oscar, I can picture that being an L on the checklist, like how Casey Affleck lost to Denzel. I agree that she doesn’t need to go hard on the campaign right now — plus, the hefty “TÁR” press tour doubled as one anyway. As to who could overtake her pole position, it’s still a bit hazy. Deadwyler won the Gotham Award over Blanchett and Yeoh this week in a gender-neutral lead category, but it was voted on by a jury of five people, so not indicative of anything. As we said the other day, since Deadwyler was a no-show, the Best Actress contender who arguably got the biggest boost out of the Gothams was Williams, who received a tribute and delivered another first-ballot Hall of Fame speech — this one dedicated to her “Dawson’s Creek” Grams, Mary Beth Peil, that was incredibly moving and connected her whole career and instantly delighted the internet (side note: we need to discuss how Dawson Leery feels about the erstwhile Jen Lindley potentially winning an Oscar for a Steven Spielberg film, but that’s typing for another day). You’ve been flirting with bumping Williams to first — what’s it gonna take for you to pull the trigger? Or are you treading lightly after “The Fabelmans” whelmed at the box office?

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Christopher Rosen: I’m not cooled on “The Fabelmans” at all because of its ticket sales. It is now just one of a number of prestige movies to “disappoint” at the box office, so if everything is kind of flopping (“flopping”), then nothing is flopping — except for, like, “Top Gun” and “Elvis.” Also, “The Fabelmans” will likely end up with more at the box office than “TÁR” by the end of the weekend — it’s not like Blanchett has a runaway success on her hands either. But box office isn’t what wins awards – if it was, Michelle Yeoh would be the category’s runaway pick — so I could still see switching to Williams. As we’ve discussed before and will discuss again, her role checks off so many boxes, and while Blanchett is the GOAT, Williams might not have a better chance to win an Oscar than this year. And that she bet on herself with the requested category placement, I think, is only something that will win her more fans this season. Plus, in the end, “The Fabelmans” is still our Best Picture front-runner and Williams probably represents the film’s best chance to win an acting award too. I’ll keep toying with making the switch, but let’s end here with your thoughts. Williams FTW?

joyceeng: Box office is also negligible in a category like Best Actress, in which the reigning champ won for a film that made $2.6 million total worldwide. I also think a lot of the “‘Fabelmans’ is a flop” takes — and the reveling in them — is a symptom of people being “bored” with it as the presumed favorite. Plus, I don’t know why anyone thought it would be a smash when viewing habits have shifted so drastically. And just because Spielberg is the box office and blockbuster king, that doesn’t mean everyone who’s seen his movies is interested in the origin story of Steven Spielberg. But anyway, I never thought Williams going lead was a death knell like so many did when the move was made in September. If they like you and want to vote for you, they’ll do it. And as I type this, the great Cate has won NYFCC, so nothing’s changed?

Oscar odds for Best Actress
Who will be nominated?

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