No one at The Ringer holds an Oscar vote, but we hold lots of opinions. Every day ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, one of us will share those opinions about who or what ought to win a little golden man. And since we so rarely get what we want at the Oscars, let our “Make the Case” series stand as the official record on the matter.
It is rare, though not unprecedented, for a woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her first film role. Marlee Matlin did it most recently, in 1987, when her performance in Children of a Lesser God also made her the first and only deaf actress to win an Academy Award. When Julie Andrews was famously coronated with her Oscar in 1965, she was already an accomplished stage actress and had starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s live, made-for-TV version of Cinderella—but Mary Poppins was her feature-film debut. Perhaps the Best Actress race most relevant to this year’s category, though, happened exactly 50 years ago, when a first-time film actress who’d go on to play the title role in A Star Is Born took one look at the Oscar statuette in her hands and quipped, “Hello, gorgeous.” She’d lost the Tony for the Broadway run of Funny Girl, but an Oscar for the film version was a more than adequate consolation prize. Her name, of course, is Barbra Streisand.
When Lady Gaga first rose to fame about a decade ago now, it was easy to see her—a glitzy, provocative, chameleonic pop star—as a millennial Madonna. But her disarming, naturalistic lead performance in last year’s A Star Is Born made this comparison feel stale—maybe she’d been our Babs all along.
A Star Is Born is not only Gaga’s big-screen debut but Bradley Cooper’s first outing as a director, and the whole thing crackles with watch-me-prove-you-wrong gumption. The movie knows that we know how easily it could have been a disaster, and part of the energy that surges through the first half of the movie comes from the people making it realizing that they (earnest, almost anachronistically passionate) were right and we (cynical, jaded) were wrong. In pulling off their respective evolutions into virtuosic filmmaker and unpretentious lead actress, Cooper and Gaga are not just playing against type—they’re playing against expectations.
When we first see Ally, she emerges from a bathroom stall in her restaurant uniform, hunches over her knees, and lets out a primal scream into the linoleum echo chamber: “AAAAAAAAHHHHHH, fucking MEN!” Cooper shoots her in a wide shot that makes it seem as though her environment has rendered her an insignificant speck: We’re far from the glamorous, soft-lit close-up lead actress introductions of old, but we’re also a long way from that time Lady Gaga opened a Grammy performance by hatching from an egg. (I’m not sure what was born that time, but I don’t think it was a star.)
Gaga plays Ally like a woman with no shortage of guttural rage, though perhaps a shortage of people who will actually listen to it. It wasn’t until the third time I’d seen A Star Is Born (for what it’s worth, an incredibly rewatchable movie) that I saw a connection between Gaga’s first scene and her most iconic one, Ally’s bracing, clenched-mic performance of “Shallow.” “HAAA AH AH AH AAAAAH” remains, of course, the meme that keeps on giving, but to take it out of context is to miss the kind of catharsis it provides in the logic of the film, and Gaga’s carefully modulated performance. That vocal run springs from the same repressed frustration Ally unleashes alone in the bathroom. The difference is that now, on stage, that sound has a place to go. It’s not just echoing back at her small, powerless body. It soars, it travels, and then the thousands of people listening to her scream back.
Against all odds, Gaga pulled off a poignant, gritty, genuinely great performance. It is true that there could be 100 people in a room and it takes only one of them believing in you to change your life. Unfortunately that kind of math doesn’t add up to an Oscar.
Have you seen The Wife? Swedish director Björn Runge’s modest adaptation of a Meg Wolitzer novel premiered at the Toronto Film Festival all the way back on September 12, 2017, had a limited U.S. theatrical run the following summer and, thanks to lead actress Glenn Close’s award-season bounty, is now back in select theaters. Close’s performance as stifled writer Joan Castleman made her a Best Actress front-runner before most people had even seen (or, I’d venture, heard of) the movie. Even by the time Close won the Golden Globe in early January, it was difficult to know whether people were reacting to her actual performance in The Wife or the idea of a Glenn Close performance in a movie like The Wife. To be fair, it’s a persuasive idea: Close playing a long-suffering matriarch simmering with resentment and finally getting to explode. An excellent actress who has been nominated many times but never won an Oscar finally getting her due, for—and don’t the Oscars love a meta-narrative—playing a woman who never got her due. You barely have to see The Wife to be compelled by this thinking. No longer will Glenn Close be ignored!
But: Have you seen The Wife? The movie, alas, is not nearly as persuasive as the idea. Close elevates it, and Jonathan Pryce is a worthy sparring partner as the Husband, but there is something half-baked and even amateurish about almost every other element of the movie. It all feels small and thoroughly minor, which in itself is a disappointment to Joan Castleman, a woman who we’re led to believe deserved a more expansive life. Over the past few months, The Wife has been a popular airplane movie, in part because that seemed to be the only place it was available for anyone to see it. But it’s also a quintessential airplane movie because you don’t really miss anything watching it on a screen the size of the person-in-front-of-you’s headrest. Save for a few evocative trembles of Close’s pursed lips, there’s very little about The Wife that fills up the big screen.
For better or worse, every Oscar campaign needs a thesis statement, and few of them are more convincing than, “It’s just her time!” This is the logic that, in recent years, has meant that such talented actresses as Julianne Moore and Kate Winslet have won their Best Actress Oscars for Still Alice and The Reader, respectively. (Have you seen The Reader? Even host Hugh Jackman had not, apparently.) Do I believe that Moore, Winslet, and Close are gifted actresses who have made great contributions to the movies and deserve to be recognized as such? Absolutely. But are any of those roles even among the top 5 that come to mind when I hear their names? Unlike Ally Maine, I won’t remember them that way.
If the Oscars want to continue to consider career over performance, and the long game over a particular movie, maybe they should be more upfront about that and disassociate the Best Actress and Best Actor awards from particular films. That’s the only possible logic by which it would have made sense to honor Gary Oldman over Timothée Chalamet last year (have you seen Darkest Hour?), and it’s the only way anyone can convince me that Glenn Close ought to win over Gaga this year. There was something electric and alive about A Star Is Born, and Ally was its beating heart. Ten years from now it’s the movie and the performance I’ll think about when I try to remember 2018; I’ll probably be struggling to remember anything about The Wife except the fact Glenn Close won an Oscar for it.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die … or, at the very least to revive them. Remember when Barbra Streisand won for Funny Girl? Well, she wasn’t alone: For the first and only time in history, that year Best Actress ended in a tie. Streisand, an up-and-comer established already in one medium but with a fine film career ahead of her, shared the award with Katharine Hepburn, an actress whose long, distinguished career spoke for itself. Perhaps the 50th anniversary of that split is the perfect occasion to repeat it.