Cold-shouldered by Critics Choice. Shut out by SAG Awards. Brushed off by BAFTA. Can Penelope Cruz still somehow ambush the Oscars? Oh, yes. At first glance, the precursors have given us five frontrunners for the five Best Actress slots (Jessica Chastain for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Olivia Colman for “The Lost Daughter,” Nicole Kidman for “Being the Ricardos,” Lady Gaga for “House of Gucci” and Kristen Stewart for “Spencer”). But we’ve seen numerous surprises so far this season, and this year’s lead actress race looks as volatile as last year’s. More category conundrum could be in store when the Oscar nominations are announced on February 8.
Here are five reasons why Cruz could crash the Best Actress derby, with an Oscar nomination for “Parallel Mothers.”
1. She delivers one of the most heralded performances by an actress in 2021.
“Parallel Mothers” provides Cruz with one of the most challenging and complex roles of her career, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival (like Vanessa Kirby in “Pieces of a Woman” the previous year). The Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress (like Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” the prior year). And Best Actress from the National Society of Film Critics (like Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” last year). Kirby, Mulligan and McDormand would all go on to receive Oscar nominations, and McDormand actually won. Those pieces of gold could transform Cruz from awards outcast to promising Oscar nominee.
2. “Parallel Mothers” has received universal acclaim.
While it wasn’t selected as Spain’s Oscar entry for Best International Film, “Parallel Mothers” has enjoyed widespread praise from critics across the globe. It currently enjoys a stellar 97% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, slightly higher than the 94% rating of Best Picture favorite “The Power of the Dog.” Most reviewers have singled out the dramatic powers of Cruz, calling her a “marvel” in “one of her best performances.” Meanwhile, reaction to some of the other Best Actress vehicles hasn’t been nearly as enthusiastic. “Spencer” commands a strong (but not spectacular) 83% Rotten Tomatoes score. “Being the Ricardos” holds a so-so 68%. “House of Gucci” is even lower at 63%. More props for “Parallel” could propel Cruz past some of her competitors.
3. There’s often at least one acting nominee from a foreign language film.
And it’s frequently in the Best Actress category. This is hardly a new phenomenon. The 1970s saw Liv Ullmann in both “The Emigrants” and “Face to Face,” Isabelle Adjani in “The Story of Adele H.,” Marie-Christine Barrault in “Cousin Cousine” and Ingrid Bergman in “Autumn Sonata.” The 1980s and 90s produced Adjani in “Camille Claudel,” Catherine Deneuve in “Indochine” and Fernanda Montenegro in “Central Station.” This century has already given us Cruz in “Volver,” Marion Cotillard in both “La Vie en Rose” and “Two Days, One Night,” Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour,” Isabelle Huppert in “Elle” and Yalitza Aparicio in “Roma.” The academy’s makeup has changed significantly in recent years, and there are more international members than ever. Those voters could help Cruz “Volver” her way back to the Oscars.
4. The academy loves Almodovar.
Considered one of the finest filmmakers on the planet, director Pedro Almodovar’s films have amassed an impressive seven nominations, including two wins. The first victory came for Best Foreign Language Film of 1999 for “All About My Mother.” (Costar Cruz herself presented the award, shamelessly exclaiming “Pedro!” upon opening the envelope.) The second came for 2002’s “Talk to Her.” The film wasn’t even submitted as Spain’s Oscar entry, but Almodovar was cited for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. He won the latter, becoming the first foreign language recipient in the category since 1966’s “A Man and a Woman.” Almodovar’s most recent invite came for 2019’s “Pain and Glory.” There was glory with nominations for Best International Film and Best Actor for Antonio Banderas. But there was pain with the inevitable losses to “Parasite” and Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” respectively. I do recall speaking to several academy members during that blissful pre-pandemic awards season. And I remember so many of them professing their admiration for “Pain and Glory.” (“Brilliant, so brilliant,” they would always proclaim.) If appreciation for “Parallel” parallels that for “Pain,” Cruz could feel similar Oscar glory.
5. She has the potential to be a popular passion pick.
As Gold Derby guru Paul Sheehan has so often explained, the key to securing an Oscar nomination is racking up just enough first-place votes. A large number of lower-ranked votes isn’t enough. Theoretically, a performer could be listed on the ballot of every member of the Actors Branch – but miss out on a bid because they were always placed fourth or fifth. Conversely, someone could appear on just 20% + 1 of the submitted ballots, but reap a bid because they were ranked first every time. I suspect that Kidman and Gaga will be on plenty of ballots, but how many voters will position them at number one? Meanwhile, Cruz might appear on fewer ballots, but with many more number one votes (for the reasons listed above). If that passion for Penelope prevails, Cruz could cruise to a Best Actress nomination for her unparalleled performance in “Parallel Mothers.”
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