Roger Ebert Home

The 2020 Frontrunners For Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress

Just like everything in 2020, the ever-escalating pandemic has caused the usually glitzy awards season hullabaloo to be considerably muted due to safety measures. With film fests going virtual, movie theaters being shut down, and the 93rd Academy Awards pushed to April 25 of next year—the latest date ever since was first broadcast on TV in 1953—there's a feeling in the air that somehow the 2021 contest might somehow be compromised in its impact.

But if you take a gander at the potential acting nominees being floated by Oscarologists on award sites such as Gold Derby and Awards Daily, you will notice that there are some pretty choice contenders in each of the four categories—with more than a few who could make history with a nomination or win. While streaming a Netflix title or watching a VOD hopeful on a computer or TV screen might undercut the visual impact of a movie, performances tend to stick out more in the intimacy of our own homes.

Thespians who are likely to be in contention range from previous winners and overdue multi-nominees to  lesser-known fresh faces. Ladies are first. Here is how the female acting categories are stacking up for now. My next column will delve into the actors who are deemed ripe for film awards.

Best Actress

Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”): Davis has competed in the lead category once before for 2011’s “The Help” and twice landed in the supporting category for 2008’s “Doubt” and winning for what was essentially a lead for 2016’s “Fences.” Her current film is based on an August Wilson play set in 1927 Chicago and captures the “Mother of the Blues” during a recording session. If Davis takes the trophy, it would be only the second time that a Black actress claimed the prize as a headliner. The first to do so was Halle Berry for her role in 2001’s “Monster’s Ball.”     

Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”): This TIFF title collected glowing reviews for McDormand’s performance as a flinty 60-ishwoman whose town has been affected by the 2018 recession and decides to live in a RV and roam the country looking for employment while encountering like-minded wanderers on wheels. McDormand—who has been nominated three times in the supporting category for her work in 1988’s “Mississippi Burning,” 2001’s “Almost Famous” and 2005’s “North Country”—has two lead actress wins for her work in 1996’s “Fargo” and 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” If she grasps a third, she will be closing in on Katherine Hepburn’s record of four lead wins.

Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”): This impressive relative newcomer won a Best Supporting Emmy for her role as the young Princess Margaret on Netflix’s “The Crown.” She was bestowed with the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her heartbreaking performance as a mother whose home birth overseen by a midwife takes a tragic turn. The gripping half-hour-long single take that opens the movie is an avalanche of emotions with Kirby at the center. After that bravura turn, she subtly evokes a special kind of grief as her own life is put on hold. Academy voters often like to reward fresh, new and attractive talent in the Best Actress category and this Brit beauty certainly checks those boxes.

Kate Winslet (“Ammonite”): At age 33, the English actress became the youngest person to collect six Academy Award nominations, with seven in total. She has been up as a supporting actress three times for 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility,” 2001’s “Iris” and 2015’s “Steve Jobs.” Winslet has been in the running as a lead four times for 1997’s “Titanic,” 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and 2006’s “Little Children,” eventually winning for 2008’s “The Reader.” Her current role? It’s based on British paleontologist Mary Anning, a fossil expert. In the film, she takes in a young geologist (Saoirse Ronan) and begins an all-consuming love affair with her boarder. If she earns a spot on the ballot, Winslet will bring her Oscar bids to eight, tying Geraldine Page’s count among actresses.

Amy Adams (“Hillbilly Elegy”): This long-overdue actress has accumulated five supporting Oscar nods for her work in 2005’s “Junebug,” 2008’s “Doubt,” 2010’s “The Fighter,” 2012’s “The Master” and 2018’s “Vice.” If she is in the running this year, it would be only the second time she has competed as a lead.  Alas, reviews for Ron Howard’s take on the struggling citizens of a down-on-its-luck Rust-Belt city have been rather mixed. That includes Adams’ rather unsympathetic performance as an unrepentant addict who neglects her young son and is unable to get her act together. However, Oscar voters just might connect more with her torment than the critics did with her rather harrowing performance in this time of need.

Sophia Loren (“The Life Ahead”): If you are nostalgic about movie legends of yore, look no farther than Netflix’s remake of the 1977 Oscar-winning French film “Madame Rosa,” about a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who dedicates herself to taking care of children of street walkers. Loren, who was last seen as Daniel Day-Lewis’ mother in the 2009 misbegotten big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical “Nine,” eschews glamour as an aging woman whose grasp of reality is slowly fading away while she tries to get a grip on a drug-selling tough-talking street kid in her care. Currently, the late Helen Hayes (1931’s “The Sin of Madelon Claudet,” 1971’s “Airport”) holds the record of the biggest gap between a first and second Oscar win. If Loren wins, she will best Hayes’ record of 39 years since she won her first trophy 59 years ago. One more record if she wins? Loren will become the oldest Best Actress winner ever, overtaking Jessica Tandy who was 80 when she won her trophy for 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy.”  

Best Supporting Actress

Olivia Colman (“The Father”): Colman previously won a lead trophy as the frail, rabbit-loving 18th-century monarch Queen Anne in the 2018 black comedy “The Favourite.” She could add a supporting trophy for her role as the caretaker daughter of Anthony Hopkins, who plays a character coming to terms with dementia. The disease is a topic in several films this awards season, with no less than seven titles focusing on memory loss, including “Relic,” “The Artist’s Wife,” “Falling,” “The Roads Not Taken,” “Supernova” and the acclaimed Netflix documentary “Dick Johnson is Dead.” “The Father” seems to be the one to beat right now, and it doesn’t hurt Colman that she is currently on TV as Queen Elizabeth II on the fourth season of Netflix's “The Crown.”  

Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”): The closest this personable actress has come to a legit trophy was when she was part of a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for being part of the ensemble of 2012’s “Les Miserables.” Her role in this showbiz tale about the making of “Citizen Kane” is that of actress Marion Davies, a wittily amusing distraction for Gary Oldman’s alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as well as being the mistress of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the inspiration for the ambitious man in the center of Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece. Reviews so far portray Seyfried as a welcome bright spot in the film.

Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”): As the holder of an unwanted awards record—the most nominations for a woman without a win—will an eighth nomination be Close’s lucky charm? Yes, the film directed by Ron Howard has received more than a few thumbs-down reviews, but as a granny figure known as Mamaw, Close glams down with her over-permed gray hair, oversized T-shirts, and chain-smoking habits. That’s the way Charlize Theron won her Oscar by masking her beauty as a serial killer in “Monster” while Nicole Kidman finally triumphed by a nose in her role as Virginia Woolf for “The Hours.” It also helps that Close is a big talent in a smaller supporting role, the sort that started her nomination streak early in her career. Mamaw is a ballsy lady with a penchant for colorful language, but she is also the heart, soul, and superhero of this tale as she commits to being the guardian for her adolescent grandson when his mom can’t get her act together and he is on the edge of following her path to nowhere.

Ellen Burstyn (“Pieces of a Woman”): At age 87, this actress could stand in Loren’s way when it comes to setting an age record. Besides being nominated for her supporting role in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show” and competing for Best Actress in 1973’s “The Exorcist,” Burstyn won for her lead role in a rare Martin Scorsese film with a female at the center, 1974’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” (Scorsese served as this film’s executive producer.) While Kirby is the main takeaway in the movie, Burstyn’s domineering mother figure gets her own moment, including an emotional monologue in which she reveals how she was treated as a child by her mother.

Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”): Like Close above, Youn’s granny is the beating heart, soul, and hero of her film. This fish-out-of-water sleeper about a Korean-American family who moves to small-town Arkansas in the 1980s and buys a farm comes alive when the foul-mouthed mother Soonja moves in with them. Son David resents that his granny has to share his bedroom but they soon become best buddies, sharing gulps of Mountain Dew and watching wrestling on TV. When Soonja arrives, she provides a buffer zone for her daughter and husband when conflicts arise. The drama based on filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing won two prizes at Sundance: U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Janes
Crimes of the Future


comments powered by Disqus