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Overdue Oscars: The 2021 Actors Looking for Their First Academy Awards

During April’s muted Covid-19 edition of the 73rd Academy Awards, Glenn Close—who was nominated in the supporting actress category for her role as Mamaw in “Hillbilly Elegy”—tied the late, great Peter O’Toole by achieving eight acting nominations without a win. Alas, just like O’Toole, she continued her losing streak. The ultimate victor came in the form of another colorful granny character, played by South Korean actress, Youn Yuh-jung, in the family drama “Minari.”

Close could have another two chances to make the ballot this awards season. She plays a doctor in the sci-fi drama “Swan Song,” which stars Mahershala Ali as a dementia patient who suffers from a terminal illness and chooses to clone himself. She also appeared earlier this year in “Four Good Days” as a real-life mother of a 30-something drug-addicted daughter (Mila Kunis) who struggles to remain sober.

The performer, who portrayed a woman who would not be ignored in “Fatal Attraction,” could finally be bestowed with gold, if her secondary roles are substantial enough to have impact, or this esteemed star could become the biggest acting loser ever if she is in the race again and fails to win once more.

Close is just the most extreme example of the voters teasing a nominated contender time and time again. Here are some of her thespian cohorts who might just make the cut when nominations are revealed on February 8, 2022.

Ben Affleck – “The Last Duel,” “The Tender Bar” 

The actor shared an original screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” and earned a statue as one of the producers behind the 2012 Best Picture winner “Argo,” but he has been notoriously overlooked for his acting roles by the Academy. He has two chances this year to be cited this season. There is his supporting role in Ridley Scott’s Middle-Ages tale as a Count Pierre d’Alencon who becomes entangled in the feud between two knights, one of which raped the other’s wife. But it is more likely he could be nominated for his role in George Clooney’s coming-of-age tale as an uncle of a fatherless boy who hangs out with patrons at a Long Island bar. Reviews were mixed, but Affleck earned praise for his role.

Timothée Chalamet – “Dune,” “The French Dispatch,” “Don’t Look Up”

This charismatic young actor scored a Best Actor nomination for his 2017 coming-of-age film “Call Me by Your Name” at age 22. That made him the third-youngest competitor ever in the category. This season, he has two chances to compete in the race. He plays Zeffirelli, a student revolutionary in Wes Anderson’s love letter to journalism and a standout in its ensemble cast. But Chalamet is the main human attraction in the sci-fi epic “Dune” as Paul Atreides, the ducal heir of House Atreides and the main hero of the tale. He also appears in Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” although his part there is reportedly too small to make Oscar waves.

Jessica Chastain – “The Eyes of Tammy Faye 

She has previously been up for her supporting role as an aspiring socialite in ‘60s Mississippi who strikes a bond with her Black maid played by Octavia Spencer in 2011’s “The Help.” The next year she claimed a Best Actress bid for her take-no-prisoners CIA analyst in 2012’s in the thriller “Zero Dark Thirty.” Judging from reviews of her current film, her portrait of the disgraced televangelist is the best reason to see it.

Toni Collette – “Nightmare Alley”

This actress’ lone Oscar chance was for her supporting role as the mother of a boy who sees dead people in the 1999 supernatural thriller “The Sixth Sense.” As for her upcoming film, she could snare a supporting spot as a mind reader who is in cahoots with Bradley Cooper’s grifter.

Benedict Cumberbatch – “The Power of the Dog 

This London-born actor made a splash in 2010 as the title character in the BBC series “Sherlock.” From there, he went on to star in the 2014 biopic “The Imitation Game.” He snagged a Best Actor berth for playing the gay cryptanalyst Alan Turing, who helped take down the Nazis in World War II. In his current film, a Western directed and written by Jane Campion (adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage), his cowboy represents the very essence of toxic masculinity as he taunts his brother’s teen stepson for having a lisp and an effeminate manner and drives his brother’s wife to drink.

Bradley Cooper – “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley” 

Cooper has an impressive eight nominations already in total, including three Best Actor bids for 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” 2014’s “American Sniper,” and 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” which also led to a Best Picture as a producer as well as Best Adapted Screenplay spot. He also competed for Supporting Actor for his FBI agent in 2013’s “American Hustle,” and as a producer on 2019’s “Joker.” This awards season allows Cooper two opportunities. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” Cooper’s takes on a supporting part as Jon Peters, a one-time hairdresser turned hot-shot film producer. The irony behind the casting is that Peters was behind 1976’s “A Star Is Born,” that starred Barbra Streisand, his love interest at the time. The actor could also be in the pool of headliners with his lead role in Guillermo del Toro’s neo-noir remake of “Nightmare Alley.” He plays a magnetic con artist who endears himself to a carnival clairvoyant (Toni Collette) while he finds ways of bilking rich society types in 1940s New York.

Adam Driver – “Annette,” “The Last Duel,” “House of Gucci

Driver has two acting Oscar nominations under his belt: one for his supporting role in 2018’s "BlacKkKlansman" as a white decoy who impersonates a Black policeman and as a lead in 2019’s “Marriage Story” as a theater director whose is going through a contentious divorce. Even though he could qualify for a trio of films this year, critics and audiences haven’t been very keen on his output in 2021.

Andrew Garfield – “tick, tick … Boom!,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

This actor earned his first Academy Award chance for his lead role as Desmond Doss, a pacifist combat medic during World War II in 2016’s Mel Gibson-directed battle film “Hacksaw Ridge.” While he tries to bring to life the money-grubbing televangelist Jim Bakker in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," Chastain overshadows him as his colorful and more sympathetic wife. However, Garfield outdoes himself in the autobiographical musical based on the late “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson’s life. Not only does he play the piano and sing, he also demonstrates a fine mastery of swimming in indoor pools. It helps that a master of musicals like Lin-Manual Miranda, in his film directing debut, is there to keep him afloat.

Richard Jenkins – “The Humans,” “Nightmare Alley”

This much-admired character actor earned a lead nomination for 2007’s “The Visitor” as well as a supporting bid for his work in Guillermo Del Toro’s 2017’s “The Shape of Water.” He reunites with the del Toro on “Alley,” but he is more favored to win for his role as the flawed patriarch who upsets his family’s Thanksgiving gathering in “The Humans.”

Rooney Mara – “Nightmare Alley”

This actress was nominated for her lead role as the rebellious computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in 2011’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She also earned a Supporting Actress spot for her department store clerk in 1952 who engages in an affair with Cate Blanchett’s rich and glamorous title character in 2015’s “Carol.” Mara plays Cooper’s virtuous and loyal companion in her upcoming film.

Ruth Negga – “Passing

This Irish-Ethiopian actress earned her first Oscar nomination for her role as Mildred Loving, whose mixed-race marriage became a 1967 landmark Supreme Court case that invalidated the prohibition of interracial spouses in 2016’s “Loving.” While she was sweet and soft-spoken in the film, her current role in “Passing” finds the actress defiant, seductive, and strong-willed as her Clare defines herself as a white woman who hides her mixed heritage from her rich and bigoted white husband.   

Will Smith – “King Richard

This one-time rapper, who went on to star in TV’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” used that success to headline blockbusters like 1996’s “Independence Day” and 1997’s “Men in Black.” He would go on to earn acclaim and two Lead Actor nominations for his biopic roles as boxer Muhammad Ali in 2001’s “Ali” and as homeless salesman Chris Gardner in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” For now, he is seen to be the frontrunner for his performance as Richard Williams, who taught his daughters Venus and Serena how to play tennis, which allowed them and their family to afford a better life. 

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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