The 21 most worthy contenders for Best Actress at the 2023 Oscars

The 21 most worthy contenders for Best Actress at the 2023 Oscars

The most competitive category at the 2023 Academy Awards features the likes of Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michelle Yeoh

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AVClub leading actress Oscar contenders predictions
(Clockwise from bottom left:) Everything Everywhere All At Once (Allyson Riggs), Causeway (Courtesy of Apple TV+.jpg), God’s Country (Courtesy of GC Film, LLC), A Love Song (Courtesy Bleecker Street), Till (Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pictures)

As the year draws to a close and the 2023 Oscars loom, we’ve reached that awards season sweet spot. Enough nominations are in from early awards shows to see how things are taking shape. And several major awards shows will unveil nominees in the coming weeks to help solidify the field. Now that we’ve made predictions and picks for best lead actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, director, and picture, let’s dig into the category for which those possibilities are particularly endless: leading actress.

That this category has more contenders than the others we’ve broken down isn’t exactly a surprise. Go back through Oscar nominations announcements past and you’ll find more cries of “snub!” are reserved for leading ladies. Our 2022 competitors include past winners (like Cate Blanchett and Olivia Colman), buzzworthy breakouts (Taylor Russell is the future), and actors who should definitely be Oscar nominees by now (our Michelle Yeoh campaign has been in place since March).

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Naomi Ackie, I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Naomi Ackie, I Wanna Dance With Somebody

I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY - Official Trailer #2 (HD)

Austin Butler dominated summer with his Elvis recreation, and now Naomi Ackie could do the same this winter with her take on another beloved singer, Whitney Houston. Ackie, a rising British star, stepped into arguably this season’s most intimidating role, but she did it with the blessing of Houston’s longtime collaborator and friend, legendary music industry executive Clive Davis. So what if Ackie lip-synched to Houston’s songs; that didn’t stop Reese Witherspoon from walking away with an Oscar for her work as June Carter Cash in Walk The Line.

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Cate Blanchett, Tár

Cate Blanchett, Tár

TÁR - Official Trailer [HD] - In Select Theaters October 7

Is Lydia Tár Cate Blanchett’s best role to date? We’ve debated as much. Blanchett, a two-time Academy winner (for The Aviator and Blue Jasmine), could join the three-timers’ club after her performance in Tár. Her portrayal of a composer-manipulator-genius feels so astonishingly detailed that it’s surprising it’s a work of fiction. You get the feeling watching Tár that there’s no other actress alive who could play such a part at this level. Is Blanchett—a nominee at the Gotham and Spirit Awards who was also honored by the Venice Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle Awards—the frontrunner right now? Put it this way: of all the women on this list, her exclusion from the 2023 Oscar noms would be the most shocking and egregious snub.

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Olivia Colman, Empire Of Light

Olivia Colman, Empire Of Light

EMPIRE OF LIGHT Trailer 2 (2022) Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Sam Mendes

Few actors in Hollywood have ever had a more impressive awards streak than Olivia Colman. Relatively unknown on this side of the pond not that long ago, the British actress has logged three Oscar nominations and one win in the past four years, plus eight BAFTA noms and four wins, and four Emmy nods and a win for playing Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown. More and more, film fans are picking Colman as their most admired actress. She showcases her seemingly preternatural screen talent in Sam Mendes’ Empire Of Light as a depressed movie theater employee, a role practically tailor-made for another of her infectiously fun acceptance speeches.

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Ana de Armas, Blonde

Ana de Armas, Blonde

BLONDE | From Writer and Director Andrew Dominik | Official Trailer | Netflix

Hear us out: the controversies around Andrew Dominik’s harsh Marilyn Monroe riff were justified, but they don’t diminish the commitment and power of the film’s lead performance. However you slice it—that Ana de Armas in Blonde is a prime example of actors elevating material, or that she’s the only person in the production who understood and empathized with Monroe—there’s no denying her talent. And that uncanny biopic trick, where you see de Armas and blink and see Monroe, is likely to register with Oscar voters.

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Viola Davis, The Woman King

Viola Davis, The Woman King

THE WOMAN KING – Official Trailer (HD)

Much like with Cate Blanchett and Olivia Colman, it just doesn’t feel like awards season without Viola Davis in contention. An Oscar winner for Fences and a four-time nominee, Davis deserves consideration this year for switching things up in such a thrilling manner. Her performance as the fierce Nanisca, general of Dahomey’s all-female Agojie warriors in The Woman King, is a complete departure from her former roles, one that lends serious muscle (literally) to her already impressive resume.

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Danielle Deadwyler, Till

Danielle Deadwyler, Till

TILL | Official Trailer | MGM Studios

Danielle Deadwyler’s work as Mamie Till-Mobley in Chinonye Chukwu’s Till is the season’s most stunning breakout, and most of her scenes as the mother of the murdered Emmett Till—from heartbreaking to hopeful, epic to intimate—feel tailor-made for an Oscar ceremony clip. The Gotham Award winner for best actress, Deadwyler inexplicably missed being nominated by the Film Independent Spirit Awards. She is picking up steam with festival and critic group honors, though.

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Dale Dickey, A Love Song

Dale Dickey, A Love Song

A Love Song - Official Trailer (2022) Dale Dickey, Wes Studi

Who doesn’t love a longtime character actress getting a juicy lead role that only she could play? Spirit Award winner Dale Dickey is no stranger to awards shows (she likely just missed the Academy’s mark on Winter’s Bone), but she’s the kind of actor who deserves far more praise than she receives. A Love Song, Max Walker-Silverman’s two-hander about a pair of old flames lingering in the rural West, is Dickey’s most awe-inspiring showcase to date; in practically every frame, she’s presenting a fully present, endlessly nuanced, emotional tour de force.

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Gracija Filipović, Murina

Gracija Filipović, Murina

Murina (2022) Official Trailer | Gracija Filipovic, Danica Curcic

Much of the effectiveness of Murina, the film festival hit from Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović and producer Martin Scorsese, comes down to its star. 20-year-old Gracija Filipović is this year’s Gotham Awards Breakthrough Performer for a reason: as Julija, she delivers teenage innocence as well as placidity, rage, dreaminess, and utter realism, all with the seamless confidence of a far more seasoned pro. It’s a star-is-born moment, albeit one unfolding off the radar of many American viewers. But if an international voting body like the Academy sees Murina, then Filipović will find herself in contention. Thanks to her, we’ll never look at spearfishing the same way.

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Vicky Krieps, Corsage

Vicky Krieps, Corsage

CORSAGE Trailer (2022) Vicky Krieps, Drama Movie

It seems like 2022 was the year that actresses from outside the United States stormed the gates, and Vicky Krieps was among those leading the charge, with her portrayal of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Corsage providing a fresh approach to the historical biopic format. Krieps is extraordinary in the role, delivering an irreverent take that never feels overtly cheeky. She oozes sardonic wit and exasperation, to be sure, but even when she’s flipping the bird or sticking her tongue out, it still feels in keeping with this nuanced psychological portrait of royalty rattling its cage.

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Jennifer Lawrence, Causeway

Jennifer Lawrence, Causeway

Causeway — Official Trailer | Apple TV+

Jennifer Lawrence never left, but Causeway still feels like a comeback. It’s certainly a return to form for an Oscar-winning actor whose specialties lie in portraying PTSD (The Hunger Games), mental health struggles (Silver Linings Playbook), and even spot-on comedic timing (American Hustle). Lawrence shines in director Lila Neugebauer’s depiction of a traumatized war veteran and the mechanic she befriends, finding nuance in her character at every turn of this quietly compelling drama.

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Carey Mulligan, She Said

Carey Mulligan, She Said

SHE SAID Trailer (2022) Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan

Yes, She Said has submitted Carey Mulligan in the supporting rather than lead Oscar category, but considering how much she drives this retelling of the New York Times journalists who uncovered Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault allegations, we’re listing her in the category that best fits. There are few actors better suited to play dogged reporter Megan Twohey, and Mulligan nails the story’s twists and turns as systemic injustices are unearthed. This is an Oscar-worthy performance mostly because two-time nominee Mulligan seems to have cornered the market on depicting anger; while many actors play rage in broad brushstrokes, we could admire the pointillist specificity of her fury all day.

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Thandiwe Newton, God’s Country

Thandiwe Newton, God’s Country

God’s Country - Official Trailer ft. Thandiwe Newton | HD | IFC Films

Part of what makes Julian Higgins’ God’s Country such a memorable film—indeed, part of what makes it a nail-biting thriller—is the slow-burn realization that Thandiwe Newton’s character Sandra is swimming, or even drowning, in rage. Of all the Oscar contenders on this list, she may be best at the simple yet profound truth about acting: a little can go a long, long way. (P.S. Isn’t it about time the Academy lets such a talent into their ranks?)

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Aubrey Plaza, Emily The Criminal

Aubrey Plaza, Emily The Criminal

Emily The Criminal | Official Trailer | In Theaters August 12

“Aubrey Plaza is having a good year” is a phrase that could apply to pretty much any year since she entered the cultural consciousness on Parks And Recreation. But somehow the actor keeps upping her game—certainly onscreen, as her work in the gripping Emily The Criminal proves, but just as much offscreen. Plaza is becoming a force as an independent film producer, one whose impeccable taste in scripts and directors is edging her closer to what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might consider worthy. This season she’s notched Gothams and Spirit Awards on her belt … could Oscar be next?

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Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie

Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie

To Leslie Trailer #1 (2022)

One of Hollywood’s most important assets is reliably great actors. Fearlessness, commitment, technical mastery—all qualities Andrea Riseborough has in spades—are what keep prestige cinema’s lights on. Maybe the reason filmmakers keep casting Riseborough, but awards bodies keep failing to honor her, is that on top of all that she possesses an uncanny ability to appear unrecognizable from one role to the next. She carries To Leslie, a character study about a profoundly messy lottery winner struggling to make amends, and the kind of tour de force film that only needs to be seen to end up on Oscar voters’ shortlists.

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Margot Robbie, Babylon

Margot Robbie, Babylon

BABYLON | Official Trailer (2022 Movie) – Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Tobey Maguire

“Who wants to see me fight a fucking snake?” Margot Robbie is on such a roll that when audiences and award voters alike see her snorting cocaine and squaring off with deadly reptiles in the Babylon trailer, there’s no doubt that the two-time Oscar nominee can make that work. Writer-director Damien Chazelle loves his performances as big as his set pieces, and he finds a worthy muse in Robbie as ladder-climber Nellie LaRoy in 1920s Hollywood.

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Taylor Russell, Bones And All

Taylor Russell, Bones And All

BONES AND ALL | Official Trailer | MGM Studios

Not to diminish Luca Guadagnino’s work on Bones And All, but the film’s effectiveness rests squarely on young Taylor Russell’s shoulders. A Gotham and Spirit nominee and this year’s Marcello Mastroianni Award winner at the Venice Film Festival, the Canadian star-in-the-making breathes life onto the screen and makes it look effortless. Her chemistry opposite Timothée Chalamet makes for perhaps the most heartfelt romance in cinema this year, and then there’s the fact that she folds cannibalism into that empathetic portrayal. Oscar voters are in for a treat.

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Emma Thompson, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

Emma Thompson, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures

In the ongoing confusion about streaming platforms and theatrical releases, it’s notable that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approved Hulu and Searchlight Pictures’ bid to make Good Luck To You, Leo Grande Oscar-eligible. The likeliest reason for this exception to their theaters-only rule? Two-time Academy champion Emma Thompson, whose work as a middle-aged widow determined to hire a sex worker and experience her first orgasm should be on voters’ shortlists. Her delivery in the film’s final shot alone is worth another go-’round with Oscar.

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Tang Wei, Decision To Leave

Tang Wei, Decision To Leave

DECISION TO LEAVE | Official Trailer | In Theaters Now & Streaming from December 9

Talking about why Tang Wei’s performance in Decision To Leave deserves, and could indeed garner, the Academy’s attention is tricky. Filmmaking legend Park Chan-wook’s Cannes Film Festival winner casts the esteemed actor as a femme fatale. Does she genuinely have feelings for the detective investigating her husband’s death, or is there something else entirely going on behind her tantalizing facade? Let’s just say Tang’s brilliance is even more apparent on repeat viewings, something Academy nominators are likely to do given the growing buzz around South Korea’s international film entry.

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Emily Watson, God’s Creatures

Emily Watson, God’s Creatures

GOD’S CREATURES Trailer (2022) Emily Watson, A24

Emily Watson’s face! That’s it, that’s the whole reason she’s on this Oscar prediction list. How to even describe the mental and emotional territory her face covers in a single shot of God’s Creatures? It’s been a while since the British star has heard her name called among the Oscar nominations, for Breaking The Waves in 1996 and Hilary And Jackie in 1998. Yet other actors frequently cite Watson as one of the best working today. Her performance as a mother whose loyalty begins to crumble in God’s Creatures only affirms the sentiment.

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Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans

Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans

THE FABELMANS Trailer (2022) Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen

If only there were a way to bottle the pure movie magic that is Michelle Williams watching movies, in a movie. Well, I suppose Steven Spielberg has done just that with The Fabelmans. As matriarch Mitzi Fabelman, the actor delivers universal experiences as well as filmmaker-specific characteristics—like buying a monkey. With four Oscar nods under her belt and a strong chance for this to be her fifth, an undeniable narrative is forming around Williams that she’s a should-be Oscar winner, not just a nominee.

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Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once

Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022 Movie) Official Trailer – Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu

Last on this list purely for alphabetical reasons, Michelle Yeoh may actually have frontrunner status. More amazing than the fact that this hardworking screen legend somehow doesn’t yet have an Academy nomination is what her first would be for: the zany sci-fi-comedy of Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t what we’d dub Oscar bait. But the sheer originality from the filmmaking duo the Daniels, who wrote the part of Evelyn Wang with Yeoh in mind, has given this A24 record-breaker a distinct shot at the industry’s top prizes. Now that she’s this category’s winner at the HCA Awards, a nominee with the Gothams and Spirits, and an honoree with the National Board of Review, Yeoh could go all the way.

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