Who Will Win Best Actress at the 2021 Oscars?

Will Frances McDormand leave with another statue?

nomadland, frances mcdormand
Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland' | Searchlight Pictures
Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland' | Searchlight Pictures

The 2020 Oscars were already more than a year ago, but the race for who will emerge victorious during the 2021 Oscars ceremony in April is just underway. Unlike last time around, when RenĂ©e Zellweger sailed breezily to a trophy for Judy, the Best Actress field is crowded. We'll get more clarity as more precursor awards start to be announced, but for now, here's who we think is in the running. (Our Best Actor predictions are this way.)

The frontrunner: Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Frances McDormand won her last Oscar in 2018 for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, so to get another one within four years would be quite a feat. And yet, she is currently the odds on favorite thanks to her work in Nomadland, ChloĂ© Zhao's film about Americans living on the margins. McDormand plays Fern, who makes her van her home after the death of her husband the dissolution of the mining town where they resided. It's a quieter, more observational performance than Three Billboards, but nonetheless striking. 

ma rainey
Viola Davis in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' | Netflix

Likely nominees:

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Davis, an Oscar winner for Fences, is in the running once again for a film based on the work of August Wilson. She's the legendary blues singer in the title of George C. Wolfe's adaptation, putting on prosthetics and heavy makeup while nonetheless oozing power and sex appeal. 

Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

When I saw Promising Young Woman back during Sundance 2020 (a million years ago), I would have thought that the divisive movie was too spiky to be an Oscar favorite, but Mulligan is definitely in the race as Cassie, a tormented avenger, a role that balks the period pieces for which the actress is best known. 

Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

You only have to watch the opening scene of Pieces of a Woman to know why Kirby is in contention. In an unbroken take, her character gives birth and Kirby embodies all the terror and pain of the experience. The rest of the movie, however, is not up to the same caliber, and the fact that her co-star, Shia LaBeouf, is being sued for domestic abuse won't help. 

The wildcards:

Who gets the last spot? Singer Andra Day received a Golden Globe nod in the drama category for her first major acting role as Billie Holiday in Lee Daniel's The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Michelle Pfeiffer is also a Globe nominee for her icy, hilarious work in French Exit, but that was categorized as a comedy. Meanwhile, despite the film's terrible reviews, Amy Adams got a SAG nomination for Hillbilly Elegy. You also may not want to discount a legend like Sophia Loren in Netflix's The Life Ahead. And if Minari wins over voters, Yeri Han could also get the nod. 

Our hopefuls:

The Oscars being the Oscars, some of our favorite performances of the year barely have a chance, like Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Julia Garner in The Assistant, and Haley Bennett in Swallow. But if there's any year in film that it could happen for them, it's gotta be this one.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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