As Oscar voters ponder their ballots, anything can happen. Yes, the four acting races look like locks: With precursor SAG, Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA awards going to the same four actors, two from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell), one from “I, Tonya” (Allison Janney) and one from “Darkest Hour” (Gary Oldman), things could get boring indeed.
Still, while Rockwell and Oldman are locks — they both tower over the two actor categories — the actress races may be closer than we think. Am I going to tell you to change your votes and risk losing your Oscar pool? No. All four winners are still the safe bet. But sometimes Academy voters are not the same as the other groups: they take the high road, go classy, reward the career actor’s actor with a statue — or decide a favorite film has to win something. Victory goes to the Oscar predictor who takes the occasional risk.
Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”)
Degree of difficulty: How many people have played Winston Churchill? For “Darkest Hour,” Oldman found an impish childishness and humanity inside the man, who was full of energy yet took a nap every afternoon, who drank constantly but never seemed to get drunk. “Everybody drank,” Oldman told IndieWire. “He had a thimble full of scotch and water he would nurse throughout the day. Sometimes people thought he was drunk because he had a little lisp, they took that as a little half-cup.”
Oldman brought venerated Japanese makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuiji (“Planet of the Apes,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) out of retirement to perform his three-and-a-half-hour daily makeup magic. (That’s another Oscar you can count on.) It took months to find the right balance to look like Churchill “without losing the performance behind the prosthetics,” said director Joe Wright. “To us, Churchill is a huge great heavy statue on top of a plinth; I wanted to bring him down from that and examine him eye to eye, with as intimate a portrait as possible. That meant a lot of closeups.”
Oldman is “a shape shifter,” added Wright. “Certain actors can make you see things that aren’t really there. They do that by the power of their imagination, like mime artists who believe a wall is there to such an extent that the audience believes it’s there too. Gary has that ability.”
Best work to date: His only other nomination was as John Smiley in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”). Could he ever top this? Maybe not.
The reason to see the movie: Many people did: “Darkest Hour” landed six Oscar nominations and $135 million at the worldwide box office. That’s a lot for just another period Brit war drama we think we’ve seen before. Clearly, we hadn’t.
Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)
Degree of difficulty: Never-nominated Rockwell is Dixon, the bigoted, heavy-drinking mama’s boy deputy of Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is the target of the wrath of Mildred Hayes (McDormand). “It’s an amazing, almost incredible arc in the movie,” Harrelson told IndieWire. “To go from, you don’t like this guy at all, to, you love him by the end.”
Playing dumb but likable is harder than it looks. Rockwell looked at Tim Robbins and Robert De Niro as baseball players in “Bull Durham” and “Bang the Drum Slowly,” respectively, as well as Tom Hulce as “Amadeus,” he said. “You bring yourself,” he added. “I’m gullible; you can play a prank on me. You enhance that side of yourself. Gullible comes off as innocent. On film, neurosis and eccentricity comes off as danger.”
For Rockwell, whose gift as an actor is to have both “a funny bone and a dramatic bone,” the simple version of Dixon is “Barney Fife turns into Travis Bickle,” he said. “Martin and I pushed the envelope. We had big comedy bones; if we pushed any further you wouldn’t follow it.”
Best work to date: After seeing the movie, Harrelson told him: “Sam, you’ve never done a part you weren’t great in, but I believe this is your greatest performance.” He is not alone.
The reason to see the movie: To watch McDormand and Rockwell, two actor’s actors at the height of their powers, go toe to toe is one of life’s great pleasures.
Favorite: Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)
Degree of difficulty: Mildred Hayes starts out the movie so frustrated and angry about the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, an unsolved, horrible, year-old crime, that she buys three billboards targeting Sheriff Willoughby for not doing his job. “The premise is about as hardcore as any premise of any movie ever,” said Harrelson. “The emotional value couldn’t be more extreme. Starting there, you are already at a formidable emotional plateau.”
Best work to date: This is the fifth nomination for McDormand, who won for “Fargo.” She makes us believe that this grieving, vengeful woman would do the outrageous things she does. We feel for Hayes, even when she kicks high school students in the shins or throws a molotov cocktail into the police station, burning a man inside. “You know [Frances] can be as ferocious as anyone,” said Harrelson. “You don’t want to get on her bad side — you never want that to happen. You know, she brings it. She’s totally immersed in the work, that’s all she’s thinking about. She studied John Wayne. Watch it with that in mind, you’ll see she’s doing John Wayne.”
The reason to see the movie: “I think the movie is cathartic,” said Harrelson. “We are living though Mildred Hayes. Frances is so genius and owns it.”
Spoiler: Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”)
Degree of difficulty: It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off this mute yet expressive role. We know exactly what mute janitor Elisa is thinking and feeling, without words. We also don’t expect this mousy woman to masturbate in the tub every morning during the three minutes her eggs are boiling. “She’s beautiful,” said Guillermo Del Toro. “One of the worst things in life is that the standard of beauty is imposed by a criteria that I don’t buy. Sally is one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen on the screen. I found her luminous in a way that to me has a purity, not an innocence, that was very remarkable.”
For Richard Jenkins, “She’s beautiful, and she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t believe it. You can’t tell her she’s beautiful, she won’t believe it. There’s no real ego there. She’s an incredibly humble actress who loves what she does.”
Octavia Spencer echoed the sentiment. “She is larger than life to me as an actress,” Spencer said. “She is painfully shy. She doesn’t want any attention. For an actor to be that shy, it was easy for me, knowing how she’s feeling in a social situation, to want to be protective of Sally. And she gives it back to you.”
Best work to date: The director wrote the part of the silent cleaning woman for the Mike Leigh veteran (“Happy Go Lucky”), who earned one prior Supporting Actress nomination for Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”
The reason to see the movie: Hawkins is the beating heart of the story, who makes us see what is beautiful in the merman, too. “Any time somebody is special, you are seeing them on the screen,” said Jenkins. “You are not seeing an actor or a character, you’re seeing them. You see Elisa, you see Sally. It’s not something she consciously does, that’s who she is. That’s the goal: to live your life on screen.”
Favorite: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Degree of difficulty: Writer Steven Rogers studied at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse with Janney and insisted that she play the fiercely opportunistic mom in his deal for “I, Tonya.” Rogers told her: “You’re going to play her mother, and you’re going to wear a fur coat, and you’re going to have a bird on your shoulder, and you’re going to be an alcoholic, and you’re abusive,’” Janney told IndieWire. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it sounds right up my alley.’ I was thrilled.” Later in the story, Golden even gets to throw a steak knife at Harding.
Rogers and Janney used the testimonies of ex-couple Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) to invent her character, along with a college student’s Harding documentary that included footage of the ice skater’s mother. “I saw a woman who was covering up a lot of anger and resentment,” said Janney, who submitted to three hours of makeup for each of her seven days of work.
Best work to date: “Whenever she’s onscreen, you feel safe, you know you’re being told the truth,” said Julianne Nicholson, her co-star from “I, Tonya” and “Masters of Sex,” where Janney won an Emmy as a guest star.
The reason to see the movie: After years of success in television, Janney finally gets to chew up the scenery in a great movie. And clearly loves every minute of it.
Spoiler: Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Degree of difficulty: Metcalf nails this angry, frustrated, loving mother who cannot help returning to old arguments over and over again. The movie is bookended by two tour-de-force car sequences with Marion McPherson at the wheel. In the opening scene, we watch her drive Lady Bird (Saroirse Ronan) to jump out of a moving car to escape her mom’s harsh commentary, and at the end we see her face crumble as she drives away from her daughter’s airplane takeoff for college back East, then turns around to try and catch her, then realizes she’s too late.
“I loved that it was a very balanced relationship, that one of them wasn’t just a monster,” Metcalf told IndieWire. “I think she’s being a great mom and doing everything within her powers to help her child succeed. It’s all coming from a positive place. It’s just a moment in their lives where there’s so much miscommunication and frustration and tension that everything escalates too fast.”
Best work to date: Metcalf has a gift for locating the intensity in mild-mannered women. (See: three Emmys for portraying little-sister Jackie on “Roseanne.”) She won a 2017 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” However, it took “Lady Bird” to get Metcalf back on a movie set for the first time in nine years. This is her first Oscar nomination.
The reason to see the movie: At festivals and screenings, audiences have been sharing their stories with writer-director Greta Gerwig and her cast. “It’s been incredibly moving having people relate to it,” she said. “And more than anything, it’s women who come up to me and tell me about their daughters. They say, ‘I’ve been that daughter, and I’ve been that mother, and I understand.’ Oh God, mothers are all trying so hard. It’s what’s so difficult about being a mother: It’s an endless series of knowing your daughter doesn’t get it until that moment’s gone.”
—Additional reporting by Jenna Marotta