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Oscar Film Nominations Bring Three Firsts

By Sarah Bahr

Andra Day stars in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday".
Andra Day stars in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday".

Andra Day was just the second Black woman to win best actress in a drama at the Golden Globes.

Now, she’s part of another milestone: For the first time in nearly 50 years, two Black women are up for the Academy Award for best actress in the same year.

Day, who plays singer Billie Holiday in the Hulu biopic “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and Viola Davis, who plays another pioneering singer in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” are the first pair of Black actresses to be nominated since Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues”) and Cicely Tyson (“Sounder”) faced off in 1973.

And, in a twist of fate, Day is nominated for the same role that Ross played. Though, she’s probably hoping for better luck: Ross lost the 1973 race to Liza Minnelli, who won for her performance as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”

Though “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” received mixed reviews, Day garnered critical acclaim for what The New York Times co-chief film critic A.O. Scott called her “canny and charismatic” performance. Her voice, he wrote, “has some of Holiday’s signature breathy rasp and delicate lilt, and suggests her ability to move from whimsy to anguish and back in the space of a phrase.”

This is Davis’ fourth nomination. (She won best supporting actress in 2017 for her role in “Fences.”) In “Ma Rainey,” she plays blues singer Ma Rainey alongside Chadwick Boseman’s trumpeter, Levee, in what was Boseman’s final film role before he died of colon cancer in August.

“Davis brilliantly portrays both the vulnerable position and indomitable spirit of this sturdy figure,” Mark Kermode wrote in The Guardian in December, “with fiery eyes shining through the dark shadows and battered rouge of her makeup, proudly standing her ground.”

Day and Davis will go up against Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”), Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) and Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”).

In the more than 90 years the awards have been handed out, there has been only a single Black best actress winner — Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball” in 2001.

Josh Ethan Johnson, via Associated PressIn a scene from Minari, Steven Yeun, left, with Alan S. Kim; Yuh-Jung Youn, middle; and Yeri Han, right, with Noel Cho.
In a scene from Minari, Steven Yeun, left, with Alan S. Kim; Yuh-Jung Youn, middle; and Yeri Han, right, with Noel Cho.

A Milestone for Men of Asian Heritage 

It’s been nearly 20 years since a man of Asian heritage notched a best actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But this year, for the first time in the 93-year history of the Oscars, there are two: Steven Yeun (“Minari”), who was born in South Korea and raised in the United States, and Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”), who is a Briton of Pakistani descent. Both Ahmed and Yeun are first-time nominees.

Their inclusion is especially notable because despite a spate of Asian-led films in recent years, including last year’s best picture winner, “Parasite,” the academy had failed to recognize the performers.

Just two actors of Asian heritage have ever been nominated in the category: Russian-born Yul Brynner (“The King and I”), and Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi,” “House of Sand and Fog”), whose father is Indian. Brynner and Kingsley each won the award once.

Yeun and Ahmed have some tough competition: The other three nominees this year are Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), who won a posthumous Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) and Gary Oldman (“Mank”).

Writing in The Times, Scott called Yeun’s performance in “Minari,” as a Korean immigrant father who moves his family to the Ozarks, “effortlessly magnetic.” Scott praised his proclivity for finding “the cracks in the character’s carefully cultivated reserve, the large, unsettled emotions behind the facade of stoicism.”

Ahmed won acclaim for his performance as a drummer who loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” which critic Jeannette Catsoulis of The Times praised for its “extraordinarily intricate” sound design. She singled out Ahmed for his “tweaking urgency that’s poignantly credible — he’s a study in distress.”

Taylor Jewell, via Associated PressChloé Zhao, left, was nominated for “Nomadland,” and Emerald Fennell was nominated for “Promising Young Woman.”
Chloé Zhao, left, was nominated for “Nomadland,” and Emerald Fennell was nominated for “Promising Young Woman.”

Two Women Are Up for Best Director 

For the first time in the history of the Oscars, more than one female filmmaker has been nominated for best director in a single year.

On Monday, Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) and Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) scored nominations alongside Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”), David Fincher (“Mank”) and Thomas Vinterberg (“Another Round”). The honor is also notable because the category rarely features any women: Before this year, only five female filmmakers had been recognized.

Zhao became the first Asian woman to win best director at the Golden Globes in February, when “Nomadland,” the story of a widow who joins the country’s itinerant workforce, also picked up best picture in the drama category. The film is a strong contender to win best picture at the 93rd Oscars on April 25.

“Promising Young Woman,” about the quest for vengeance after a friend is raped, was nominated for four Golden Globes, including best director and best picture. In the end it was shut out.

“Nomadland” was largely well reviewed, with Scott praising Zhao’s attention “to the interplay between human emotion and geography, to the way space, light and wind reveal character.”

“Promising Young Woman” received a more mixed reception, though USA Today’s Brian Truitt characterized Fennell, who also wrote the script, as a “stunning new filmmaking voice with a cunning heroine who’s impossible not to adore.”

If either Zhao or Fennell were to win, she would become just the second woman named best director — and the first in more than a decade. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow won for her Iraq War film “The Hurt Locker.” Next year, Zhao may also have a chance to become the first female director to be nominated twice — she’s helming the Marvel superhero movie “Eternals,” currently set for release in November.

The other women who have been nominated are Lina Wertmüller (in 1977 for “Seven Beauties”), Jane Campion (“The Piano,” 1994), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” 2004) and Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird,” 2018).