Annette Bening and the Politics of Who's 'Due' an Oscar
Her fierce 'Nyad' performance faces a changed voting body at the Academy
One of the perennial narratives that surfaces every Oscar season is a general consensus that develops around one contender who, it’s declared, is long overdue to pick up a career-capping award. Famously, Paul Newman finally took home a best actor Oscar, for 1986’s The Color of Money, after going zero on his six previous acting nominations. More recently, Julianne Moore won her best actress Oscar for 2014’s Still Alice after four previous nominations saw her go home empty-handed.
This year, a chorus of “she’s due!” is sure to surround Annette Bening for her fiercely committed performance as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad in the eponymously titled Nyad. To date, she’s received four Oscar nominations: A supporting actress nom for 1990’s The Grifters and best actress noms for 1999’s American Beauty, 2004’s Being Julia and 2010’s The Kids Are All Right. So far a win has eluded her.
To argue she’s due isn’t about just about handing Bening a consolation prize, though. Her work in Netflix’s Nyad, for which she trained for nearly a year, demonstrates the sort of all-out dedication to a role that often attracts the Academy’s attention. Reviewing the film in the New York Times, critic Amy Nicholson wrote, “Bening, who has a convincing sidestroke, shows us a woman willing to endure Hell. I’ve never seen a performance with this little vanity in service of a character drowning in her own ego.” Added Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “Bening embodies both the grace and the unbearable strain of Nyad’s effort, its grandeur and its ugliness. She’s a pleasure in the film’s drier scenes too.”
Further bolstering Bening’s chances this year is that among the likely competition, she’s expected to be the best actress hopeful with the most noms but no wins. May December’s Natalie Portman and Poor Things’ Emma Stone have both collected Oscars; Barbie’s Margot Robbie and Maestro’s Carey Mulligan have earned two noms each; and the rest of the potential field — which includes Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Hüller, The Color Purple’s Fantasia Barrino, Killers of the Flower Moon’s Lily Gladstone, Past Lives’ Greta Lee and Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny — would all be first-time nominees.
And then there are the intangibles: Bening isn’t just a seasoned actress. She’s also an active and respected member of the community. She’s served stints on the Academy’s board of governors. She stepped up as co-chair, along with chairman Bob Iger and fellow co-chair Tom Hanks, of the Academy Museum’s fundraising campaign. And she recently took over as chairman of the board of trustees of the Entertainment Community Fund, formerly known as the Actors Fund.
And, oh yeah, she’s married to Hollywood royalty, Oscar winner Warren Beatty.
But, here’s the catch. The she’s-due narrative may not be as strong as it once was. Consider the case of Glenn Close, who has received eight noms among two acting categories, but still struck out in her last two times at bat when she received a best actress nom for 2018’s The Wife and a supporting nom for 2020’s Hillbilly Elegy.
The who’s-due narrative proved far more compelling back when the Academy was a smaller, clubbier affair — before it embarked on efforts to diversify its ranks, growing from 6,261 voting members in early 2016 to about 9,500 today. Back in those simpler days, members would drift down the street from official screenings at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theatre or cross Wilshire Boulevard from the old Music Hall Theater, where a lot of indie contenders played, to grab a seat at Kate Mantilini’s, where, over chicken pot pie, fish and chips or Kate’s special meatloaf, they’d buttonhole each other and talk up the favorite films and performances. A victim of rising rents, Kate’s closed in 2014, and some of the Academy’s camaraderie, which could push a candidacy like Bening’s, went with it.
Other factors have been in play, too. While the Actors Branch remains the largest of the 18 branches of the Academy, the organization has seen explosive growth in the Short Films and Feature Animation, Documentary and Visual Effects Branches, whose members now, cumulatively, outnumber the actors. While a veteran like Bening could hope to enjoy a lot of support among her fellow actors, who are best positioned to appreciate her craft, those other branches may just not share the same investment in her career arc.
Additionally, the Academy, whose members were once concentrated in Los Angeles, with outposts in New York and London, has also become much more of an international organization. More than half of the 398 individuals invited to join the Academy this year were said to come from 50 countries around the world. They don’t necessarily share the personal connections that would benefit a Hollywood stalwart like Bening. And it also opens the door for challengers like Germany’s Sandra Hüller, whose international profile grew exponentially this year when her two films, Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest, debuted at Cannes to critical hosannas.
Still, it would be premature to count Bening out. While she was shut out in the Critics Choice nominations, she’s hung in there with a Globes nom. The she’s-due business aside, the rigorous process she put herself through to portray Nyad is a compelling story that should garner attention. She’s got enthusiastic supporters in her costar Jodie Foster and in Nyad’s directors, the husband-and-wife team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, whose ability to successfully navigate awards season resulted in a documentary Oscar win for 2018’s Free Solo. (And, by the way, the movie’s make-up team also deserves a shout-out and serious consideration for transforming Bening so that she appeared convincingly sunburnt, her eyes puffy, her lips chapped —a look that, presumably, also had to be waterproof.)
So what does the Bening campaign need to do now? Perhaps, simply take the advice of Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!”