Every year, a few actors from small films manage to make their way into the
Oscar race. Think Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night,” Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” or Demián Bichir
in “A Better Life” in recent years. None of them were sure things until the morning when Oscar nominations were announced. With our fingers crossed for a few surprises, here’s a look at performances that deserve to become the next Wallis or Bichir or
Riva or Cotillard. The ladies start us off this week; our picks for male underdogs will follow.
Commenters should keep in mind that the list does not include
work that looks like a reasonable bet to get nominated (like Brie Larson in “Room” or Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in “Carol”), and that it only includes films
currently scheduled for at least a qualifying run during the 2015 eligibility period.
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, “Clouds of Sils Maria”
It seems likely that many Oscar voters will forget Olivier Assayas’ incredibly intelligent, richly performed “Clouds of Sils Maria” actually came out this year. Premiering to raves way back at the 2014 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the film was eligible for the César Awards — France’s version of the Oscars — last year (it’s a French-Swiss co-production).
“Clouds” was nominated in six major categories, landing a historic best supporting actress win for Kristen Stewart (she was the first American actress to score a César). While the film did find minor box office success when it was released in the U.S. a few months later, the chances of Stewart and her co-star Juliette Binoche (who was also nominated for César) finding their way into the American version of the Césars seems pretty slim. That’s a mighty shame given that their elegant, subtly powerful performances stand on par with the likes of another powerhouse female acting duet this year, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in “Carol.” In a perfect world, Blanchett and Binoche would be competing for the best actress Oscar, while Mara would be up against Stewart for best supporting actress.
Blythe Danner, “I’ll See You In My Dreams”
At 72, Blythe Danner has never been nominated for an Oscar during her five decades in the business (though she does have two Emmys and two Tonys, so you don’t have to feel that sorry for her). Could that change with Brett Haley’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a little indie that unexpectedly grossed $7.4 million this summer? Danner is endlessly charming in the film, playing a widow who forms a friendship with a young pool maintenance man (Martin Starr). Anyone who pops in a screener — one of the first to get out to voters — will recognize that any suggestion Danner would be a “sentimental” or “career” nomination is ageist bull. This is an actress at the top of her game, who just so happens to be in her seventies.
Cynthia Nixon, “James White”
Fun fact: Cynthia Nixon is an Oscar away from an EGOT — and would be with or without “Sex and the City.” The actress has won two Emmys (for “Sex” and for guesting on “Law & Order: SVU”), a Tony for “Rabbit Hole” (a role that would nab Nicole Kidman an Oscar nod when it was turned into a film), and a Grammy for best spoken word album (for the book version of Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”). When will Nixon’s O meet her EGT? If there’s any justice, she would at least get a nomination for Josh Mond’s “James White,” which premiered to deserved acclaim at Sundance and is coming out in November via The Film Arcade. Playing the dying mother of the titular character, Nixon is devastatingly vulnerable in a role that could have easily gone over the top. It’s a tiny film, but let’s hope people rally for it — and for Nixon in particular.
Bel Powley, “Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Another Sundance alum, Marielle Heller’s genuine and sexually frank “Diary of a Teenage Girl” somehow didn’t make too many waves at the box office when it was released this summer. That might hurt its chances at a deserving awards season run, particularly for its breakout lead Bel Powley. Heartbreaking and hilarious in one of the most honest female coming-of-age films in recent memory, Powley is definitely one of the greatest acting discoveries of 2015. Let’s hope “Diary” at least gives her the career she deserves. At the very least, here’s hoping she surfaces in the upcoming Indie Spirit and Gotham nominations.
READ MORE: Anne Thompson’s Oscar Predictions
Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”
Ever since “45 Years” won her the Silver Bear for acting at the Berlin Film Festival in February, buzz has been building for the Academy to finally honor Charlotte Rampling — indisputably one of the world’s greatest living actresses. She’s tremendous in Andrew Haigh’s study of a couple (Rampling and Tom Courtenay, also fantastic) whose 45 year wedding anniversary approaches as some of their old relationship history resurfaces. Switching it up from the book that inspired the film (David Constantine’s “In Another Country”), Haigh tells the story from Rampling’s character Kate’s perspective — and it leads to a genuine master class in performance. If anyone on this list has a real shot at an Oscar nod, it’s probably Rampling. Voters just need to make sure they see it.
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, “Tangerine”
The stories of transgender people have helped a lot of straight actors find awards season glory over the years. But wouldn’t it be nice if an actual transperson got a shot? Oscar voters can’t take all the blame. The amount of trans performers that have been given the material to warrant Oscar consideration is pretty much zero — until now, at least. Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” — which should end up at the top of many year-end top ten lists — is gearing up an Oscar campaign for actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. They’re just as worthy (if not much more) as sure-fire nominee Eddie Redmayne, who plays a transwoman in “The Danish Girl.” Oscar voters will finally no longer have the excuse that there are “no great performances by trans actors to nominate”; they just need to become well aware of that fact between now and January.
Sarah Silverman, “I Smile Back”
Anyone who questions Sarah Silverman’s capabilities as a dramatic actress has probably not yet seen Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back.” Playing a drug-addicted housewife suffering from depression and compulsive behavior, Silverman (who showed signs of this promise in Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz”) is a full-on revelation. At times brutally raw, her performance transcends an occasionally flawed script and offers one of the truest depictions of addiction found on any screen in 2015. “Sarah Silverman, Oscar nominee” still sounds like a tall order, but at least make sure you go out and see “Smile” when it’s released in theaters later this month.
Lily Tomlin, “Grandma”
By now, you may have noticed a trend on this list. Like Charlotte Rampling and Blythe Danner, Lily Tomlin has never won an Oscar (though she does have one nomination for Robert Altman’s “Nashville”). And like them, she will be in her seventies come Oscar night and deserves to be sitting in the audience as a nominee alongside the Jennifer Lawrences and Carey Mulligans of the world. Can all three women manage that feat?
In a perfect world, there would be no question here. But ageism runs rampant in Hollywood and the Oscars are typically no exception. So here’s hoping Tomlin’s wonderful work in “Grandma” — her first lead role in 27 years — is just one part of a trend not only on this list, but during this awards season in general.