This longest-ever Oscar season has been blessed with an abundance of female newcomers in front of the camera. In fact, I have seen comments saying that the actresses who are likely to compete for a spot on the ballot have outshined many of the actors who are deemed to be in contention.
For whatever reason, there seems to be a stronger contingent of fresh faces joining the race this year. They range from a 12-year-old German girl to a 73-year-old performer who is considered the Meryl Streep of South Korea. Learn more about them below.
Andra Day (“The United States Vs. Billie Holiday”)
To play the legendary jazz songstress known as Lady Day in her big-screen debut, this 36-year-old Grammy-nominated songwriter and singer of the inspirational 2015 hit “Rise Up” started drinking and smoking cigarettes to get into the right mindset for the role, two habits she previously never had. She talked to heroin addicts on the street and in recovery to feel what they went through while being hooked. She also dropped 40 pounds to get to the desired weight of 124 pounds.
Film critics felt that Lee Daniels’ direction and storytelling was a bit of a jagged mess, but praised Day’s vibrant authenticity and commitment to bringing alive a musical legend as she is hounded by a sting operation by the Federal Department of Narcotics. She has already won a Golden Globe for her dramatic role and also contributed an original song to the soundtrack: “Tigress & Tweed.” She told the New York Post that bringing Holiday to life “… was a commitment. I think it’s one I’m recovering from still.”
Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”)
This British actress is best known for playing the young Princess Margaret in "The Crown," a role that earned her an Emmy nod for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. In the first 20 minutes of her current film, in an unbroken take, her character Martha manages to go through the agonizing throes of a home birth with a midwife at her side, only to see her baby girl die.
The devastating loss causes her marriage to fall apart and harms her relationship with her mother Elizabeth, played by the estimable 88-year-old legend Ellen Burstyn. The two share an angry exchange in which her mother blames her for the child’s death. Kirby’s performance is in a category all to itself, as she goes through the stages of the grieving process.
Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and competed at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. Next up is a Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA nomination. She will soon be seen opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible 7” this fall in her recurring role as Alanna Mitsopolis, aka White Widow.
Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”)
The 24-year-old Bulgarian actress and drama school grad has starred in several films in her native land, but broke through stateside this year when she was cast as Tutar, the teen daughter of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh reporter Borat in the sequel to the 2006 mockumentary comedy. Bakalova was clearly up for anything, including a makeover from a coarse Eastern-European ragamuffin to a Barbie-like right-wing news reporter in order to trap “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani in a hotel room. He says he was tucking in his shirt in one of the stand-out scenes of 2020.
The first “Borat” was filled with boys-will-be-boys behavior, but Baron Cohen was smart enough to know that comedy has evolved, making it the right moment to bring a female sidekick into the mix, which allows him to add misogyny to his list of targets. You might be humming Borat’s country song “Wuhan Flu” as the credits roll but you leave the film being impressed by how Bakalova softens yet heightens the pot shots taken at the U.S. of A. Bakalova just won Best Supporting Actress at the Critics Choice Awards and claimed Most Daring Performance from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. In November, she was signed by Creative Artists Agency. Let’s hope we see her again soon.
Youn Yuh-jung (“Minari”)
This 73-year-old South Korean actress started out playing femme fatales roles in the early ‘70s in her native land. Youn’s on-screen persona was atypical in the modern way she looked and her fast style of talking that made her popular with audiences. Since then, she has appeared in more than 30-plus movies and countless TV roles, but she didn’t really break through with American audiences until this year thanks to writer/director Lee Issac Chung. Audiences have embraced Youn as the lovable, feisty, foul-mouthed granny in “Minari,” based on Chung’s childhood in rural Arkansas.
Youn’s Soon-ja arrives at a time when her character’s son-in-law Jacob (Steve Yeun) and daughter Monica (Yeri Han) are struggling with setting up their dream garden. The family lives in a rectangular home on cinder blocks and is adjusting to small-town life with their two children, tween Anne (Noel Cho) and grade-schooler David, who has a heart problem (Alan Kim). At first, David dislikes his grandmother with her TV wrestling fixation, disparaging her by saying, “She smells like Korea.”
But the bedroom mates soon become thick as thieves with a shared fondness for guzzling Mountain Dew and going on walks in the nearby forest. That is where Soon-ja finds just the right spot near a creek to grow the Korean herb minari. Her contribution turns out to be the likely salvation for her loved ones. The scenes with granny and David together are pure movie magic, even if she wears men’s underwear and swears. Next up is the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Youn will compete in the Supporting Actress category, as well as for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture.
Helena Zengel (“News of the World”)
This Berlin-born 12-year-old more than holds her own opposite Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass’ latest film. She appeared in the main role of an aggressive and traumatized nine-year-old girl in the 2019 drama “System Crasher,” which won her the German Film Prize for Best Actress in her country’s version of the Oscars. That led her to be cast as orphan Joanna Leonberger in “News of the World,” set in 19th century Texas as the country tried to heal its divisions after the Civil War.
Zengel has no problem keeping up with Hanks on screen, and they make a colorful pair—part “True Grit” and part “The Miracle Worker,” as she grows to trust Captain Kidd and learns his language. Zengel’s lauded performance has allowed her to join other child stars as Anna Paquin, Macauley Culkin and Haley Joel Osment as one of the youngest Golden Globe nominees ever. Alas, she lost out to a former child actress, Jodie Foster in “The Mauritanian.”
How did she seal the deal of winning his gem of a role? As she told Variety, she and her mother flew to London so she could meet the filmmakers. During the audition, “I had a moment where I had to bite my mom, and I got the role.” Zengel was nominated for Best Young Performer at the Critics Choice Awards but lost out to Alan Kim from “Minari.” Next is the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.