From ‘Lady Bird’ to ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ Best Actress Race Takes Shape in Telluride

Best Actress Oscar Race Takes Shape
A24

This year’s Telluride Film Festival has played host to three world premieres and a North American bow that have collectively lit the fuse of what promises to be an exciting lead actress race this Oscar season.

Friday night saw the world debut of Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” based on the memoir by Peter Turner. The story of Turner’s relationship with aging screen legend Gloria Grahame from 1979 to her death in 1981, it’s certainly a familiar tale. But what Sony Pictures Classics honchos Michael Barker and Tom Bernard had in mind when they acquired it ahead of the festival circuit was finally netting that elusive first Academy Award for Annette Bening, who stars as Grahame opposite Jamie Bell as Turner.

Bening has come close on multiple occasions, infamously losing twice to Hillary Swank (in 2000 and 2005). She’s probably due for a fifth nomination, playing Grahame’s world-weary confidence and festering insecurities with equal aplomb. But the film isn’t strong enough on the whole to pass her through, and the performance itself isn’t undeniable enough to clear away the competition (as Julianne Moore did with Sony Classics’ “Still Alice” three years ago). It doesn’t help that she’s facing a field that will only grow in strength.

Also unspooling Friday was Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut “Lady Bird,” which planted a flag for two-time nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement,” “Brooklyn”). The film is a delightful gem, plucked from Gerwig’s own experiences growing up in Northern California, and it further cements Ronan as one of the great actresses of her generation. Ronan navigates the usual coming-of-age tropes with an assured grace that brings the character of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson to vibrant life. And by the way, Laurie Metcalf stands a supporting actress shot as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion. The two actresses paint a deliciously complex relationship that rings true.

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Saturday brought the reigning best actress champ to the table in the form of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes,” which recounts the story of Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King’s epic 1973 tennis showdown. The movie has been pitched in a lighter vein, but it’s quite an emotional experience. “La La Land” star Emma Stone stars as King, fighting for equality, coming to terms with her homosexuality, and ultimately etching her name in stone as one of the world’s most progressive figures. It’s a wonderful new gear for Stone, who really gets to shine in quieter moments opposite Andrea Riseborough as she finds herself falling in love.

Finally, Saturday evening brought the North American drop of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which first screened for audiences at the Venice Film Festival late in the week. It’s another gorgeously rendered fable in the vein of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” But it gives actress Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) the greatest opportunity of her career as a mute custodian working in a secret government facility who develops an unlikely relationship with a mysterious, quarantined amphibious creature. The film has played through the roof for critics, and Hawkins could certainly stand out for the difficult task she pulls off (not unlike Holly Hunter and Samantha Morton in years past).

Other contenders at the fest include trans actress Daniela Vega in Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman,” and even young Millicent Simmonds in Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck.”

Still to come, first in Venice and then in Toronto, is Frances McDormand’s fire-breathing turn in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Ditto Judi Dench’s portrait of Queen Victoria in Stephen Frears’ “Victoria and Abdul,” and Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” Meryl Streep will eventually join the party as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in Steven Spielberg’s “The Papers,” as will Kate Winslet in Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” and Michelle Williams in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World.” There’s also Jessica Chastain chewing on Aaron Sorkin dialogue in the screenwriter’s directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” not to mention contenders like Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound”) who have already shown their hand this year.

Indeed, it’s a stacked race for leading ladies this season. And Telluride has truly fired the starting gun with a quartet of strong players sure to be discussed over the next several months.

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  1. prasad says:

    Waiting for Saoirse Ronan in her next act ,wish this would be a truly memorable Ronan movie

  2. Kevin Tran says:

    My 2018 Oscar predictions for Best Actress: Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), Jennifer Lawrence (Mother!), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) and Meryl Streep (The Papers). Zero chance – Brie Larson (The Glass Castle).

  3. Matt C. says:

    No actresses of color doing award-worthy work this year?

  4. Daniel says:

    Could Streep go supporting If the movie is an ensemble play in the vein of Spotlight? Ditto Winslet, have you heard anything official about her character in Wheel – is It really a leading one? If the field is this packed already… What do you think?

  5. DHand says:

    What? No African American actress. Let the backlash begin.

  6. Mark says:

    Stone is a mediocre and overrated actress, last year Adams,Portman and Huppert were all way better than her. This film is a September release and it seems to be a paint by numbers story. It won’t be awards race.

  7. I’m definitely thrilled that the Actress category is stronger and more loaded than ever this year. And better yet, most of these are women in the actual lead, not second-billing as the wife character of the leading man as used to be the case years ago.

    At one time, I thought this would be Bening vs. Chastain, but I actually wonder if either/both might be shut out! I’ve always been a tad skeptical of Bening’s film. It’s like a combo of Being Julia and My Week With Marilyn, and I feared it being too fluffy. But I love Gloria Grahame, and hope for her legacy that it’s at least enjoyable even if it’s doomed to be snubbed.

    I’m feeling the most excited about Hawkins in TSOW. Aside from seeming like a magnificent film, I’ve been a big fan of hers. I was so thrilled when she scored that Blue Jasmine nomination, so it’d be wonderful to see her nab another here. Time will tell, but I think she’s got potential to make a claim for the win even. Critics awards will help.

    But then again, Winslet seems like she could run away with her 2nd win too, w/ Wonder Wheel. (Doesn’t hurt to have The Mountain Between Us. I kinda hope Elba has a chance, but that’s a different race so w/e.) I hope it’s at least as good as Blue Jasmine, as far as Woody films go.

    As for the rest, Streep is always a contender but in a race this crowded, unless she’s SO INCREDIBLE, I would like to see her take a year off from being nominated. It seems sorta unfair, as it did last year when Amy Adams was snubbed for that fluffy nonsense FFJ. (Semi-unpopular opinion.) By the way…Didn’t Variety state it was changed back to “The Post”? Just wondering.

    I’m so excited for McDormand, though. Seems like a hoot, and hope Harrelson, McDonagh, and the film as a whole also become contenders for nominations. Frears has succeeded in Actress spotlights, so I have no doubt Dench will do well. And Stone/Riseborough seem like they’ll do well together. I figured that was more of a Golden Globe contender, but Riseborough is such an underrated, wonderful actress. Loved her in Birdman (just realized this is a re-teaming for them, nice) so I hope Riseborough receives some attention and notice.

    Mother!….Intrigues me, but I think it’s either gonna be a flop or too much to handle for the Academy (while still being good). Hope for the latter. But J-Law seems unlikely. Ditto for Pfeiffer. No long overdue Academy love for her this time. As for Chastain, I know we’d love to see her win soon. But after seeing the trailer for Molly’s Game, I’m not exactly getting an Oscary vibe from it. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind being wrong and I look forward to seeing it.

    Wouldn’t Williams be a supporting actress contender for ATMITW? Hard to be sure, without knowing the focus/perspective of the narrative, but I feel like the kidnappers/Getty III or Wahlberg might be in the forefront. Maybe I’m wrong. I just figured Spacey and Williams would likely campaign in supporting, and both would have strong chances.

    Finally, Ronan. Happy to see her career continue to blossom. Like I said below, I can see her ultimately winning a Golden Globe for Comedy/Musical. (If not her, maybe McDormand or Stone instead. But given this would be Ronan’s first, seems more likely.) I hope Metcalf and Gerwig are contenders, too.

    Oh, and I’m excited for Mudbound. But I fear the Netflix Curse. Why can’t they take a hint and at least let it be in wide release for a month before making it available at home? That might satisfy the Academy. Ugh. Pity, for Mulligan, Mitchell, Hedlund, et al. If it somehow overcomes this obstacle, that’d be great. But given Elba’s egregious snub (that cost him his rightful Oscar win), I somehow doubt it.

    P.S. No mention of Margaret Qualley in Novitiate, eh? I hope she’s good. From the trailer, I can see why she maybe isn’t a contender. Seems like she’s good in the role and all, but not forceful enough. Meanwhile, Leo seems like a huge contender for another nomination. And Agron looks pretty terrific in it as well. (But most likely, Leo’s the only hope for a nomination. Some are predicting her 2nd win too, but I’ll wait on that. I’d just be satisfied w/ her 3rd nomination, if so.)

    Hope you’ll make articles on the supporting acting races next!

  8. Torah says:

    Saoirse Ronan stars in ”On Chesil Beach” screening at TIFF. An apparent awards season contender!

    • Bill B. says:

      I’m getting out of touch. This is the first I had read that On Chesil Beach had been filmed. When I read this fascinating book I distinctly remember thinking that there is no way that this can be filmed as so much of it is internal dialogue. Since reading your post, I looked it up on the IMDB site and was surprised to see the male lead as 5th on the list. Though this is about two individuals, the primary point of view came from the the male. There is no way that this can be filmed the way it was written, but since the author is writing the screenplay, here’s hoping that this doesn’t not deviate too much from the novel. Ronan is a perfect choice for the female lead, almost too perfect, but I don’t know a thing about the actor, though I apparently saw him in the excellent Dunkirk, nor the director. Sorta apprehensive about this, but also admittedly curious.

      • Bill, don’t put too much stock into IMDb cast list order. Pre-release, those lists are often a jumbled mess, adding or removing names at random. Also, Howle was great on this British series, Glue, so I have confidence in his big screen transition. He was in this year’s The Sense of an Ending, which I ironically forgot existed until typing this comment.

    • I’d hedge a bet that On Chesil Beach won’t get a US release date until Spring 2018, so it’s unlikely to be in contention. Plus, Ronan’s team wouldn’t want it to conflict with Lady Bird, imo.

  9. juan c alvarez says:

    The winner will be saoirse ronin.

    • Ronan seems great, but I think a Golden Globe win is more likely, in Comedy/Musical. I think the race might likely be between Hawkins (deaf character + residual Maudie appreciation) vs. Winslet (Woody Allen got Blanchett her 2nd too, and she also has The Mountain Between Us). I’m hoping Hawkins wins. <3 But I'd love to see Ronan get another nomination, and Gerwig a screenplay nod.

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