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Before the Gold: Best Leading Actress

This month, we’re taking a look at this year’s Oscar nominees and digging into their past work to find hidden gems that you may have overlooked, or specific credits that may have influenced their Oscar-nominated work this year. 

The Best Leading Actress this year is one of the most entertaining, unpredictable races we’ve seen in… probably, ever. With a different woman winning at each of the “major precursors”, we are going into Oscar night with legitimately no clue who is going to win. The silver lining, though, is that it’s all fun because no matter who wins she will be deserving of the prize. From women on their first film to those who continue to show they’re among the best in the business decades since they began, these ladies hit such a wide range of different styles, yet they all resonate at least one thing – excellence. 

Viola Davis

Nominated for: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Previous nominations: Doubt (2008), The Help (2011), Fences (2016, win) 

Hidden gem: Solaris (2002) 

Viola Davis’ first nomination for her brief appearance in Doubt signaled to many that she was a force to be reckoned with. By the time she hit her second nomination for The Help, it was broadly accepted that she’s one of the best actors there is. The thing about that, however, is that she was delivering knockout performances long before 2008. From Out of Sight to Far from Heaven, Davis delivered every time she stepped on screen, even if it took some people a while to notice. Her 2002 is one of the strongest years any actor has ever had, as she appeared in that aforementioned Todd Haynes film, Denzel Washington’s directing debut Antwone Fisher, and Soderbergh’s Solaris. She’s phenomenal in all three, with Solaris giving her the most screentime, allowing audiences the most opportunity to witness this sensational performer demonstrating how she is so good at what she does. Even in the smallest roles, she makes you remember her after the credits are through, so when she gets more time to chew on something it’s all over for everyone else trying to get some of the spotlight. 

Andra Day 

Nominated for: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: N/A

Even more so than Supporting Actress nominee Maria Bakalova, Andra Day is someone who we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see what she could do on screen. The Grammy nominated musician had a brief appearance on screen as “Minton’s Singer” in the 2017 biopic Marshall (starring Leading Actor frontrunner Chadwick Boseman), and a voice role in Cars 3, but The United States vs. Billie Holiday was the first time we all really got to see Andra Day the Actor, and wow was it something. Whatever your feelings on the film, it’s hard to deny that you walk out of that film being blown away by Day’s performance as Billie Holiday, one incredible musician channeling another. With the film focusing so much on Holliday’s controversial song “Strange Fruit”, only a musician herself such as Day could have known the amount of heart and soul that a performer puts into her track like that. You feel it in every frame of the picture. Let’s hope we get to see more of Andra Day on our screens in the years to come. 

Vanessa Kirby

Nominated for: Pieces of a Woman

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: The World to Come (2021) 

While Day earned her nomination on her first major performance, this year’s Oscars also served as a bit of a welcoming party to Vanessa Kirby. That’s not to sleight her, as she’s been working in film and television for a decade now, but in the same realm as Viola Davis’ 2008 nomination for Doubt, Kirby’s nomination for Pieces of a Woman is coming as the first real recognition for someone who has been somewhat on the periphery, right on the edge of breaking through, for many years. She played Zelda Fitzgerald in the failed prestige picture Genius, was among the ensembles of Everest and Jupiter Ascending, and has taken up residence as an action star in the Mission: Impossible and Hobbs & Shaw series, and Pieces of a Woman showed the world that Vanessa Kirby is a devastatingly raw well of emotion waiting to be unleashed on the screen. Fans of the actor, new and old, don’t have to look too far to find another excellent performance from her. Premiering at last year’s Venice Film Festival, releasing to the public in February of this year, her performance in The World to Come is on the surface quite different from her work in Pieces, and yet she brings the same level of emotional authenticity to the part, showing that this is no one hit wonder. Vanessa Kirby is here to stay. 

Frances McDormand 

Nominated for: Nomadland (also nominated for Best Picture as producer) 

Previous nominations: Mississippi Burning (1988), Fargo (1996, win), Almost Famous (2000), North Country (2005), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, win) 

Hidden gem: Blood Simple (1985) 

Frances McDormand has never played by the rules. Just look at the way that she handles awards season whenever she’s nominated – appreciative, but she’s never bending over backwards to kiss the rings of the Hollywood elite to make sure that they give her a trophy. She lets the work speak for itself, with a hardened exterior that can sometimes mask a full heart, similar to her character Fern in Nomadland, a role that might very well earn her a third Oscar for Best Leading Actress. The fact that this doesn’t seem out of the question, even just three years after she won her second Oscar, speaks to how beloved and well-respected McDormand is in the industry. It just makes sense that McDormand would have three Oscars. If anything, it’s a surprise that it took her over a decade to get her first. McDormand came out of the gate swinging with her very first performance, the leading role in her new husband Joel Coen’s directing debut (along with his brother Ethan), Blood Simple. This neo-noir masterpiece is often cited as one of the best directing debuts of all-time, but people often forget that it was McDormand’s first time on screen as well. Perhaps that’s because she arrived to the world of cinema fully formed, no amateur qualities about her. It’s no wonder it was the first of 10 collaborations between the married couple (including the upcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth, where McDormand may very well find herself in the Oscar race again with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth). If you were a director with a partner like that, wouldn’t you want her to be in every single one of your movies? 

Carey Mulligan 

Nominated for: Promising Young Woman 

Previous nominations: An Education (2009)

Hidden gem: Wildlife (2018) 

Can you believe that Carey Mulligan had only been nominated for one Oscar before this year? Go look it up. While you’re at it, look at her filmography and see all of the sensational performances that the Academy somehow missed out on nominating over the years. Never Let Me Go, Shame, Inside Llewyn Davis, Far from the Madding Crowd, Mudbound, Wildlife. Not a single one of those performances nominated for an Oscar. It’s criminal. Thankfully, Promising Young Woman was not added to that list, instead finally becoming her second nomination after her breakout performance in 2009’s An Education. To look at her previous work would be to see any performance that could qualify for this list, as Mulligan is one of the rare performers who genuinely does not miss. Every time she steps up to the plate she’s knocking out home runs. Yet, there is one that stands firmly above the pack despite them all being magnificent, and that’s her role in Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife. As a housewife with an absent husband and a young son, Mulligan delivers a performance with such a deep register of humanity that everyone can see something they recognize in that character – whether it’s their mother, their friend, or themselves. It’s the kind of performance that will be looked at decades from now and people will be utterly mystified as to how it didn’t run away with the Oscar win, let alone not even receive a nomination. 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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