Week 3, Part 3: Outstanding Lead Actress in A Movie/Limited Series
There is a very real possibility that the winner in this category was decided in November of 2020. Admittedly, quite a few major candidates had already announced themselves by that point. But as has been the case for the last five years, some of the most extraordinary performances of the year were given in this category. The winner may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t revel in the other candidates. Here are my choices.
Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You
It was more than a year that one of the most stunning performances in all of the 2020–2021 season appeared on screen. I hope the Emmys don’t need to keep looking back towards the past the same way Arabella did. Michaela Coel’s work in this series was astounding: it wasn’t just that she gave one of the most unforgettable performances of the year, it was that she wrote every episode and directed almost every one as well, which meant that she had control over every angle of Arabella’s story in a way that the writer who began that series never had in any aspect of her life. It was one of the most haunting journeys in all of 2020. And she has been conquering many of the awards: she took BAFTAs for Best Actress, Writing and Direction and triumphed at the Independent Spirit Awards new TV categories. If anyone is capable of a major upset in this category, Coel is likely to do it.
Cynthia Erivo, Genius: Aretha
A confession: I’ve never liked National Geographic’s Genius series. In a medium that has been able to do so much with exploring the depths of real-life people these days, Genius has always seemed perfunctory and by-the-numbers, the television equivalent of a term paper. No matter how great the cast and they’ve had some great leads, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be out of place in a ’70s biopic. I give full credit for Erivo for doing everything she can to make this material work, but despite being a great musician, she couldn’t make Aretha — the series or the title character — sing. So why am I advocating for her nomination? One word: reparations. In 2020, Erivo gave a masterful performance as Holly Gibney, the logical investigator who finds her chasing the supernatural. It was one of the best performances of the year, and would assuredly have gotten Erivo a nomination had HBO not made the incomprehensible decision to make what was clearly a limited series eligible only in the Drama categories. I know recognizing an actress for the wrong performance is illogical, but its one of the things the Emmys does best.
Nicole Kidman, The Undoing
I’m still angry that Kidman was snubbed for her work on Big Little Lies last year (Zendaya? Seriously?) and I’m still kind of stunned I have to make the argument for her in this category as well. Say what you will about the changes that Kelley made to the source material; the one thing he didn’t change was the way Grace Fraser had to react to the fact that she had never known her husband at all. And the fact that so much of the series dealt with Grace trying to find a way to support him despite the evidence mounting up, gave Kidman depths that she hadn’t been able to plumb in quite sometime. IMHO, though Kate Winslet’s work on Mare of Easttown was as good as Kidman’s work here, if the choice came to which Oscar winning actress deserved the nomination for an HBO series, I’d still probably lean towards Kidman. My guess is they’ll find room for both but they should remember Kidman’s. She sang the theme song and I didn’t recognize her voice until someone told me! Does that count for something?
Elisabeth Olsen, Wandavision
Olsen, like Paul Bettany, never quite got her due in any of the Avengers movies. This is unfair because, even before she became the Scarlet Witch, Olsen has always been one of the more talented young actresses working in the past decade. And it seemed a little bit of a shame that she finally might get recognized for playing the character she’s most recognized for. But Olsen finds a way to find order in the increasing chaos that surrounds her and Vision through the increasingly insane adventures that they end up going through as the series proceeds. And while the ending may not have been believable, Olsen still has a way of making the impossible seem to resonate. She’d say it’s magic. There’s more to it than that.
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit
I’m really trying to figure out what there is left to say about Taylor-Joy’s astonishing work as Elizabeth, the orphan whose horrible path is measured by two things: chess and drugs. Every actress in this category gave a remarkable performance. Taylor-Joy was perhaps the most incredible because it was all the more brilliant when she didn’t say anything. There was just something sphinx-like in that stare that you couldn’t tell what she was thinking — maybe because she was never trying to think more than the next game down the road. There was as much trauma in her story as everybody else in this category, but unlike so many there was actually triumph at the end. You know she will come through. Taylor-Joy has won every single award leading up to the Emmys. It’s a little early, but I think all the other candidates might as well turn their king down now.
Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown
Granted I am hardly the Henry Higgins of television, but I found far too much attention was paid to Winslet’s supposed mastery of the impossible Philadelphia accent in this series. In all candor, it sounded little different from Winslet’s accent in Little Children or Titanic and hardly different from Anya Taylor-Joy or Nicole Kidman. I am more concerned with minor details like how great a performance an actress gives, which even by the standards of someone who was not infatuated with the series was nevertheless superb. Playing a Philadelphia cop who had a great moment as a teenager and has never truly lived it down, Mare came across as someone truly damaged by her son’s suicide and who has been trying to control every element and it pisses her off that even her own mother seems to like her ex-husband better. Mare made slow passages towards healing as she investigated a horrible crime only to find her pursuit of justice would cause destruction to almost everyone she loved. This was a towering performance that would more than deserve an Emmy any other year. But Winslet’s been here before. She can wait.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Ruth Wilson, Oslo
Wilson is one of the great actresses of television. From her incredible work as Allison in The Affair to her work as the force of evil in His Dark Materials to playing her own ancestor in Mrs. Wilson, she has given some of the best performances and never been recognized. Just as it would be fitting to recognize Andrew Scott for his work in this brilliant filming of the award-winning play, it would be equally appropriate to recognize Wilson for playing the woman who sets the negotiation into motion, tries to hold everything together, and everything that follows, still believes in the process. I don’t normally advocate for actors in movies for this group of categories. For this film and this actress, I will gladly make an exception.