Right now, the film world is in the full-throated and utterly merciless grip of awards season. Hollywood is currently dominated by parties full of elbow-rubbing and Grade-A schmoozing, all in the name of a little gold man named Oscar. This year has been an especially excellent year for film and some of the expected frontrunners have included critical darlings, commercial successes, and more than a few button-pushing shockers. The awards frenzy has only just begun — the Golden Globe nominations will be announced next week — but the various critics' groups of the nation are ready to give out their prizes and establish a few favorites of the season.
The New York Film Critics Circle announced their winners recently, offering some surprises that had awards nerds like me frantically changing our prediction ballots. The biggest shock and the most welcome decision of the night came when it was revealed that the award for Best Actress would go to Lupita Nyong’o for her stellar turn in Us. The internet rejoiced and there wasn’t a naysayer in sight. This was a fully deserved win, the kind that we always hope for around this time of year but write off as an impossibility. It’s too weird, too genre, the film came out too early in the year, and so on. Thankfully, talent won.
Us premiered in February to a mountain of hype and anticipation. Writer-director Jordan Peele's follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut Get Out had been shrouded in secrecy for many months and fans were eager to see how he could avoid the sophomore slump. Us does that and then some, offering a unique thriller with plenty of well-timed laughs that's jam-packed with ideas and challenging stances for its viewers. All that and it's also bloody terrifying. At its heart is Nyong'o and her duel performances as Adelaide, a family woman with emotional scars from a strange childhood incident, and Red, her doppelgänger who has dark plans for the future.
Playing multiple roles in one narrative is a terrifying endeavor for any actor, as well as one of the toughest things you can do. Just ask Tatiana Maslany, Jeremy Irons, or even Eddie Murphy. Giving one brilliant performance is hard enough for most actors; now try doing it twice or more in the same movie. Nyong’o clearly relished that task and not only does she have an absolute ball playing Adelaide and Red, but she’s startlingly affecting in two radically opposed roles. As Adelaide, she conveys the appealing warmth of a wife and mother used to the comfort of middle-class life, all undercut by the trauma she tries to keep at bay. This is someone who, like many women in real life, is painfully used to "putting on a brave face" to appease the comfort of others before her own wellbeing. Red, meanwhile, is unnerving in every possible way, from her dinner-plate wide eyes to the way she moves with primal confidence. Her voice sounds as though it’s never made a sound before and sends shudders up the spines of viewers who are convinced that nothing will scare them. With the simplest of movements, such as the way Red’s fingers tap her face as she frames her jaw with them like a doe-eyed child, proves instantly shudder-inducing. To put it bluntly, what Nyong’o is doing in Us is completely exhilarating. This is daring, strange, and committed work, and easily her best performance, which is no mean feat given her status as an Oscar winner.
So, Nyong’o now has the NYFCC win in her corner and she’s clearly been present this awards season — she appeared on The Hollywood Reporter actress’s roundtable and Universal has mounted a For Your Consideration campaign for the film. That means she’s the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar, right? How is this up for debate? Alas, the Oscars are seldom this interesting. While there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are typically not big fans of genre movies. High-concept blockbusters, immersive fantasy, midnight movie horrors, and joyful romantic comedies are by and large left to the margins of conversations surrounding cinematic prestige.
There are exceptions to the rule, from The Lord of the Rings to Bridesmaids to Get Out, but there’s a reason even the most optimistic Oscar predictions tend to make a note about how such films are “just not the Academy’s thing.” We know what “an Oscar movie” looks like: It’s a middlebrow crowd-pleaser usually based on a true story that tackles serious topics (preferably through a cishet white male lens) and is full of beautiful costumes; it’s a biopic of a beloved celebrity wherein an actor transforms themselves into that actor or singer everybody adores; it’s a story about the magic of the movies and the glory of Hollywood, past and present. The same logic goes towards what we consider, and what the Academy mostly confirms, to be an Oscar performance: Big, loud, showy but not too experimental, preferably based on a real-life person so comparisons can be made, and at least one dramatic speech that can be used in the clip during the ceremony itself. Given the glut of biopics and classy adult dramas we get every awards season, it seemed dishearteningly inevitable that a horror film released in February would slide through the cracks of Oscar glory.
That shouldn’t happen. Nyong’o’s performance deserves far better than to be yet another example of how the Academy got it wrong because of deep-seated biases over cinematic merit (and that doesn’t even get into their systemic erasure of people of color from the major categories — over 91 years, only 19 black actors have won Oscars). This is a performance that does everything the Academy believes to be worthy of celebrating and surpasses many of their staid expectations about what actors can do. The Academy doesn’t seem to think that the ability to scare audiences is worth noting, but Nyong’o did that on top of making them sympathize with and question her choices. If she were playing a set of identical twins in a somber adult drama with no scares then there’s no question she’d be a frontrunner right now.
And so, to all the Academy voters out there who read SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS religiously, I implore you to not let the NYFCC win be an anomaly this season. Make the right choice and vote for Lupita Nyong’o for Best Actress. Don’t make your Tethered angry.