Oscar loves an ingénue, and you can always count on the Toronto Film Festival to offer up a clutch of young actresses who warrant serious Academy consideration: Last year, eventual winners Brie Larson (Best Actress, for Room) and Alicia Vikander (Best Supporting Actress, for The Danish Girl) both popped up here, as did several of the women who filled out their respective categories. This year, the two actresses on everybody’s lips — La La Land’s Emma Stone and Jackie’s Natalie Portman — are A-listers showcasing career-best work in Toronto, and both of them are surefire Best Actress nominees. But which is the front-runner, and can she withstand the potentially heavy competition yet to come?
Both Stone and Portman anchor enormously buzzy films, though La La Land is likely to prove the Oscar-friendliest. Directed by Damien Chazelle, whose 2014 film Whiplash was nominated for Best Picture and won three Oscars, it’s a modern-day musical starring Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress still trying to make it work in Los Angeles after several years of bad auditions. She eventually falls for Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, a musician who dreams of opening his own jazz club, but the biggest threat to their nascent relationship is timing: Both Mia and Sebastian are in the stage of their lives where they’re consumed with the gap between the towering stars they wish to be and the forgettable nothings they actually are. To continue on, they’ll either have to compromise or compartmentalize — give up their dreams entirely or develop thicker skin — and it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll still be right for each other once they’ve made those crucial, difficult life decisions.
The movie is essentially a two-hander. John Legend and Chazelle’s Oscar-winning Whiplash star J.K. Simmons pop up occasionally in small supporting roles, but the bulk of La La Land falls on its stars’ immaculately attired shoulders, and while Gosling has a good shot at being among the film’s multiple nominees, he fulfills the same function here as Tom Hardy did in Mad Max: Fury Road: He’s an effective under-player, mainly adding ballast as his leading lady seizes the whole movie. And boy, does she! La La Land is a two-hour reel for everything Emma Stone excels at, including singing, dancing, crying, and wearing canary yellow. While Mia seems like the sort of role a lot of women could play — she is a young actress, after all — I’m hard-pressed to think of someone who could make that part bloom like Stone does. It’s an incredibly winning performance, and it may be the performance that wins.
While Stone uses La La Land to confirm her numerous and apparent gifts, what’s so provocative about Natalie Portman’s work in Jackie is that she takes the opportunity to redefine herself. In this Pablo Larrain–directed film, Portman plays Jackie Kennedy as she navigates her last week in the White House after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and like the former First Lady, Portman has a beautiful screen presence that can sometimes come off as sedate or even opaque. Subsequently, you might expect this match of character and role would present Jackie as the ultimate Rorschach blot, asking us to divine meaning from Portman’s inscrutable face beneath that pink pillbox hat.
Instead, Natalie Portman treats Jackie as the chance to go full-blown Blanchett, bringing all her technique to bear on the pursuit of something bigger than real. It’s a thrilling, thorough performance, from the voice to the flashing eyes and formidable jaw-acting. This Jackie is no shrinking violet, though people have come to expect docility from her; instead, with her husband and future ripped away, she gives no fucks and tears into every potential confidante, including her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (played by Peter Sarsgaard) and the reporter (Billy Crudup) sent to take her first post-assassination interview. Jackie knows that this writer wants the gory details, and early on, she delivers a riveting account of her husband’s murder … before lighting a cigarette, cocking her head, and snapping back into patrician focus. Jackie has final approval over his article, she reminds him, before drawling, “Don’t think for one second that I’m going to let you publish that.”
Other writers have whispered that Portman’s performance careens close to camp, but I’d go one further: She dives with such commitment into this portrayal of Jackie as a high-diva grand dame that she convinced me for the first time that Jackie Kennedy could be a viable Snatch Game character. What’s more, that’s not a bad thing! Portman uses all those high notes to startle and surprise you, and what you’re left with is a performance of immense range (and rage) that ensures you won’t look at either Kennedy or Portman the same way again. By cracking open Jackie’s pristine Fabergé egg, Portman has delivered not just her best performance since Black Swan but her best performance, period.
So where do we go from here? There are still some significant contenders on the way, including 20th Century Women’s Annette Bening, who has been nominated four times (and lost to Portman in 2011), as well as Viola Davis in Fences, whose positioning has been the subject of industry speculation: Will Davis run as a leading actress, as she did when she won the Tony for Fences’ Broadway revival in 2010, or drop down to a supporting category, as Mary Alice did with that role during the original theatrical run of Fences? If both go lead, we’ll have quite the clash of titans in Best Actress (opposite what’s looking to be a wan year in Best Actor). At present, with what we know and have seen, I’d put my money on Emma Stone in La La Land — it’s an appealing, knockout performance in a movie with more Best Picture heat than Jackie, and Portman has already won before — but these women and the months to come will make it a real race to watch.