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A year without Meryl: Actresses nudge Oscar winner for big-screen attention

A year without Meryl: Actresses nudge Oscar winner for big-screen attention

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It’s a rare year when Meryl Streep isn't in the conversation for Best Actress. 

Nominated more than any actor (with three wins out of 21 nods), she is as close to a sure bet as performers get.

This year – despite two starring roles (“The Prom” and “Let Them All Talk”) – she could be left off the list simply because the competition is so intense.

Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Sophia Loren, Carey Mulligan and Vanessa Kirby have risen to the top with performances that go much deeper than those of many of Streep’s previous challengers.

Arriving late in the awards year, films like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Pieces of a Woman” and “The Life Ahead” have been making headway on Top 10 lists. They’ve also piqued interest in female-centric stories and shown the possibilities if producers went beyond routine subjects.

Chloe Zhao, Regina King, Eliza Hittman, Kelly Reichardt and Emerald Fennell have nabbed attention as directors for films that could likely finish as Best Picture nominees.

The year of the woman?

It’s too early to say, particularly since much of 2020’s output didn’t premiere in theaters but on streaming services. Still, there’s a strong indication this isn’t a one-woman show and that all kinds of characters are lurking on screens.

Five to watch:

Nomadland

Frances McDormand stars as a wanderer in "Nomadland."

Frances McDormand, “Nomadland” – If you thought “Fargo” was a cultural shift, you haven’t seen this slice of life, which takes McDormand on the road and into a series of jobs and relationships with others who are leading a nomadic life. Traveling in her van, she’s willing to do anything to stay afloat and avoid settling down. More subtle than “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” it shows a quiet pillar of strength who isn’t afraid to clean rest areas and cook fast-food meals.

Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – One of the showiest performances of the year, Davis’ Ma Rainey simmers with resentment, pride and courage. She’s a 1920s blues singer who is about to record one of her most famous songs and no one – not even an upstart trumpet player – is going to change her mind. Davis has the moments that win Oscars, largely because August Wilson has written such a rich character.

Pieces of a Woman

Vanessa Kirby stars as Martha in "Pieces of a Woman."

Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman” – Like Scarlett, Kirby recalls the Meryl Streep of “Kramer vs. Kramer.” (She even has a similarly effective courtroom scene.) She’s a woman whose child has died shortly after birth, prompting many to believe the midwife did something wrong. Pulling inward, Kirby wrestles with her partner, her family and her friends over what’s the right thing to do. The opening birth segment, alone, suggests she’s an actress who’s capable of great things.

Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman” – Like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” Mulligan peels this role like an onion, revealing all sorts of emotional layers. Once a medical student, she’s now working in a coffee shop trying to find purpose after her friend Nina was raped and no one believed her. Seeing herself as a one-person crusade against toxic masculinity, she confronts men about their behavior and writes about them in her journal. When she happens upon someone she knew in medical school, Mulligan’s Cassie seems to be turning a corner. Instead, she’s headed in a life-changing direction – one that lets the actress surprise right to the end.

The Life Ahead

Sophia Loren stars with Ibrahima Gueye in "The Life Ahead."

Sophia Loren, “The Life Ahead” – Directed by her son, Eduardo Ponti, Loren has one of those “bookend” roles that lets her cap a stellar career. Against her own wishes, Loren's Rosa takes in an orphaned immigrant boy and reveals bits and pieces of her life as a Holocaust survivor. Loren plays all the plot points and has a moment with young Ibrahima Gueye that demonstrates why she has been a star for decades. Loren isn’t a glamorous actress, she’s the real deal, able to mine tears from something as simple as a flower.

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