Why this year’s Oscar acting races are keeping contenders extra busy

Emma Stone stars in “La La Land.”
Emma Stone stars in “La La Land.”
(Dale Robinette / Lionsgate)

AFI Fest is ending, but the awards season tributes and suppers and meet-and-greet screenings are a long way from over. The calendar feels more packed than ever. Contending actors working on other movies used to receive a get-out-of-jail free card, removing them from the circuit’s obligations. Now, they’re flying in to Los Angeles any time there’s a break in their production schedules or the director needs to fix the lighting on the set.

The reasons for all this intense event enthusiasm are two-fold: a lead actress category that is bursting at the seams with worthy work and a lead actor category bereft of the kind of towering performances that usually populate the field.

Here’s an early look at the four acting races.



Emma Stone, “La La Land”

Natalie Portman, “Jackie”

Ruth Negga, “Loving”

Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”


Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”

Prime contenders

Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Jessica Chastain, “Miss Sloane”

Amy Adams, “Arrival”

Taraji P. Henson, “Hidden Figures”

Analysis: Stone and Portman are locks, brainy, gifted women doing some of the best work of their careers in movies that already have passionate followings. Four-time nominee Bening is a legend and very well-liked among her peers. In a less competitive year, we’d be hearing a lot more about how she’s finally “due” for a win for her turn as the inscrutable mother in “20th Century Women.”

The choices run so deep in this category that Streep, always a default choice among voters, probably won’t be nominated, even though her sly comic work in “Florence” is among her best recent performances. The wild card may be Henson, who doesn’t display a trace of “Empire’s” iconic Cookie as a mathematician helping NASA’s space program in “Hidden Figures.” If enough voters see the late-breaking crowd-pleaser, she could earn a nomination.



Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”

Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”

Joel Edgerton, “Loving”

Tom Hanks, “Sully”

Prime contenders

Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”


Miles Teller, “Bleed for This”

Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”

Not yet seen

Andrew Garfield, “Silence”

Michael Keaton, “The Founder”

Matthew McConaughey, “Gold”

Analysis: I’d be good with the five nominees listed here. It’s a solid group. But it could certainly change. As of my early deadline for this piece, I haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” And I haven’t seen the two Weinstein Co. films -- the fact-based adventure “Gold” and the Ray Kroc biopic “The Founder” — though I know people who have and their mileage has, as they say, varied.

I don’t see Garfield earning a nomination for the intense Mel Gibson war movie  “Hacksaw Ridge,” but his empathetic turn as the film’s conscientious objector hero is strong enough to lay the groundwork for a serious run for “Silence,” which, like most Scorsese movies, could prove to be an awards powerhouse. All the events Garfield has been doing for “Hacksaw” will help raise his profile among voters. Perhaps after coming close to earning a nomination six years ago for “The Social Network,” he’ll arrive this year.


Viola Davis, “Fences”

Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”

Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”

Nicole Kidman, “Lion”

Janelle Monáe, “Hidden Figures”

Prime contenders

Greta Gerwig, “20th Century Women”

Felicity Jones, “A Monster Calls”

Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”

Analysis: Any of the eight women listed here could easily earn a nomination. Gerwig owns an indelible dinner table scene in “20th Century Women” that voters will surely remember when they mark their ballots. Jones is lovely as the dying mother in “Monster.” And Spencer, already an Oscar winner, brings her usual uplifting energy and intelligence to “Hidden Figures.” Maybe she can join Monáe, who has the flashier “Figures” role and also a nice part as a surrogate mother in the beloved “Moonlight.”


Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”

Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”

Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”

Dev Patel, “Lion”

Stephen Henderson, “Fences”

Prime contenders

Jovan Adepo, “Fences”

Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”

André Holland, “Moonlight”

Hugh Grant, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Simon Helberg, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Aaron Eckhart, “Bleed for This”

Not yet seen

Liam Neeson, “Silence”

Analysis: At the moment, Ali, playing the kindhearted drug dealer father figure (yes, it’s a complicated character) in “Moonlight,” is the only safe bet here. We could see one or two nominees from “Fences” or, perhaps, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” if the academy’s older voters hold sway.

And many of these actors — newcomer Hedges, veteran Bridges (one person who’s laying low this season) and the excellent Patel — boast roles that could well be considered lead. That abundance of screen time could serve them well when it comes to lingering in voters’ minds.

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Twitter: @glennwhipp