Last update: October 8, 2019
With awards season starting to heat up, we're taking a look at the leading candidates for Best Actress at the 2020 Oscars. As always, there are some big names in the running, but this year the field feels a little thin. That's a byproduct of some on-paper contenders not having screened yet, and a few titles falling well short of expectations. Many people (including us) thought Cate Blanchett could be in the running with Where'd You Go Bernadette?, but Richard Linklater's latest flopped critically and commercially. It'll be a non-factor in the Oscar race.
The fall festivals provided some clarity, but there are still a few lingering questions that need answering (as we'll get to in a moment). For now, here's who we feel are the top choices for Best Actress.
Renee Zellweger - Judy
A one-time Oscar winner with two more nominations to her name, Zellweger looks to be back in the race with this year's Judy. In the biopic, she stars as Hollywood icon Judy Garland. The film chronicles Garland's 1968 (one her prior to her death at age 47) trip to Europe to perform concerts in London. Garland herself was an Academy favorite, picking up two nominations in her career for A Star is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg. She also appeared in classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis, amassing an impressive filmography. And since the Academy can never resist films about the entertainment industry, there are many eyes on Zellweger in Judy.
Overall, Judy appears to be a fairly standard biopic that doesn't necessarily break new ground for the genre. However, most everyone is in agreement Zellweger's performance is extraordinary and arguably elevates the picture. She does a great job of evoking the legendary actress and transforms into Garland. At this stage, she feels pretty safe to be a lock and is the presumed frontrunner. That being said, it's never easy being the Oscar favorite early on in the race, and it'll be interesting to see if Zellweger can pull off another win. Her fate may be tied to how far Judy as a film can go, and right now it's not expected to make too much noise in Best Picture.
Scarlett Johansson - Marriage Story
Despite a wide-spanning career that includes multiple blockbusters and acclaimed auteur-driven works, Scarlett Johansson has yet to earn an Oscar nomination. That seems poised to change this year, as she has roles in not one, but two Best Picture contenders (Jojo Rabbit is the other). In Marriage Story, Johansson plays Nicole, the mother in a family going through a messy divorce. Reviews for Noah Baumbach's latest are universally positive, with the acting cited as one of the film's strongest assets. Johansson goes toe-to-toe with Adam Driver, delivering a compelling turn that's genuinely moving and affecting. With Marriage Story seemingly set for multiple nominations, it would be a shock if Johansson didn't get in.
The strength of her performance in this film is strong enough to qualify, but Johansson also benefits from having a banner 2019. She of course had a leading role in Avengers: Endgame, which is now the highest-grossing film of all-time. Johansson's earning high marks for Jojo Rabbit too, making her a viable candidate for two nominations this year. The Academy is never shy to reward someone having a "moment." Much like Driver, Johansson was omnipresent this year in multiple buzz-worthy projects, and is Zellweger's main challenger.
Saorise Ronan - Little Women
Two years ago, Ronan and writer/director Greta Gerwig teamed up for the coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, which netted the two Oscar nominations. They're back at it again in 2019 with the lates adaptation of the classic story Little Women. In it, Ronan headlines an all-star cast as Jo March, who is the book's main character. Jo is known for her stubbornness and quick temper, so it's a part that should fit Ronan like a glove. Anyone who's seen Lady Bird knows she can knock a role like this right out of the park. Obviously, the setting and time period are drastically different, but Ronan will be in her wheelhouse as a performer.
All that exists of Little Women promotional materials are still images of the A-list ensemble, so viewers will get a better idea of how Ronan stacks up against the competition when a trailer finally makes its way online. But right now, her pedigree is hard to bet against; at age 25, Ronan already has 3 nominations, quickly building up an overdue narrative even though she's still so young. It'll be interesting to see if she can snag her first win this year. Sony has high hopes for Little Women, pegging it for a Christmas release.
Lupita Nyong'o - Us
In Jordan Peele's latest horror masterpiece, Nyong'o had to pull double duty. Not only did she have to portray Adelaide, matriarch of the Wilson family, she (like everyone else in the main cast) was tasked to play her character's Tethered double. It was an extremely difficult and nuanced dichotomy to pull off, expertly crafting two distinct individuals that have multiple layers. As Us' twists and turns reveal, Adelaide is not just your everyday wife trying to protect her family, and Red isn't a mindless monster out for murder. There were a lot of intricacies involved that only someone as talented as Nyong'o could pull off. She may have an Oscar already (12 Years a Slave), but Us might be her career best.
Unlike Get Out, Us does not appear to be a primary Oscar contender (despite being rich with social commentary and thought-provoking themes). However, Nyongo'o's chances of landing a nomination are pretty good. As indicated earlier, the Best Actress field is very thin; since the competition (especially from some of the "Oscar friendly" titles isn't so intense), Nyong'o might be able to slide in. The performance is that good and Universal will surely put together a big push for her. Us faces genre bias by being a horror movie, but Nyong'o should elevate past that and crack the lineup.
Charlize Theron- Bombshell
A one-time Oscar winner (for Monster), Theron only has one other nomination to her name in her career (2005's North Country). That isn't to say she hasn't delivered any other great performances in the years since. On the contrary, Theron has a number of fantastic turns under her belt, displaying impeccable range in a variety of genres. She became an action icon in Mad Max: Fury Road, showed off her comedic chops in Long Shot, and earned Golden Globes nods for her collaborations with Jason Reitman, Young Adult and Tully. Even though she has an Oscar already, a case can be made Theron is due for another nomination.
She might find herself in the running for her turn as Megyn Kelly in director Jay Roach's Bombshell. The picture is scheduled for release this December, and has a stacked cast that also includes Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, John Lithgow, and several other big names. Primarily known for comedies, Roach recently shifted into more prestigious fare by calling the shots on Trumbo, which netted Bryan Cranston an Oscar nomination in 2015. Time will tell if this Fox News exposé will find traction on the awards circuit (the subject matter is extremely timely, so it might), but if it's a hit, it should be in line for some acting nominations. Once Bombshell actually screens, Theron could become a force to be reckoned with. Her eerie transformation into Kelly looks to be a chameleon-like turn a la Monster.
Cynthia Erivo - Harriet
Playing beloved historical figures is an easy way to get into the Oscar race, and for a while it looked like Erivo would be one of the top contenders. In this biopic, she plays Harriet Tubman, the iconic abolitionist best known for her work helping free slaves through the Underground Railroad. Erivo had a big 2018 starring in films like Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows, so she seemed poised to make another leap this year. Sadly, it doesn't appear that'll be the case.
Harriet played at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, where it received lukewarm reviews. Many feel this is a very standard film that fails to truly commemorate the incredible person at its center. It's worth mentioning Erivo is the definite standout here and was cited as giving a strong performance as Tubman. That said, it remains to be seen if that'll be enough to catapult her into the field or if she'll be left on the outside looking in. Harriet doesn't appear to be much of an Oscar player, so Erivo faces an uphill climb.
Awkwafina - The Farewell
Awkwafina's seen her popularity rise over the past year, headlining Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight last year. Now, she's looking to break into the Oscar race with The Farewell. Hitting theaters during the summer, the film received enthusiastic reviews, praising it for deft direction and engaging performances (Awkwafina among them). The Farewell could emerge as a leading contender for distributor A24, the indie darling outfit that doesn't have much to campaign for at the outset of the season (save for Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems). Even if The Farewell is too "small" to make the Best Picture lineup, Awkwafina stands a chance at a nomination.
Her odds will improve or take a hit depending on how Little Women and Bombshell fare when those begin to screen. If either falters and Ronan or Theron isn't a sure thing, Awkwafina could slide up and take one of those spots. But should those films deliver on their on-paper potential and are clear showcases for their leading ladies, then Awkwafina may have a hard time securing enough votes to land a nomination. The field is thin this year, but it's top-heavy right now, and the bigger names will likely garner more support.
Jodie Turner-Smith - Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim is another film yet to screen this season, but it looks like it could get in the running for some nominations if it lands with voters. The story is very timely, following an African-American couple on the run after Slim (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) shoots and kills a police officer in self-defense. Its trailers promise an emotional and hard-hitting drama about "the black Bonnie and Clyde." Queen & Slim being unseen so far makes it difficult to gauge Turner-Smith's chances, but that'll change in the near future.
Right now, Turner-Smith is in the same boat as Awkwafina. It looks like her best chance to get a nomination is if one of Little Women or Bombshell fall, opening up a slot for her to take. Of course, this is assuming Queen & Slim is a high-quality film, which remains to be seen. If it goes over well with critics, it could emerge as a late-breaker that shakes up the race.