This year’s Best Actress contest leans into an Oscar staple, the biopic. Oscar-winners who played real people include Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf (“La Vie en Rose”), Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash (“Walk the Line”), Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn (“The Aviator”), and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in “The Favourite.” (More on nominee Colman below.)
Festivals Venice and Telluride launched a drumbeat of critical praise for first-time nominee Kristen Stewart as troubled, drug-addled Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s nightmare before Christmas “Spencer” (Neon). (The director’s last biopic thrust Natalie Portman into the Oscar race as “Jackie.”)
Overdue two-time Oscar nominee and SAG and Critics Choice winner Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) digs under the facade to reveal the human frailties of the Christian televangelist in Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight). Chastain’s hair and makeup team are Oscar contenders as well, like other transformations such as Charlize Theron’s “Bombshell” and Oscar-winner Gary Oldman’s “Darkest Hour.”
The final three rivals have all won the Oscar before. Also bringing an icon to life is another returning Oscar perennial: Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”) transforms into astutely daffy comedienne Lucille Ball opposite Cruz’ (also-nominated) husband Javier Bardem as entrepreneurial Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos” (Amazon), Aaron Sorkin’s surprising peek behind the scenes of the ’50s sitcom “I Love Lucy.”
Also trying for their second Oscar: Venice Best Actress-winner Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) rejoins Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar in “Parallel Mothers” (Sony Pictures Classics) as a woman whose baby is switched at birth with another mother; and Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) commands the screen as a vacationing professor who is reminded of her ambivalent feelings about young motherhood in Venice screenplay-winner Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Elena Ferrante adaptation “The Lost Daughter.” On the other hand, as Frances McDormand proved with “Nomadland,” having already won an Oscar does not seem to deter Oscar voters from rewarding a performance they adore.
This year, none of the nominees boasts the Best Picture advantage; contenders are listed in order of their likelihood to win.
Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)
Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”)
Olivia Colman (“The Lost Daughter”)
Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”)
Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”)