Granger on Film: Oscar nominations set records for best performances

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is available to stream on Netflix.

Netflix / Contributed photo

Although the entire Academy membership votes on the final Oscar ballot, members of the Actors Branch nominated these best performances — meaning it’s the highest accolade an actress/actor can get because it’s from her/his peers. “It’s an honor just to be nominated,” most say.

When Viola Davis was selected as the famous blues singer in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” she became the most-nominated Black actress in Oscar history. She won Best Supporting Actress in 2017 for “Fences.” Previously, she was voted for Best Actress in “The Help” (2012) and for Best Supporting Actress in “Doubt” (2009).

“Ma Rainey was a woman who was unapologetic about her worth and her power,” Davis said. “She’s constantly reminding people who she is, and that had a transformative effect on me too.”

A win would make Viola Davis the only Black woman with multiple Oscars and just the second Black woman to win Best Actress, following Halle Berry in 2002 for “Monster’s Ball.”

“For me, it’s a reflection of the lack of opportunities and access to opportunities people of color have had in this business,” Davis notes.

She’s competing against another Black actress, Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day for the historical drama “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” marking only the second time that two Black actresses are in contention for that honor. Back in 1973, Cecily Tyson and Diana Ross were nominated for “Sounder” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” respectively. Neither won that year; instead, the Oscar went to Liza Minnelli for “Cabaret.”

“Billie is such an iconic figure. I went from 163 to 124 pounds and learned to drink and smoke,” confesses Andra Day. “I spent hours working with this amazing dialect coach. I was desperate because this was my first film role. I just asked God to give me her pain and her trauma. That emerged every time she victoriously sang ‘Strange Fruit.’”

Favored in the Best Actress category is Frances McDormand in “Nomadland,” playing a wandering woman who seeks liberation while living in her van. That films hits the pandemic zeitgeist, addressing economic and environmental issues, as well as aging, grieving, loneliness, self-sufficiency, spirituality and identity.

A two-time Oscar-winner (“Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), McDormand was attracted to the fragility of her character, desperately holding any semblance of love lost and fleeing from one that’s found: “There is so much of Fern (her character) in me and so much of me in Fern.”

In “Promising Young Woman,” Carey Mulligan plays a med school dropout who spends most of her free time at bars, pretending to be fall-on-the-floor drunk until some guy inevitably brings her back to his place and makes moves on her. He doesn’t know she’s a self-styled avenger for the rape of her best friend.

“I’d never read anything like it,” Mulligan says, “It terrified me. It also made me laugh. I have a gut instinct when it comes to work, so I immediately went for it. If anybody else plays this part, I’ll be desperately sad for years and years to come.”

Vanessa Kirby tackled the 20-minute childbirth sequence in “Pieces of a Woman” with determination: “I’ve never been pregnant or given birth, so I wrote to a lot of obstetricians asking if they’d allow me to shadow them. Only one said ‘yes,’ so I went to a hospital in North London and spent many days on the labor ward…I learned a lot from the midwives about what the birthing experience is like…It was so primal as I saw the animal in each woman take over.”

Continuing the move toward diversity, the late Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) was given a posthumous Best Actor nomination as the ambitious jazz trumpeter in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He died last year at age 43 from colon cancer.

(In 1977, Peter Finch became the first actor to win a posthumous Best Actor for “Network.” In 2008, Heath Ledger won as Supporting Actor for “The Dark Knight.” Other actors who received posthumous nominations include Jeanne Eagles, James Dean, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Richardson and Massimo Trosi.)

Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim and first person of Pakistani-descent with a Best Actor nomination for “Sound of Metal.” He’s competing against Steven Yeun for “Minari,” the first Asian-American actor so honored. Previously, Yul Brynner, who descended from Mongols, won Best Actor in 1956 for “The King and I,” and Ben Kingsley, a British-Indian, won Best Actor for 1982’s “Gandhi.”

“When you hear your own name, it’s a weird feeling,” Ahmed recalls. “I just quietly gave thanks and felt some gratitude for this celebration, for collective recognition. Making this (film) taught me so much about myself. It was such an emotional challenge, one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.”

As the Korean husband/father who moves his family to a farm in the heartland and stakes a claim for a new life in “Minari,” Steven Yeun related to the cultural gap between immigrant parents and their children: “I really connected to the internal dialogue of my character’s reality…We’re still navigating a business/art form that doesn’t really have a lot of Asian-Americans in it. That’s challenging. Every step feels like a frontier. I’ve found pride in that lately.”

Anthony Hopkins made history as the oldest Best Actor nominee ever at 83. The previous record-holder was 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth (“The Straight Story.”) In “The Father,” he plays a man who refuses assistance from his daughter as he ages but soon begins to doubt his own reality. Hopkins previously won Best Actor in 1991 in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“The script was so attractive, so magnetic, so condensed and to the point that, as an actor, I couldn’t believe my luck — at my age — to be offered that,” admits Hopkins.

“In our industry, there is nothing more traditional than the Academy Awards, which sends a sign of hope that we will survive the pandemic,” concludes Gary Oldman, nominated as “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in “Mank.” “The Oscars are such a sign that normalcy still exists.”

“I could relate to Mank because I was a functioning alcoholic for the first two decades of my adult life,” Oldman goes on. “People romanticize it, even I romanticized it….I used to sweat vodka. It becomes part of you. My tongue would be black in the morning. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. As of March, I’ve been sober for 24 years, but I remember all the things that made me want to drink.”

Nominated in the Best Supporting category, Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova recalls filming the most infamous scene in the mockumentary “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” It’s with 76-year-old Rudolph Giuliani (former mayor of New York City). “He appears to proposition me by asking for my phone number and home address after I lead him into a hotel bedroom, where he lies on the bed and sticks his hands down his pants.”

Awards seem to come naturally to Olivia Colman, with accolades for “The Favourite” and “The Crown.” In “The Father,” she’s the dutiful daughter of a man with dementia. “I’d never read anything from inside the eyes of the sufferer of this particular condition. Normally, you’re watching and not understanding why they’re confused…and when I learned Anthony Hopkins had the role, I would have been mad to say ‘No.’”

Receiving her eighth Oscar nomination as wisecracking Mamaw in “Hillbilly Elegy,” Glenn Close is the most nominated living performer without a win. She’s also the most memorable in a forgettable film.

“I didn’t want to be distracted by my own face,” says Close, acknowledging her physical transformation. “Getting into the full hair, makeup and costume made her very different from who I was. It was very, very finessed work to make it subtle enough that it wasn’t me.”

Youn Yuh-jung (“Minari”) is the first Korean nominated in any acting category: “I’m incredibly humbled by the honor. I moved to the United States in the 1970s to St. Petersburg, Florida. I attended a Southern Baptist church there, so I actually experienced a little bit of everything (in the film). It’s very authentic and genuine…Earlier in my career, it was hard for me to get some roles because I was considered too unusual and different.”

Plus, there’s Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies — part comedienne, part screen goddess and all smart-mouthed business — in “Mank.”

“I actually thought I was far too modern to play the effervescent girl you wanted to know more about. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t fit into that world. The thing I related to most about her was that she’s brutally honest, and I too cannot tell a lie.”

Nominated as Best Supporting Actor for playing Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Sacha Baron Cohen had been intrigued by the Yippie leader back when he was at Cambridge University, working on a thesis about Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement.

“Hoffman understood the power of humor to attract supporters to the peace movement,” notes Baron Cohen. “His aim was to get some people to take risks to fight the Vietnam War, knowing that absurdity was a way to undermine institutions that he thought were corrupt…I’m a Northwest London Jewish guy, so I worked hard with a dialect coach”

Tony Award-winner/Supporting Actor nominee Leslie Odom Jr. captures the spirit of Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami” noting, “Sam’s voice was freer, more robust, both higher and broader, more weathered and versatile in a way mine is not. It was tough. But in the end, I am a better vocalist for it.” His “Speak Now” during the end-credits is nominated for Best Original Song.

As the guru-like leader of a sober house for the deaf in “Sound of Metal,” Paul Raci drew on his experience growing up with two deaf parents and his fluency in American Sign Language, along with being a Vietnam vet who overcame addiction. “For me, it was art imitating life,” Raci admits. “The lesson for all of us, I think, is you can’t really judge another man’s or woman’s journey.”

It was a bit of a surprise when LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya were both nominated in the Supporting category for “Judas and the Black Messiah.” If the two actors playing the title characters are considered supporting, who exactly is the lead in the movie?

Daniel Kaluuya said he felt challenged, replicating Fred Hampton’s energy and spirit. “I watched his videos and wondered: How can I move someone the way he moved me?...It was a fine balance to go for, a lot of pressure, until I realized that it’s bigger than me. I’m just a vessel, and he’s coming through me.”

LaKeith Stanfield admits he felt panic attacks in pursuit of bringing truth to his character. “I think I realized after doing this film how important therapy is. Sometimes you get so deep into things that you lose track…Sometimes in the process of playing characters who have been through a lot of emotional trauma, you end up tapping back into your own emotional trauma.”

Kaluuya and Stanfield have remained inextricably linked since they first met filming “Get Out” (2017).

“We’re lucky to be able to share the screen again,” Stanfield said. “We’re just getting started in Black storytelling. For real.”

This years Academy Awards broadcast is set for April 25 on ABC.

Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.