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

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.

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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