Predicting Oscar winners is big business. A cottage industry full of Oscar bloggers make a living trying to anticipate the outcome of the single night of the year. Americans obsess over office pools, while legal betting on Academy Awards results has been a certified "hit" in New Jersey, and already expanded to other states.
Needless to say, understanding how the results of awards season precursors, like the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, inform the eventual Oscar winners is "increasingly profitable information," The Wall Street Journal reports. For those who watch closely, there are typically enough data points to reliably pick most of the big night's eventual winners, or at least to narrow the races considerably. Which is why it is absolutely bonkers that nobody has any clue what is going on with the 2021 Best Actress race.
Part of the fun of the Oscars, of course, is that no one knows for sure what is going to happen. Every year there are snubs and upsets, not the least of which was Parasite's surprise Best Picture win just last year. Half the enjoyment comes from trying to guess what will happen, and since this is the longest Oscar season ever, that means there's been a whole lot of time to debate predictions. Even so, the ceremony tends to be largely predictable, regardless of the year; Renée Zellweger's Best Actress win last year for Judy was practically a foregone conclusion. Even Olivia Colman's upset over Glenn Close the year prior, while contrary to popular predictions, wasn't entirely unforeseen.
Yet the 2021 Best Actress race isn't a matter of deciding which frontrunner it's prudent to back — rather, it's hard to know where to even start.
In early March, The New York Post identified the 2021 Best Actress race as "one of the most competitive categories of the year," but singled out Francis McDormand's performance as Fern, the drifter of few words in Nomadland, as the favorite, pointing to the actress' numerous critics group prizes. But McDormand's two previous Oscars, including one as recently as 2018, could cool voters on giving her another statuette so soon — which is why, when Carey Mulligan won the Critics Choice Award for her performance in the stylish rape-revenge fantasy Promising Young Woman a few days after the Post article, it appeared that early predictions of her as an "emerging … possible favorite" were starting to pan out.
Only … were they? Because Andra Day had already stunned everyone by winning Best Actress in a Drama at the Golden Globes for her "Oscar-friendly" role portraying Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which prompted Vulture to issue the caveat that "a race that looked like it might turn into a Mulligan cakewalk has gotten a lot less predictable." Things got extra confusing, though, on Sunday, when Viola Davis snagged the Screen Actors' Guild Award, usually one of the most reliable indicators for the eventual Oscar winner because of the members' significant overlap with the Academy Award voting body. At this point in the race, only Vanessa Kirby, of Pieces of a Woman, might be reasonably considered a "long shot for the win" — and even she won Best Actress at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.
So where does that leave experts, whose one job it basically is to get this prediction right? "Madness reigns," admitted Walt Hickey for Numlock News' awards season supplement newsletter. "I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen in this." Will Mavity, the co-host of the Next Best Picture podcast, tweeted over the weekend that "Viola Davis wins the #SAGAwards for Best Actress, meaning we still have absolutely no idea who is winning the Oscar." Smash Cut founder Karl Delossantos sanely opted out of trying to make a prediction altogether: "At this point, I think the Best Actress Oscar will go to Glenn Close for The Wife," he quipped.
The unpredictability of the Best Actress race is a rare Oscar thrill, particularly when this is only the second time that two women of color have shared the category in the same year (both women would also make history if they won). But the tight race might actually have less to do with the overall strength of the category than the lack of a single standout performance. Francis McDormand and Viola Davis, while both phenomenal actresses, don't give their best performances in either of the movies they're nominated for; I also wish Mulligan had been even campier in her role. Meanwhile, some of the best lead performances of the year — Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Carrie Coon in The Nest, Radha Blank in The Forty-Year-Old Version, or even Margot Robbie in the under-appreciated Birds of Prey — went entirely without nods.
Still, the categories are set; so, who will it be? I'm no expert prognosticator, but I like Davis for it: There's that SAG voting member overlap, plus we already know the Academy likes her after her 2016 Best Supporting Actress win. She also has the boost of being in a movie that is more or less an actor's showcase, is widely available to watch on Netflix, and is up for five awards — including Chadwick Boseman's all but certain win opposite her as Best Actor. Plus, of all the female lead performances, she might indeed be the most impressive of the bunch, even if it's not her personal best.
As my The Week colleague Brendan Morrow asked, summing up the state of the race after the SAG awards, "Some pundits argued Carey Mulligan was the Oscars' Best Actress frontrunner after she won at the Critics' Choice Awards, or possibly Andra Day after her Golden Globe victory. But now, could the momentum shift toward Davis?"
Sure, it seems that way — unless, of course, Kirby wins the BAFTA next weekend. Then all bets are off.