2021 Calvins: Best Actress
By David Mumpower
April 2, 2021
For many years, the category of Best Actress proved challenging. Sure, some performances demanded recognition.
Unfortunately, Hollywood’s penchant for shortchanging women led to a paucity of deserving roles.
Historically, the bottom of our top ten in Best Actress has felt like a stretch, as the occasional role of The Girl earned a nod.
Thankfully, those days feel like a distant memory, as the 2021 results included 18 (!) strong contenders.
Still, the Highlander is right. There can be only one, and I’m pretty sure you know who it is.
Yes, we – like virtually everybody else – feel strongly that Carey Mulligan delivered the best performance of 2021.
In fact, I'm not even limiting that statement to this category. Mulligan was just flat out better than anybody in Promising Young Woman.
In this film, Mulligan’s character drops out of college to become a barista. Over time, the actress gradually reveals the circumstances that led to her decision.
The walls are up throughout the film until she meets a decent guy… right after she spits in his cup. It turns out they knew each other in college.
That dude would have been better served by sticking to Bumble. You do NOT want Carey Mulligan on your bad side!
Google indicates that Mulligan is 5’7” and weighs 119 pounds. I say this because she might be the most intimidating sub-120 pound person in cinematic history.
She’s a legit badass in this, so much so that some dudes who watch will take the hint and change their dating habits.
The past year featured many powerful roles for Lead Actresses, but what Mulligan achieved was iconic.
Still, Mulligan didn’t run away with the category as much as I’d expected. Viola Davis put up a fight until the very end.
The oft-lauded actress finally found her signature role, at least in movies, with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And yes, she’s Ma Rainey.
As the strong-willed, ultra-talented singer, Davis displays a rare level of confidence and self-worth.
Musicians, as a rule, act passively in the presence of producers and financiers. That's not Ma Rainey, though.
She knows how much the studio makes off her work and expects a big cut. It’s a willful performance that only a master of the craft like Davis could pull off.
Second-generation Hollywood talents finish in third and fourth place. Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, finally escaped the 50 Shades stigma with The High Note.
In this movie, Johnson plays a would-be music producer working for one of the most famous living musicians.
You may brush The High Note off as a generic romantic comedy or a Beyond the Lights knockoff (if such a thing exists).
If so, you’ll be surprised to discover that the film features a brilliant script and charming leads, especially Johnson as a dutiful hard worker with an ear for talent.
Johnson could relate to our fourth selection, Rashida Jones, the daughter of Quincy Jones. Both of them have been in the public eye since childhood, yet they've developed into extremely talented performers.
We loved Jones’ work in the at least semi-autobiographical On the Rocks, where she plays the ever-disappointed daughter of a beloved older man.
Jones possesses a wry confidence and above-it-all attitude that blends perfectly with the character's jaded nature, a cynicism her father has drawn out of her through decades of disappointment.
BOP fave Anya Taylor-Joy really proved that she’s one of our favorites this year. She finished in the top five in two different categories, playing the lead in both.
We loved her in Emma as the titular Emma Woodhouse, a plucky Regency-era matchmaker and dutiful daughter.
Look, you know the story of Emma, but I dare you to watch Taylor-Joy’s performance and not fall in love.
This year, most of our selections didn't match well with Academy Awards nominations, as the strange year and movie consumption changes caused more diverse opinions.
One role where we totally agreed with the Academy (and even *gulp* the Golden Globes) is Andra Day’s scintillating performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
We already knew Day could sing, but her acting chops pleasantly surprised the entire staff.
Speaking of multi-hyphen talents, Radha Blank bewitched our staff with her instant masterpiece, The 40-Year-Old Version.
She directed, wrote, and starred in the film. Blank received votes both for directing and screenplay as well.
So, this Best Actress nod functions as our praise for her performance in all three roles.
Obviously, we were into multifaceted actresses this year, as Hannah Marks finishes in eighth.
Like Blank, Marks co-wrote the film for which she’s lauded, Banana Split. She’s absolutely delightful as a heartbroken woman who stops trying to get the guy when she realizes she’s more into the girl…but not like that.
Our final two selections are awards season contenders, but we’re again not really with the Academy.
We preferred Yeri Han in Minari to Frances McDormand in Nomadland. By now, you’ve likely noticed that our staff felt a stronger affinity to Minari than the likely Best Picture winner at the Oscars.
I mentioned that we loved 18 roles this year. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention the others.
They are Julia Garner (The Assistant), Tessa Thompson (Sylvie’s Love), Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things), Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), Lili Reinhart (Chemical Hearts), and Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always).
|| Carey Mulligan
||Promising Young Woman
|| Viiola Davis
||Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
|| Dakota Johnson
||The High Note
|| Rashida Jones
||On the Rocks
|| Anya Taylor-Joy
|| Andra Day
||The United States vs. Billie Holiday
|| Radha Blank
||The Forty-Year-Old Version
|| Hannah Marks
|| Yeri Han
|| Frances McDormand