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The Best Actress Battle Is The One To Watch At The 2024 Oscars

Oscars 2024

As we draw closer and closer to the 2024 Oscars, the likely winners of the four acting categories are slowly emerging. The Holdovers’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph looks unstoppable in the Best Supporting Actress line-up, as, increasingly, does Oppenheimer’s Robert Downey Jr in Best Supporting Actor, while Best Actor seems poised to be a face-off between the leading men of both of those movies, Paul Giamatti and Cillian Murphy. But, there’s one race that’s even more stacked and far more difficult to predict – the only one that has the potential to yield a truly jaw-dropping result: Best Actress. Below, we present a rundown of the five runners and riders, as well as the hopefuls who narrowly missed out on a nomination.

The almost-contenders: Greta Lee, Margot Robbie, Natalie Portman, Fantasia Barrino, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

Firstly, a moment for those who so nearly made it onto the shortlist – five women who, in a marginally less competitive year, could have easily made up the full cohort jostling for the top prize. Their omissions, unjust as they are, are also a testament to the unbelievable strength of this year’s Best Actress line-up.


You have Past Lives’s Greta Lee, of course, who delivered a tender and touching bilingual performance – one which many critics, in the wake of the film’s Sundance premiere over a year ago, initially predicted would win her an Oscar.

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Alongside her is Barbie’s Margot Robbie, whose snub has been much discussed – a nod for her seemed almost guaranteed right up until the nominations announcement, and her progressive transformation from grinning plastic doll to gynecologist-appointment-booking human woman is certainly remarkable. (Some consolation can be found in the fact that she’s at least nominated in the Best Picture category for her role as a producer on the billion-dollar blockbuster.)

Francois Duhamel

There’s also May December’s Natalie Portman, who gave what is still one of my favorite performances of 2023 as the preening, heartless indie actress who carelessly tosses a grenade into the life of the real woman she’s about to play. Her meticulously observed, deliciously devilish portrayal is on par with (if not even better than) her Oscar-winning work in Black Swan but, alas, the Academy appeared to be alienated by the film’s depiction of ruthlessly exploitative actors and awarded it only one nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. Still, I’m convinced that Portman’s slippery turn will be remembered as one of the best of her career, and studied in acting classes for years to come.

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Then there’s The Color Purple’s Fantasia Barrino, who had what once seemed to be a winning narrative: an American Idol breakout who dazzled critics and audiences alike as the all-singing, all-dancing center of gravity in a big-screen musical extravaganza, à la Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (who, coincidentally, placed seventh on the same season of the reality hit which Barrino won). Danielle Brooks landed a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nod for the film – proving Academy voters did see and appreciate at least some aspects of the adaptation, despite leaving it out of several categories in which it was expected to show up – but in the end, Barrino was, sadly, overlooked.

Atushi Nishijma

Also deserving of more acknowledgment is Origin’s Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, who embodies Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson in all her complexity as she grieves her mother and husband, sets off on an epic quest to fine-tune her thesis on racial injustice, and tirelessly works on the book which would go on to change her life, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Steely and vulnerable, rigorously academic and serious but also quick to laugh (especially when hanging out with her exuberant cousin, as played by Niecy Nash-Betts), she’s someone who could have been an enigma, but in Ellis-Taylor’s hands, feels achingly real. A shame, then, that both her performance and the film as a whole was snubbed.

The veteran: Annette Bening

Photo: Netflix

And so we come to the five nominees for the 2024 Oscars, each with their own distinct awards-season story—and some would argue that Bening’s is the most powerful. At 65, the American actor has given what is undoubtedly one of the best performances of her more-than-three-decade-long career in Nyad, and despite four previous Oscar nominations—for The GriftersAmerican BeautyBeing Julia, and The Kids Are All Right—she has never won before. If anyone was owed a statuette for their career more broadly, it’s surely her.

It also helps that her narrative mirrors that of her character, Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer who was 60 and had largely been written off by the public when she became determined to fulfill her lifelong goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. “You’re never too old to chase your dreams,” she declares in the film’s rousing final scene, one which feels destined to end up as an Oscar clip, and will surely appeal to the Academy’s numerous older voters. She also ticks so many of the boxes that often feel like a prerequisite for an Oscar win—she’s playing a real person, doing something physically strenuous, and undergoing a dramatic transformation, as her character becomes more sunburned and injury-ridden—but simultaneously manages to make Diana Nyad feel like so much more than simply an inspirational figurehead, reveling in her hotheadedness and solipsism.

It’s never safe to count out the veteran—remember when Frances McDormand scooped the best actress prize for Nomadland in 2021, the year when everyone thought the race was between Viola Davis and Carey Mulligan?—but the only thing that’s likely to prevent Bening from winning is the fact that her truly great performance is competing against four utterly exceptional ones.

The industry stalwart: Carey Mulligan

Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix

Which brings us to Mulligan, who in Maestro*—*yes, another Netflix biopic—gives one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen as the luminous wife of Leonard Bernstein, Felicia Montealegre. She’s captivating from the second she steps on screen, but as the pressures of their marriage slowly weigh her down, her veneer of good-natured dutifulness begins to chip. We see her frustrations, her crushing disappointments, and her simmering anger slowly bubble to the surface, as well as her wistful realization that, even with everything she’s already endured, she will still almost certainly spend the rest of her life devoting herself to this man. Then, she suddenly falls ill, and Mulligan is nothing short of virtuosic in her portrayal of an increasingly frail Felicia reaching the end of her life, her previous affection for her loved ones giving way to crankiness and exasperation. Her work is as subtle as it is emotionally devastating.

In any other year, she’d be sweeping up awards by the boatload, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Mulligan will emerge victorious this time around. The Academy’s enthusiasm for Maestro seems to be waning, and despite its seven nods, there’s a real possibility that it could go home empty-handed, perhaps barring a statuette for make-up and hairstyling (that nose will surely be recognized). Still, if Mulligan were somehow able to defy the doubters, I’d be thrilled—this is the 38-year-old Brit’s third Oscar nomination, after An Education and Promising Young Woman, and over the past two decades, she’s proven herself to be one of the most consistently brilliant performers around. She’s long overdue for her moment on the podium.

The Dark Horse: Sandra Hüller

Photo: Neon

The last-minute twist that could make this awards season one for the ages? If Hüller, the 45-year-old German actor who gives a wonderfully cryptic turn as a novelist accused of killing her husband in Anatomy of a Fall, swoops in to claim the top prize at the eleventh hour. She’s fantastic in the film—endlessly fascinating, thrillingly prickly, and impossible to pin down—and it’s clear that the Academy has fallen for it, awarding the courtroom drama five nominations including Justine Triet’s surprise best director nod.

The other factor that could prove influential is that Hüller also gives a powerhouse performance in another arthouse hit which has been showered with Oscar nominations (also five, to be exact): The Zone of Interest, in which she’s chilling as the self-involved wife of a Nazi commandant living on the borders of Auschwitz. Many predicted her to score a Best Supporting Actress nod for the part—she missed out, but the collective goodwill around both performances could very well spearhead her to a Best Actress victory, as a way of marking her breakout year.

Much has been made of the Academy’s expansion of its voter base over the past few years—shifts which have made it increasingly more international and led to more non-English-language projects and performers getting more attention—but if Hüller were to sneak in there and win, it would be confirmation that far more has changed than many of us realized. In short, it’d be a delight.

The returning favourite: Emma Stone

Photo: Yorgos Lanthimos

Standing in Hüller’s way, however, is Stone, who is a gloriously unpredictable force of nature in Poor Things. As a resurrected Victorian woman with the brain of a baby, we see her grow from a gurgling, waddling, rebellious toddler into a young woman who flees to Europe with a salacious rake and eventually returns home to become a surgeon.

It is, simply, like nothing I’ve ever seen before and Stone gives what is easily one of the performances of the decade—everything from her body language and gait to her speech patterns and the way she claps her hands, with the abundant enthusiasm of a child, is scrupulously thought through. You believe her completely when she’s an infant, just as you believe her as an awkward adult. If the Academy is eager to reward the person who’s done the most work—and they often are—then the prize is Stone’s, and she’d certainly be my personal choice to win.

But, it’s far from a done deal: The 35-year-old Arizona native won a best-actress Oscar just seven years ago, for La La Land, and some feel that it’d be far too soon to reward her again. For now, though, all eyes are on the SAG Awards, which are frequently predictive of Oscar acting wins, and should give us some indication of which way the pendulum is swinging.

The history-making newcomer: Lily Gladstone

Photo: Apple Tv+

If there’s anyone that can feasibly stop Stone, though, it’s Gladstone. In Killers of the Flower Moon, the 37-year-old Native American actor—who would become the first Indigenous performer to take home the best-actress statuette if things go her way on Oscar night—is stunning as a well-heeled member of the Osage Nation who witnesses the destruction of her family and community. She’s often silent, speaking volumes with her eyes, the crinkle above her brow, and the curved corners of her mouth—so much so that she entirely overshadows her showier castmates (Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio and double Oscar winner Robert De Niro).

Later on in the film, when she’s weakened by illness, she clings to her husband who is slowly poisoning her, and you wonder if she’s aware of what’s really happening and letting it happen anyway. You love her deeply, and yet she remains somewhat unknowable. It’s the kind of quiet, intricately detailed performance that the Oscars often overlook in favor of triumphant speeches and grandstanding—but it’s exactly the sort of work the Academy ought to be rewarding.

However, there are still some, myself included, who wonder if she’s actually in the film for long enough to warrant a leading-actress win. (She appears in less than a third of Killers of the Flower Moon, with just 56 minutes of screen time across a 3 hour and 26 minute runtime, compared to DiCaprio’s 1 hour 49 minutes. De Niro has a more comparable 47 minutes, for instance, and is in the best supporting actor race.) Is it really possible for a performance like that to compete against the work of Stone and Hüller, two women who are not only excellent but also in almost every frame of their movies?

There’s also the matter of the film itself, which did receive an impressive 10 Oscar nods, but missed out on a few key nominations, including Best Actor for DiCaprio and Best Adapted Screenplay. These snubs suggest that overall support for the crime saga may be slightly lower than once predicted. Stone’s Poor Things, for example, fared slightly better, with 11 nods.

Still, all of this could work in Gladstone’s favor: Even those who didn’t love the movie won’t be able to fault her performance, and rewarding it while ignoring DiCaprio can be seen as a way of reprimanding the film’s own tendency to prioritize his experience over hers. The history-making nature of Gladstone’s win would also be heartening, and she’d be sure to give a moving speech which would bring a certain weight and gravitas to the Oscars ceremony.

All of which is to say, I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see what happens on March 10—and whatever the result, it’s certain that this year’s best actress line-up will be remembered as one of the best in decades.

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