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Oscar Predictions, Part 4: The Acting Categories

Could we get a Timothée Chalamet day? Is Laurie Metcalf really a distant second? And what will Frances McDormand say when she gets on stage?

Sony/Universal/Ringer illustration

It feels bad to write dull predictions, to go with the chalk. What’s the point in even doing this if you can’t have a little fun? Well, the point is to be correct. And so I apologize in advance of these predictions, which will not scintillate. The run-up to the Oscars has become so elongated by the addition of so many other awards shows and guild presentations and free-floating punditry that there is an air of inevitability around all four of the acting races. Let’s try to understand why.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

This is the head-scratcher. Not the destination, but how we got here. At some point, everyone decided that Janney’s performance as Tonya Harding’s mother, LaVona, was our winner. She has swept the season, as unfazed by the other contenders as the parakeet parked on her shoulder. There is strong sentimental support for Metcalf, who is best known as one of the stars of Roseanne and widely considered one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. (I have wondered if the upcoming Roseanne relaunch were currently airing, in the way that Janney’s Mom is, whether Metcalf might have a stronger chance.) But Janney is the favorite by a wide margin. In a just world, Lesley Manville would be striding up to the stage on Sunday. But this is Janney’s to lose.

The Prediction: Allison Janney, I, Tonya
The Upset Bet: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Actor in a Supporting Role

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

More chalk. Rockwell’s character and the question of his redemption in Martin McDonagh’s film have been the centerpiece of the controversy that surrounds the movie, but his performance has been one of its strongest selling points. Is it peak Rockwell? No. I’d prefer he be recognized for his work in Matchstick Men or Moon or Laggies or Box of Moonlight or Charlie’s Angels or any number of superlative performances. But those performances are what put him in this race—the relationship he has been building in the industry and with audiences for three decades has propelled him to an “It’s time” coronation. Willem Dafoe had arguably the greater challenge in the category—as one of the only professional actors in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project—and I enjoyed Woody Harrelson’s work more, though the way his character abruptly exits the movie makes his story more difficult to tell during awards season. Supporting Actor always goes to linchpin characters, figures who irrevocably impact the lead’s life. If there’s one thing we can’t argue, it’s how Officer Jason Dixon influences Mildred Hayes’s life.

The Prediction: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Upset Bet: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Actress in a Leading Role

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

Speaking of Mildred Hayes: chalk. Months ago, much like Metcalf, there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm for Saoirse Ronan’s chances. With three nominations at just 23 years old, she has an opportunity to be the most decorated performer in Academy history. (For context, 21-time nominee Meryl Streep got her first nomination and win at 29 years old.) And later this year she will appear in an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel (On Chesil Beach) and an adaptation of a Chekhov play (The Seagull), and she’s playing the titular role in a movie about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, opposite fellow nominee Margot Robbie. So it’s fair to presume she’ll be back. And soon.

As for McDormand, there is a sincere excitement about what she’ll actually say when she gets on stage. Her reputation for candor and forthrightness mirrors Mildred, and you can feel the fusion of her public identity and the character’s in real time. Probably best not to confuse the two, given the murderous intent that comes with one.

The Prediction: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Upset Bet: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Actor in a Leading Role

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Picture an actor, a man in his late 50s, who we knew as a firecracker of charisma and unpredictability. His work signaled wiliness and unbridled id. But this actor is aging, and with age, he is taking roles with more clout, more prestige. After decades of respect for his unencumbered performances, this actor has decided to play a great man, and to do so, he must pile on 60 pounds of prosthetics and makeup, to emulate the confidence and sadness, to reckon with the tremendous influence he had on world politics and the iconography he represents to a nation. This actor is going for gold with the kind of role that typically results in Oscar.

I’m talking, of course, about Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s LBJ.

Kidding. But still, it’s worth posing the two against one another. Oldman is all but locked to win on Sunday, in his second nomination. He’s overdue. Give him a statuette. But did you know that Harrelson’s nomination for Three Billboards is his third? Why is he not in this conversation, other than the mild, dismissive attitude around Reiner’s film? It’s a small lesson in the whims of the Academy and the power of momentum. Oldman is just three years older than Harrelson. (He’s 37 years older than Chalamet, his closest competitor in the category.) Will Woody be in this spot three years from now? Maybe. Until then, it’s Oldman’s time.

The Prediction: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
The Upset Bet: Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name