The Best Actress Oscar has always been a category fraught with discussion. Narratives abound when it comes to predicting who will win in the category: women who make themselves unattractive are a shoo-in (see Nicole Kidman in The Hours or Grace Kelly in The Country Girl), and it benefits to be an older actress who's "due" her trophy (Frances McDormand in Three Billboards).
These theories are trotted out regularly and, coupled with other factors that tend to plague women like likability, lead to a fervent discussion every awards season. This year sees a similar discussion being aimed at the Best Actress category regarding Glenn Close, Olivia Colman, and Lady Gaga. What do their nominations say about them and their films, as well as the Oscar narratives being created in their wake?
Close and Colman are by far the frontrunners at this point, with Close winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama and Colman winning the same prize for a "comedy or musical." If the idea of who's due an award is factored in, Close is the actress to beat. Her role as the questioning Joan Castleman in The Wife has received massive critical acclaim for over a year. With so much discussion about feminism and women's roles, the movie plays right into narratives about strong women and rewarding them for following their dreams. (Close's Golden Globes speech mimicked this statement.)
To her credit, Close is the Meryl Streep of nominations. She's been nominated seven times, going all the way back to 1983 for her performance in The World According to Garp, where she played another woman who bucked gender conventions. It's assumed that, were she to finally win an Oscar this year, it wouldn't necessarily be for her performance in The Wife. Rather, it'd be a career Oscar for all her films that failed to garner sufficient awards. The career award (derogatorily referred to as the "pity Oscar") is usually given to older performers who, as it's assumed, might retire or won't be around much longer. Close certainly isn't slowing down, but it'd be nice to reward her at some point and this would be a nice culmination.
But nipping at Close's heels is British actress Olivia Colman, whose role as the garish Queen Anne in The Favourite is generally beloved by critics and audiences. Colman is a wild card predominately known ⏤ like past nominees Laurie Metcalf and winner Allison Janney ⏤ as a television star. This is worth mentioning considering that a large portion of Academy voters are actors who made their bones toiling in TV. A win for Colman is a reminder to all the fledgling performers out there that you can work for decades and be rewarded with one key film.
Interestingly, likability comes into play with both actresses. Colman's speeches at several of the awards shows this year have been a solid mix of hilarious and humble, while Close has been championing women's autonomy in her speeches. Each woman is considered worthy not merely because of the roles they're playing and how those roles fit into the grander dialect of the culture, but because of how they're charming audiences and fellow voters. Make no mistake, being a likable woman in Hollywood is a necessity, and to discuss the role the word "difficult" plays in an actress' career would take more time than we have. But Colman and Close are perceived to be friendly, sweet, and most importantly, genuine.
Which leads us to Lady Gaga, who is considered a long shot at this year's awards. Even before A Star is Born released at the end of last year, pundits had it pegged to sweep every category. Now, it's expected to go home with Best Song and nothing more. Hope is still being held out, though, for Lady Gaga to make a comeback and secure the Best Actress win. It definitely wouldn't be unexpected. Judy Garland, herself made a career comeback, by winning an Oscar for the same role as Gaga in the 1954 iteration of A Star is Born. Like Garland, Gaga has had personal demons in her career and she's emphasized those struggles in her music, a documentary, and on the press tour for this film.
But it seems like much of Gaga's problems, and the loss that might come about, boils down to being likable. Social media has come out of the woodwork to berate Gaga's reactions to her wins, which many have felt to be fake and/or heavily choreographed. At the Golden Globes hosts Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh poked fun at Gaga's chronic repetition about director Bradley Cooper's belief in her, adding fuel to the fire that nothing the singer/actress was doing came from an authentic place. Does this mean Gaga doesn't deserve to win? It doesn't, but it does further show how much additional acting is required by women to win an award. Even if an actress is being authentic she might still be denoted as "fake." The Best Actress Oscar this year, more than years prior, illustrates how women are judged not on the merits of their work, but in how they respond to being rewarded.
This year's winner will definitely be interesting as, no matter who wins, a narrative will fall into place, whether it's Close being "due," Colman being aspiring, or Gaga being the unlikable girl who triumphed over everyone. No matter what the Best Actress Oscar has always had a convoluted history that compels women to act a certain way, even after the cameras stop rolling.