Oscars 2021: Acting predictions ... Chadwick Boseman and who else?

Chadwick Boseman earned an Oscar nomination for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
(David Lee / Netflix)

We could use a surprise or two to liven up the Oscars. Unfortunately, the acting categories have overwhelmingly gone to the favorites in recent years. Maybe Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) prevailing over Glenn Close (“The Wife”) two years ago qualifies, a win that managed to be simultaneously thrilling and deflating. I didn’t know how to feel. Academy members gravitated toward a movie they loved (“The Favourite” earned 10 nominations, whereas Close was the only nod “The Wife” picked up) instead of following their hearts and pursuing a sentimental narrative. (Why doesn’t the great Glenn Close have an Oscar? We need to fix that!)

Will we see any upsets this year? With the SAG Awards a couple of weeks away, let’s take a look.


Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”
Gary Oldman, “Mank”
Steven Yeun, “Minari”

Likely winner: Boseman
Could surprise: Hopkins

Boseman’s devastating death from cancer in August 2020 broke our hearts. Just 43, he stood as one of the most talented actors working in film, turning in dazzling performances playing such legends as James Brown and Jackie Robinson and gifting us with his portrait of a graceful, heroic king in “Black Panther,” the best thing Marvel has ever done.


This past year, we had two final chances to savor Boseman’s brilliance. In “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee used his spectral presence to provide a sobering moral compass. And then came “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with Boseman playing trumpeter Levee, raging at injustice and God as he fights for his place in the world.

I don’t know that “Ma Rainey” is the best work Boseman has done. (That’d probably be his dynamic, tortured turn as the Godfather of Soul in “Get on Up.”) And I don’t even know if it’s the best performance nominated this year, because you could make a strong case for each of these actors to win. But Boseman is going to win. He’s deserving, and it’s the last chance his peers have to honor him for a career marked by warmth, generosity and purpose.

Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman"
(Focus Features)


Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”
Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”

Likely winner: Mulligan
Could surprise: McDormand

McDormand owns two Oscars and will probably be back next year, as she’s playing Lady Macbeth in husband Joel Coen’s new take on the Shakespeare classic. In “Nomadland,” McDormand disappears inside the role of a grieving widow finding renewed purpose on the road. I’d give her the Oscar for this. But, then, if I was voting, she’d already have at least three Oscars by now.

Aaron Sorkin is out (for directing), LaKeith Stanfield is in (for supporting actor) and all the Oscar morning surprises and snubs.

March 15, 2021

Davis is also an Oscar winner. But she doesn’t have that much screen time in “Ma Rainey,” even though she plays the title character. Kirby and Day are the sole nominees from their movies, films lifted by their performances, to be sure. But they’re the least-seen of the women here.


That leaves Mulligan. There are a number of reasons to expect her to win: Voters liked her movie enough to nominate it for picture, director, writing and film editing. She’s been nominated before, 11 years ago for “An Education,” and probably would have won then if it wasn’t finally Sandra Bullock’s turn to take home an Oscar. (Some sentimental narratives are impossible to derail.) And Mulligan absolutely carries “Promising Young Woman,” playing a 30-year-old med school dropout exhausted by grief and rage and pain and eager to force others to feel those emotions.

So, yes, Mulligan probably wins. But if there’s an upset next week at SAG Awards, then maybe we’ll get that much-needed surprise.

A group of actors standing in Black Panther uniforms in "Judas and the Black Messiah"
Daniel Kaluuya plays Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah”
(Glen Wilson / Sundance Institute)


Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”
Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night in Miami ... “
Paul Raci, “Sound of Metal”
LaKeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Likely winner: Kaluuya
Could surprise: Cohen

Warner Bros. campaigned Stanfield for lead and Kaluuya in supporting. Voters decided to reward them both in the supporting category, which makes no sense ... but I’m glad Stanfield earned a nomination. Now the concern is that they’ll divide the votes among the “Judas” contingent, leading to a victory for someone else. This is a fun, wide-open category, ripe for an upset. How great would it be to see accomplished journeyman actor Raci win an Oscar? The serene empathy that poured from him in “Sound of Metal” soothed my soul. People love his story. Why not Paul Raci?

But vote-splitting isn’t really a thing. It does happen every once in a while, as when when Kate Hudson was up for supporting actress against her “Almost Famous” costar McDormand, and Marcia Gay Harden won the Oscar for “Pollock.” But more often than not, a consensus forms. Examples: Sam Rockwell over Woody Harrelson for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Octavia Spencer over Jessica Chastain for “The Help.” Melissa Leo over Amy Adams for “The Fighter.” I could keep going. It’s a looooong list. Robert De Niro even prevailed over two of his “Godfather Part II” costars, Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo. And you know what’s more amazing? John Cazale wasn’t nominated for Fredo. He was stepped over!


So history is probably on Kaluuya’s side. Probably. Because I wouldn’t know how to choose between him and Stanfield.

Alan Kim, left, as David, and Yuh-Jung Youn as his grandmother Soonja, in "Minari."


Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”
Olivia Colman, “The Father”
Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”
Yuh-Jung Youn, “Minari”

Likely winner: Youn
Could surprise: Bakalova

And look at that. We’ve come full circle, and we’re back to Close and Colman. I don’t want to imagine the shot of Close’s reaction if Colman wins, so I’m not going to go there. But I’m not sure I want to picture Close finally winning her Oscar ... for “Hillbilly Elegy.” I can’t be the only one thinking this. That should make it easy for voters to make the correct choice and go with Youn, the 73-year-old Korean legend who brought so much spirit and heart to the eccentric grandmother in “Minari.” Then we can have an Alan Kim reaction shot and all go home happy.