Once again, the Academy is staying in familiar territory by swooning over Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of the late Judy Garland. A thespian and charismatic character in her own right, Judy leaves little critical investigation or space for a potential actress to showcase her performative prowess beyond the role of enthusiastic imitator. We often hear how impressive it is for an actress to “transform” into her role, and Zellweger does this masterfully, sinking into the skin of Judy in her tumultuous later years. I cannot help but ask myself how much this “transformation” is due to hair and makeup over performance, however. If what we see in an actress aligns with our sense for who we believe a character to be, we are more likely to prescribe value to the performance regardless of the actual technical or emotional precision of the acting. It is this idea of likeness as acting talent that propelled previous acting wins for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)—even though he never sang a single note of Queen in the entire film—and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014), while Michael Fassbender was mostly ignored for his brilliant, subtle nuance as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs (2015) simply because he does not look like the late technology icon. If it is not already clear, I do not approve of the Academy’s tradition to award acting based on likeness, and I am disappointed every year when nominations highlight actors playing biographical giants with real-life personas that ultimately dwarf any attempts at dramatization.
Of all the nominations, only Scarlett Johansson’s role as Nicole, a mother and wife in the midst of divorce, is not a biographical portrayal (as in Judy Garland, Harriet Tubman, and Megyn Kelly) or retreading of previous characters (such as Little Women’s Jo March). Johansson offers emotional depth and an intense awareness of a brilliant actress and artist’s desire to gain professional independence and respect from her spouse. Her cold, distant tone when interacting with her overbearing husband (played by co-star Adam Driver) underscores her inability to effectively connect with him on an emotional or professional level, even as her love for him bursts with tear-filled warmth when she is alone with her thoughts. As noted for Driver's performance as well, it is the chemistry of both he and Johansson in their collision of passionate stubbornness that makes this film work so well. Her duel nominations as Best Lead and Supporting Actress is also nothing to ignore, especially when she also acted as Black Widow in Avengers: Endgame this same year. Such an impressive resume juxtaposed with her stellar performance merits even greater consideration.
One of the largest snubs in recent history is Lupita Nyong’o for her jaw-dropping original acting in Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up horror film to Get Out (2017). In Us, Nyong’o plays two roles: a mysterious wife and mother of two who becomes emotionally uneasy when returning to the beach-side house of her childhood trauma, and her character's "Tethered" double, a freakish, wide-eyed, hoarse-voiced monster from another realm. Nyong’o is terrifying in her ability to deliver an emotionally raw study of mental illness spawned from trauma through teary-eyed fear and grimacing, vengeful malice. Her acting sucks the life out of of the room and fills the screen with ironic, haunting dread, and will surely go down as one of the finest examples of horror acting in the history of cinema.