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Oscars 2021: Best Actress Predictions

Is the frontrunner Viola Davis or Carey Mulligan? This campaign is changing fast.

Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman"

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman”

Focus Features

In this strange pandemic year, with folks watching more at home, theater dates uncertain, and more than 9,000 slightly younger and more diverse Oscar voters, nobody knows anything.

A raft of stars are back in the Oscar race. Producer-star Frances McDormand plays a low-income woman in a van in Chloé  Zhao’s road movie “Nomadland,” which took home the Golden Lion at Venice as well as the Toronto People’s Choice award. McDormand nabbed Globe, Spirit, SAG, and Critics Choice nods, and won the BAFTA. McDormand’s only problem: she’s won two Oscars.

And Viola Davis has won one (“Fences”). She landed Globe and CCA bids for her larger-than-life title role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix), George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s hit play, and won the SAG Award, which gives her a momentum boost heading into Oscar voting (April 15-20).

More than ever this award season, critics played a key role in curating the movies to see online. Scoring her second nomination after “An Education,” respected British thespian Carey Mulligan followed up her Sundance raves in Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” (Focus) with a Best Actress win from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Awards, plus Globe and SAG nominations and a surprise snub on her home turf from BAFTA (due to new inclusion juries). Not winning the SAG Award doesn’t mean she can’t win the Oscar, but it makes it a tad tougher.

Unlike Davis, Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day sings in her film debut as the troubled jazz chanteuse in Lee Daniels’ “United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Day won the Globe and was nominated for CCA, but missed SAG and BAFTA nods and could wind up happy to be included.

As usual, the fall film festivals played a role in Oscar talent vetting. Breaking out at Venice was British rising star Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”), who scored Best Actress for her role as a grieving mother who loses her baby after a home birth in “Pieces of a Woman” (Netflix), followed by Globe, SAG, Critics Choice, and BAFTA award nominations.

Contenders are listed in order of their likelihood to win the Oscar. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I’ve seen it.

Viola Davis in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”


Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)

Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”)
Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”)
Andra Day (“United States vs. Billie Holiday”)
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”)

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