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Who will win this year’s wild best actress race?


The unpredictable best actress race features, from left, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Olivia Colman and Penélope Cruz.

By Kyle Buchanan


The best actress category is doing the most.


Without a strong front-runner to dominate the field, nearly every awards show is offering a different lineup of ladies as we hurtle toward the March 27 Oscars telecast. Will that make it hard to predict the ultimate winner? Yes, but I’m choosing to revel in the chaos.


After all, the only actress who hit every notable awards precursor was “House of Gucci” star Lady Gaga, who wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. And while you’d normally look to this weekend’s BAFTA ceremony, the EE British Academy Film Awards, to offer some sort of clarity — as it did last year, when the organization picked the eventual Oscar winner, Frances McDormand for “Nomadland” — not a single one of BAFTA’s best actress nominees made the Oscars lineup this year.


Like I said, chaos! But fluid races are often more fun, and each of the five Oscar nominees has some notable pluses and minuses that could keep us guessing until the very end. Here’s my rundown.



Jessica Chastain, ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’


The case for her: A big, prosthetics-laden performance in a biopic is exactly the sort of thing that awards voters tend to go for, but even Chastain seemed shocked when she prevailed over a tough field at last month’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. Another win in the best actress category at the Critics Choice Awards this Sunday could give her some serious momentum, and it doesn’t hurt that she recently starred in the HBO series “Scenes From a Marriage,” offering a prestige-TV display of her range that can help contextualize the work she did as lavish-lashed evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Also, after two previous nominations, you could argue that she’s due for a win.


The case against her: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” came out all the way back in September and failed to make much of a splash with critics or moviegoers. And though that SAG victory gave Chastain a nice, televised bump, only one of the last three best actress winners there also prevailed with Oscar, suggesting a recent trend of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences going their own way.



Olivia Colman, ‘The Lost Daughter’


The case for her: It isn’t easy to win a pair of best actress Oscars in short succession, but after McDormand snagged two of the past four trophies in this race, why shouldn’t Colman add another to the Oscar she won for “The Favourite”? (I suspect she came very close to winning a best supporting actress Oscar last year for her sympathetic performance in “The Father,” and that will only raise her chances.) It helps, too, that she’s the only best actress candidate from a film with a screenplay that was also nominated — in fact, “The Lost Daughter,” about a conflicted mother, took the screenplay award and two more this past week at the Independent Spirit Awards, including the show-closing trophy for best film.


The case against her: Despite all of that love from the Indie Spirits, Colman’s performance wasn’t even nominated by the group, and she was snubbed again by BAFTA even though British actors are ostensibly her main constituency. (I told you this best actress race was screwball!) Some Oscar voters simply aren’t sympathetic to her character’s doll-stealing arc, and there’s always the chance that her co-star Jessie Buckley’s presence in the supporting actress category might dilute Colman’s candidacy, since they play the same woman at different ages.



Penélope Cruz, ‘Parallel Mothers’


The case for her: The membership of the academy is growing ever more international, which probably helped Cruz leap into this lineup and may even push her toward a win. Sony Pictures Classics is handling “Parallel Mothers,” and Cruz’s late-breaking momentum recalls the studio’s “The Father,” which netted a lead-actor win for Anthony Hopkins last year after it peaked just as his competitors’ films began to fade. And in a field of polarizing performances, Cruz’s well-reviewed work offers a chic choice that Oscar voters can feel good about taking.


The case against her: Cruz is the only actress on this list who was snubbed by SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards, and though it’s harder to score with those groups when you’re delivering a performance that’s not in English, that still leaves her with no real place to pop before the Oscars.



Nicole Kidman, ‘Being the Ricardos’


The case for her: Doesn’t Nicole Kidman seem like the sort of movie star who should have two Oscars by now? Her only win came almost 20 years ago, for “The Hours,” and when Colman and Cruz are also vying for a second statuette, Kidman could credibly claim that she’s been waiting the longest for her pair. Kidman’s “Ricardos” co-stars Javier Bardem and J.K. Simmons were nominated, too, suggesting that the academy’s sizable actors branch has real affection for the film. And of all of the best actress candidates who transformed themselves to play a real person, Kidman may have had the highest difficulty curve to overcome, since her character, Lucille Ball, was a once-in-a-lifetime comic genius.


The case against her: Though Kidman won the best actress Golden Globe for “Being the Ricardos,” the victory couldn’t offer her any sort of televised boost because a series of controversies pushed the Globes off the air. And it’s worrisome that Kidman couldn’t win with SAG voters, when she gave them exactly the sort of inside-showbiz performance — an actress playing an actress — that you’d expect the group to eat up.



Kristen Stewart, ‘Spencer’


The case for her: Stewart as Princess Diana checks off a whole lot of boxes: She’s playing a real person, she learned an accent and she went way outside her comfort zone for the character. It’s the perfect performance to prove how far she’s come since “Twilight,” and Stewart’s willingness to campaign for it should quash some people’s long-held assumptions that she considers herself too cool for Hollywood. Ingénue-inclined voters may also appreciate that the 31-year-old first-time nominee is up against three former winners.


The case against her: Stewart is the only best actress nominee whose film failed to score any other Oscar nominations, and I’ve talked to plenty of voters who flat-out despised “Spencer.” Maybe that’s why both SAG and BAFTA failed to nominate her, a fairly brutal double snub that suggests she just barely made it into this lineup. And with “The Crown” offering two Dianas (Emmy-nominated Emma Corrin and her soon-to-be successor, Elizabeth Debicki) and a Broadway musical also mining the people’s princess, is the market for monarchies simply too oversaturated to ensure Stewart’s win?

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