What is it about the Best Actress race that makes it consistently the most entertaining of all the Oscar showdowns? Is it the high level of the work, which ensures there’s almost never a down year? Is it the chance to celebrate films that otherwise might get overlooked because of the Academy’s preference for male-driven stories? Sure, both are part of it. But I’d venture it’s also that the women competing just feel a tiny bit more like characters than the guys. Given the (sorry in advance) parasocial nature of the way we award-obsessives relate to Hollywood actresses, it’s easier to turn them into figures in some grand drama. We get more invested in their journeys, feel more for them when things don’t go their way; eventually, if they’re really great, we turn them into Snatch Game impressions on RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Just like Drag Race, this is a practice that originated in the queer community, but has now influenced and been appropriated by the mainstream.) There are exceptions, of course: Leo got a bit of this type of attention in his Revenant season, while reigning winner Frances McDormand does her best to keep it at arm’s length. But in general, the Meryls and the Katharines cast a longer Oscar shadow than the Jacks and Denzels.
Which is why I’m so excited for this year’s version of the race. And not just because, given what I’ve seen from the fall festivals, we are once again in for a stacked category. It’s because, as luck would have it, most of the actresses who’ve made the strongest early impressions are also the ones who come locked and loaded with compelling narratives and extremely invested fan bases. Put another way: There’s going to be a stan-Twitter civil war around Best Actress this fall, and I can’t wait to see it.
Let’s start with the woman GoldDerby pegs as the current leader: Kristen Stewart, who plays Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. The film takes place in the dark days of the early ’90s, when Diana’s marriage had collapsed but she was still technically a member of the Royal Family, which meant that, functionally, she was bound to a group of people who all feared, hated, and distrusted her. Spencer is a slow-motion jazz freakout of a movie, and Stewart plays the Princess of Wales as an open wound, constitutionally unable to prevent herself from bleeding out emotionally to everyone she meets. You don’t think of Stewart as the kind of actor who can disappear into a role but she nails Diana’s physicality: the birdlike cast of her chin, her look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me diffidence. (You could maybe quibble with some of her vocal choices, but I douhn’t.) For an actress who’s been dinged in the past for a lack of range, it’s a stunning, dynamic performance. I have questions about how much the Academy will warm to the movie — my rave that it was 15 percent less alienating than Larraín’s Jackie was not quite the solid-gold pitch to older viewers at Telluride I thought it was — but the mere whiff of Oscar buzz that’s built around Stewart in Spencer is red meat for K-Stew stans who have long hoped for their girl to get her due. Thanks to the disrespect Stewart faced early in her career, this is a fandom with more than a few chips on their shoulders. Their challenge will be to manage the transition from embattled minority to awards-season frontrunners with dignity and grace.
And what about Jessica Chastain, who’s been earning plaudits for her turn as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye? (Even if reviews for the film have been somewhat less positive.) For starters, you will probably not see a more physically transformative performance this fall. In this decades-spanning biopic, Chastain starts off college-aged, looking more or less normal (if a bit gauzy), then gradually evolves into the Tammy Faye of popular memory — which is to say, she becomes a human Muppet. But while the script and the makeup team occasionally turn Bakker into a caricature, Chastain’s performance never does. In every scene, she’s able to locate the real human hiding under those infamous eyelashes. Unlike Stewart, Chastain has been nominated before, but maybe less than you remember: only twice, with the last coming for Zero Dark Thirty nearly a decade ago. As with Amy Adams, there’s a vague sense of promise unfulfilled in her Oscar story. Perhaps for this reason, Chastain’s fans seem to be slighter older and mellower than Stewart’s. But they’ve stuck with her through the Miss Sloanes and Molly’s Games, and endured her very disrespectful snub for A Most Violent Year. They’ll be ready to do whatever they can to end her Oscar drought, and you can bet that Chastain, our most Extremely Online A-Lister, will have them fired up all season long. I don’t think the Chastain fans will be starting many fights, but if the biopic proves to have real juice, they may be ending them.
Of course, movie-star fandom is one thing; pop-star fans are another, more frightening thing entirely. Rounding out the trio of pundits’ faves is the woman who was once off the deep end, watch as she dives in, she’ll never meet the ground — Ms. Germanotta herself, Lady Gaga. House of Gucci hasn’t screened yet, but based on the trailers, Ridley Scott’s true-crime melodrama looks set to be an all-out campfest, with Gaga at the center of it all as convicted murderer Patrizia Reggiani. (I’m told that she and Jared Leto are the biggest Oscar plays in the cast, which may signal that Adam Driver is focusing on his other Ridley Scott movie this fall.) Three years ago, Gaga got dinged for being an Oscars arriviste; there could have been a hundred people in the room and not enough of them voted for her in Best Actress. Will voters take her more seriously this time around? If they do, the Best Actress race could come down to Little Monsters versus Twihards — the fan-war equivalent of the “Spider Man Pointing” meme. It’ll be a season of chaos on Stan Twitter, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the last time Lana Del Rey logged on.
Even a few low-key potential nominees are packing more online support than in a typical year. Take Catriona Balfe of Belfast, the TIFF Audience Award winner that seems likely to become an all-around contender. Focus hasn’t yet decided whether to slot her winsome mum in lead or supporting, but wherever the Irish actress ends up, she’ll take her TV fans with her. Have you ever met an Outlander stan? They’ll mess you up. The supporting-actress category should get a little bit of shine, too, thanks to the presence of Kirsten Dunst, who plays a mother on a downward spiral in The Power of the Dog. Despite three decades of iconic roles, Dunst has never been nominated before either, which she’s blamed on her inability to “play the game.” But she has been working the circuit for Jane Campion’s Western, and with the film earning Best Picture buzz, Kiki fans who dream of her finally breaking through with Oscar should have reason not to feel so pathetic.
I should note that these five actresses are not the only ones on the trail this year. McDormand’s back with The Tragedy of Macbeth, and the well-respected Jennifer Hudson has her Aretha Franklin biopic. And two more past winners, Nightmare Alley’s Cate Blanchett and Parallel Mothers’ Penélope Cruz, may yet arrive and invite their partisans to join battle. The memes and GIFs will be flying — “That’s gross” against “Take another look at you.” And this will be me, all season long: