As I mentioned in my previous post, Oscar season is in our sights and we (meaning me) need to focus heavily on how the award races are shaping up. I already made a post discussing the case for Robert Downey Jr. deserving an Oscar Nomination for his role in “Avengers: Endgame” so now I would like to give the same treatment to the actor who received my earliest endorsement this year: Lupita Nyong’o. Lupita starred in the critical, commercial, and cultural force that was Jordan Peele’s “Us” that was released in the early months of 2019, and since then a bevy of films have debuted that offer up some competition to her. So, does her performance still stack up in the race or was I just a prisoner of the moment? Let’s discuss.
WHY IT WON’T HAPPEN
The most likely factor going against her is that this award race doesn’t favor oddities the way the Best Actor race might. While most people would not have expected Olivia Coleman to win Best Actress last year if you asked them at this time of year, there is significantly less real estate space in her trophy case right now than there was back then. And not that she was not a deserving winner, but her role was much more in-line with what the typical Best Actress performance looks like, as she played prominent royalty in 18th century England. Lupita, on the other hand, is the lead in a modern horror film, which is a genre that is typically not given the same kind of attention that period dramas are. For Lupita to score a nomination, she would need to press against the tide in a race that more frequently feasts on melodrama and pretentiousness than it does on genre films.
Another contributor to her uphill battle is the fact that most voters have already forgotten her performance, or at the very least moved on from it. When it comes time for votes to be cast, “Us” will be almost a full year old at that point, whereas most of her competition will have more recent roles. It is no secret that we as humans suffer from a recency bias in virtually everything we do. Whether it be good or bad, our views of recent phenomenon tend to be more extreme than the ones that we have had ample time to digest. Her performance needs to be truly memorable to outlast the growing crop of newer performances that will attempt to dilute the favor voters may have had with it when it came out. You can say that it indeed was a truly memorable performance, which is a legitimate view, but do we believe this is an opinion that most voters share? It is difficult to believe that a view of an outlier will be near-universal in its positivity.
But Award Races are mostly political, so is any of that information even necessary? (Ok, it is a little.) If there is anything I learned in my 4 years studying Political Science in college is that in politics, perception is more important than reality. It doesn’t matter who is the best, but rather who everyone thinks is the best, and as I write this, the narrative around Lupita’s performance is rather quiet. No one is talking about her right now and it is unlikely that talks will pick up again since the film isn’t even in theaters anymore. What can happen to give her a boost in the polls at this point? Probably nothing if we are being honest. Major predictive sites currently have Lupita anywhere from top tier to dark horse status, and while that isn’t a death sentence for her case, it would be much more favorable for her to be leading the pack at this point rather than still trying to ascend to the summit.
WHY IT COULD ABSOLUTELY HAPPEN
The most important point that can be made here is that she was honestly phenomenal in “Us”. Despite all my issues with the politics of the award race, typically only performances that are actually quality are nominated. Simply being as good as it was at least qualifies her performance for the discussion, which is as important of a factor as they come. As they say, the best ability is availability. And, at the moment, I have only seen one other performance that is in the same discussion as far as quality goes. If she is Top 2 by the time October starts, she will have a very strong chance to stay within range of the Top 5 performances when the time for voting happens. If we are just talking about being nominated, which we are, it seems like a safe bet that she will have submitted one of the top performances by a leading actress all year.
With regards to the argument that the film is too old to still be relevant come award season, I call shenanigans there! The most obvious comparison to “Us” is the only other film directed by Jordan Peele, “Get Out” (2017). Aside from having the same director, “Get Out” also had a similar early-year release date (February of 2017 as opposed to March of 2019 for “Us”) and the same horror genre that defies the norm, and “Get Out” secured 4 Oscar Nominations, all in major categories. But most relevant to this situation, Daniel Kaluuya, the lead actor in “Get Out” was nominated in his category, despite very little buzz circling him before the Oscars. Kaluuya, like Nyong’o, was the face of his respective film and it seems the voters never forgot him, even if the “experts” thought they would. I understand that every award race is relative to the circumstances of its particular year, but Kaluuya has proven that someone in a situation that almost perfectly mirrors Nyong’o’s can pull it off. In fact, if we look at the probabilities, the actors in this situation are 1 for 1. Ask any baseball fan if batting 1.000 is good.
And if there is anything that last years debacle of the Oscars taught me is that the Academy is not as stuck in their ways as the world thought they were, for better or worse (see “Green Book” winning Best Picture as an example of the worse). Recent controversies surrounding the Academy, as far diversity are concerned, has spurred a youthful and diverse renaissance within the organizations voting population, which bodes much more favorably for performances that break the mold. Finally, voters aren’t all old, rich, white people who vote for the same crap every year… just mostly old, rich, white people who vote for the same crap every year. The environment might not be perfect for Lupita to score a nomination, but it is improving, even from 2 years ago when Kaluuya pulled off the feat that she is attempting to pull off right now. The fact that she is actually in the discussion at this point puts her in even better standing than Kaluuya was back then since no one on the outside even considered him a contender.
If it were up to me, she would likely get a nomination (This is assuming that 4-5 other performances in the coming months don’t outright usurp her standing, which is improbable to happen). The quality of her performance and the more unique traits of her role should help her standout amongst the crowd. I just hope that voters fairly give “Us” a look, rather than just casting it aside like they do with most early-year horror films. She is very deserving but this is completely reliant on voters being trusted to do the right thing, which is something I have a tough time doing. But, after totally evaluating her circumstances, I would give her somewhere around a 50-60% to get a nomination, which is pretty high. Here’s hoping the voters give her the respect she deserves.