Joey’s right on both counts: there are three up-in-the-air, far-from-settled acting races this season, and that is unambiguously a great development that should be the norm instead of the exception. I will always find it incredibly hard to believe in any near-unanimous consensus from an overwhelming majority of the various guilds and critics groups across the country that isn’t mostly due to groupthink, so when there seems to be genuine debate over who actually gave the “best” performance, that strikes me as a rare example of voters actually (mostly) thinking for themselves.
I’m so similarly pleased by this rare diversity of opinion from awards bodies this year, I don’t even mind so much the slightly disheartening caveat that I’m not all that invested in the outcome of Best Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actress, based on the performances themselves (just to get this out of the way, even though I personally see him as playing more of a leading role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, I’m nevertheless delighted that Ke Huy Quan is the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor in arguably the only “sealed” acting competition of the season and will be thrilled to see him assume the title of “Academy Award Winner” in a few weeks).
Granted, the lineup we got for Best Lead Actor overall is hugely inspiring – exclusively made up of first-time nominees for the first time in nearly nine decades! – my two favorites by a wide margin are Bill Nighy and Paul Mescal, and they’re the least likely to win. Of the two main competitors, Austin Butler achieved a spot-on impersonation of the most oft-mimicked musical artist of all time, and one-ups Oscar winners Rami Malek and Jamie Foxx by doing his own singing… but I really don’t want to see yet another rendition of a Boomer-era pop culture icon win an Academy Award. It’s getting disheartening seeing biopic mimicry so incessantly fêted as the height of screen acting. I adore Brendan Fraser as a person and am glad he’s enjoying a career comeback, but it’s hard for me to root for him being potentially rewarded for leaning into the worst impulses of such an ugly, mean, poorly-written, ham-fisted melodrama. So… all I can do is smile weakly and remember that everyone’s favorite 90’s bisexual idol and the future heir of House Harkonnen are both lovely people who deserve great careers.
Best Supporting Actress is just as vexing for me. I’m happy that Jamie Lee Curtis finally has an Oscar nomination of her own, but I wouldn’t even call her the most deserving supporting performance in that movie, and Stephanie Hsu seems to have somehow settled into the “Honored Just to Be Nominated” club. I’d love to see the awesome-but-frustratingly-underutilized actress Angela Bassett win an Academy Award of her own, but I find it odd how the woman who bowled us over in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Strange Days, Waiting to Exhale, Akeelah and the Bee, and Chi-Raq is likely to win the industry’s highest honor for struggling to get a handle on a consistent characterization amidst the sludge of extraneous plot points and bad CGI and boring MacGuffins weighing down the most disappointing movie I’ve yet seen from the most disheartening movie mega-franchise still chugging along. Another situation where I like the frontrunners personally; I just wish they were nominated for better work.
Best Lead Actress is different. Not only am I a huge fan of Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh for their commendable body of work and how they have deployed their clout to better the industry, but both TÁR and Everything Everywhere All at Once proved themselves ideal showcases for their talents. Yes, Blanchett did learn to speak German and honed herself on the finer points of music theory to convincingly conduct an orchestra, but she’s most remarkable in the subtext underlining her thrilling embodiment of such a toxic protagonist. As Lydia’s empire of success breaks down in the face of… depends on how you interpret the movie, Blanchett’s choices in how to react to these mounting disintegrations don’t quite reveal what you’d expect at first glance, and what a lesser actress would be tempted to lean on more noticeably. There’s enough emotional withholding from her to keep you guessing so that when she goes “big,” it feels like an earned gut punch, not just some cynical play for an “Oscar clip.” And yet, despite this movie anchoring itself to her, she doesn’t give a selfish performance, either. She grants plenty of space in her interactions with the underrated Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant to let them shine as well (hey, speaking of reasons I’m ambivalent about Best Supporting Actress this year…), making Lydia Tár both an overwhelming black hole of narcissism in their lives and a prism for Sharon and Francesca to etch their own personal agendas.
She would be my favorite winner since Olivia Colman if she pulls off the rare triumph of a third Oscar win for acting. And yet, if I had a ballot myself… I think I’d vote for Michelle Yeoh, and I hope a plurality of Academy members agree with me. No, not out of some generous consolation instinct, though it is generally preferable to spread the wealth with these things instead of heaping multiple trophies on a smaller handful of already Oscar’ed superstars. No, not out of a “woke” agenda to “force” a more racially-diverse outcome, even though it is outrageous that it took ninety-five years for the Academy to even nominate a woman of
East Southeast Asian descent for Best Lead Actress. I want her to win because she also has to play a similarly intimidating number of emotional registers in filling out a just as prickly, often hard-to-like character and displays comparably expert judgment on when to illuminate a plot point or thematic avenue through her expressions while not tipping her hand too much on her central conflicts to keep those arcs simmering. But unlike Blanchett, she additionally had to do all of this while Daniels zipped her through a manic roller coaster of worlds, milieus, and even genres in just 38 days of principal photography.
Blanchett flexed her skills as a dramatic performer to consummate effect; Yeoh had to draw on her abilities as an action star and a dramatist and a comedienne (both physically and verbally) on a far more volatile canvas, often within the span of a few seconds in a single scene. I cannot imagine her reaction while reading this script for the first time, thinking about how in the world she would be able to coherently track her character’s core motivations through such a kaleidoscope of different versions of an already-complex protagonist. In between ostentatiously chugging a 2-liter bottle of orange soda and engaging in slapstick hand-to-hand combat against two interdimensional goons with buttplugs like she’s earnestly auditioning for a cameo in Jackass Forever, she also had to convincingly establish an overbearing first-generation immigrant mother who would callously criticize her daughter’s weight while imbuing that same mother with the capacity to earn an arc of humility to declare that she loves her queer misfit daughter just the way she is in the climax. These varying tonal, emotional, and physical demands on her as a multifaceted screen performer are constantly thrown at her from the first frame to the last, and yet she gracefully managed to meet them all without possibly being able to expect a fraction of the awards attention she’s been enjoying for accomplishing these feats in such an aggressively weird genre project. Heck, unlike TÁR, which was essentially conceived of and built around Blanchett from the jump, Evelyn Wang was not even originally written as a woman! Seems impossible to accept, solely in reference to the finished film.
And while I try to avoid highlighting effort in praising film performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind everyone of just how much time and patience it had to have required for Yeoh just to sit and swap out dozens of tedious makeup and costume changes for split seconds of her multiverse variants. Just look. How many hours did she have to knuckle down just to make this happen?
Blanchett’s performance in TÁR would be an excellent Best Lead Actress recipient later this month. But Yeoh’s performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once would be an extraordinary winner, and has more than earned the right to make history in this thrillingly close race.
Just a small clarification. Michelle Yeah is not only the 1st Asian woman to be nominated for Best Actress Role but the 1st South East Asian woman, Malaysian to be exact. She deserves to win and should win. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome , we back home here in Malaysia are extremely proud of her achievements. There will be an entire nation of 32 million ppl cheering her on!
You are correct; double-checking my work, Natalie Portman is of West Asian descent, Vivien Leigh is part-Armenian and Parsi Indian, and Merle Oberon is part-Sri Lankan and Maori.
I regret the oversight and thank you for specifying. Yes, she is the first Best Lead Actress nominee of Southeast Asian descent.