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    The Best Actress Race at the Oscars Is Crowded, Unpredictable, and Weird


    Let us begin with some fond farewells.

    Farewell to Margot Robbie (“Babylon”). You danced. You cried. You puked. Your hair was from another dimension. Your third Oscar nomination, alas, was not to be.

    Farewell to Viola Davis (“The Woman King”). You slayed—literally. You made a hardened warrior both tough and vulnerable. You carried a big battle movie on your back as few women have. You already have an Oscar, a supporting win for “Fences,” and three other previous nominations. But you really should get a Best Actress award at some point.

    Farewell to Olivia Colman (“Empire of Light”). You played a woman who learns an important lesson about racism and has a mental illness. This should have worked. Plus, you give such kooky acceptance speeches. But you’ve got one of these Best Actress trophies already, and “Empire of Light” didn’t really take off.

    Farewell—and this one hurts—to Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”). You took a grieving-mother role that could have been clichéd and made her thrillingly alive and complicated. Your climactic courtroom scene had one of the most powerful closeups of the year. Your name wasn’t on the A-list before you played Mamie Till, but is now, and you shoulda been a contender.

    When the Oscar nominations are announced, as they were on Tuesday morning, it’s tempting to get caught up in “hello”s. (Hello, “My Year of Dicks,” nominated for Best Animated Short Film!) But, before we dive in, it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the departed, like letting a handkerchief fly into the wind. And so farewell to Emma Thompson (“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”), Mia Goth (“Pearl”), Naomi Ackie (“I Wanna Dance with Somebody”), Vicky Krieps (“Corsage”), and the dozens of other performers who had the misfortune of vying for a spot in this year’s Best Actress race, which was very crowded, very unpredictable, and very weird.

    Who are we left with? The race has long been assumed to be a two-way matchup between Cate Blanchett (“Tár”) and Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”), both of whom were nominated. The remaining three spots went to Michelle Williams (“The Fabelmans”), Ana de Armas (“Blonde”), and the British actress Andrea Riseborough, for a film allegedly titled “To Leslie,” which I haven’t seen and, in my heart of hearts, do not believe exists. More likely, it’s akin to “Home for Purim,” the fictitious Oscar bait in Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration.”

    Riseborough’s surprise nomination is the result of the year’s most surreal campaign. “To Leslie,” about a lottery winner who squanders her spoils, had a limited release in October and has made, to date, around twenty-seven thousand dollars, barely enough to cover a 2023 Honda Civic. During the nominating window, however, a slew of celebrities, among them Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Jennifer Aniston, rose up to support Riseborough, hosting screenings and posting breathless social-media testimonials. Many of their posts had similar language, suggesting a cut-and-paste job: “To Leslie,” we were told repeatedly, is a “small film with a giant heart.” What was going on here? A glitch in the matrix? A blackmail scheme? A celebrity fan club with a curiously limited vocabulary? The answer is more straightforward: Riseborough and the film’s director, Michael Morris, are well-liked industry veterans, and they didn’t have the funds to run a traditional Oscar campaign. So they enlisted their friends. The crazy thing was that it worked.

    It’s easy to be cynical: given a quorum of celebrity pals, you, too, can maneuver your way into the Best Actress race. The Riseborough affair recalled such wild-card campaigns as Sally Kirkland’s cannonballing into the 1988 lineup, for an obscure film called “Anna,” and Melissa Leo’s self-funded “For Your Consideration” ads for “The Fighter,” in 2011. (She won!) It’s hardly news that the Oscars aren’t a scientific yardstick of “merit,” and anything involving names such as Paltrow and Aniston couldn’t be called grassroots. Then again, why feel sour about an undersung actress in a low-budget drama getting recognition for what, by all accounts, is a great performance? The hand-wringing on Tuesday had to do with the question of whose spot Riseborough presumably “took.” A Black actress hasn’t won Best Actress since Halle Berry, in 2002. Was there something dismaying about a well-connected white actress displacing Deadwyler and Davis, whom prognosticators had well above her only weeks ago?

    Fair enough, but I’d sooner raise an eyebrow at de Armas. “Blonde,” based on Joyce Carol Oates’s fictitious account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, opened to scathing reviews, but Netflix’s flush awards operation has kept its star in the conversation. De Armas’s talents are evident—look no further than “Knives Out”—but in Andrew Dominik’s bio-pic she was out of her depth, restricted from showing Monroe’s wit or charm and condemned to nearly three hours of breathy suffering, as her character is subjected to the drooling predations of various men. And yet there’s no better route to an Oscar campaign than playing a messy show-biz icon (see Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker, Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland, and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury), backed by a hefty campaign budget. The nomination feels, more than anything, like an apology—both to de Armas, for having endured the degradations of “Blonde,” and to Monroe, for having endured the degradations of life.

    Then there’s Williams, whose appearance in this category comes with its own mishegoss. In Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” she plays Mitzi, the eccentric, love-addled mother of the director’s young alter ego, Sammy. Based on Spielberg’s late mother, Leah Adler, Mitzi is a thwarted concert pianist, full of brassy, nervous energy, who takes up an affair with her husband’s best friend. Williams drives the movie—but is Mitzi the lead character, or is Sammy? It’s the kind of role that could have dominated the supporting category, but, back in September, it was announced that Williams would be campaigned as a lead. This was the opposite of a cynical strategy, since it would be harder for Williams (who has been previously nominated four times) to win. Besides, Mitzi is the kind of role, like Davis’s in “Fences,” that often gets downgraded to the supporting category, because the character herself is a woman who plays a supporting role in her constricted domestic life.

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