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When it comes to Academy Awards prognostication, there’s often no greater predicting factor than the existence of a previous nomination. That’s why, at the start of the 2021 movie awards season, Oscar diviners foretold a fourth nom for Michelle Pfeiffer (French Exit), a seventh nom for Tom Hanks (News of the World) and even a 22nd nom for Meryl Streep (The Prom). Once you’re in the Academy’s good graces, you’re seemingly in for life.
Of course, Academy voters also love to anoint a Hollywood newcomer or two each year amid the rosters of awards veterans. These types of underdog nominations are normally few and far between, as the Academy tends to favor stars and stalwarts. But in a year of film industry anomalies, one of the most striking trends has been the meteoric rise of the Tinseltown outsider. The 93rd Oscars will see a near record-breaking number of first-time acting nominees vie for top honors (this year, just four of the 16 honorees have previously been nominated). Beyond mere stats, however, these nominees represent the shifting demographics and progressing tastes of Oscar voters: By exalting a bevy of talent cultivated outside the Hollywood machine, including international juggernauts, TV luminaries and indie wunderkinds, the Academy recognizes that it should take more than just a big name and a prestige project to dazzle viewers.
Without the ability to hobnob during a pandemic, Hollywood publicists apparently had less industry sway these past few months than film critics. In any other year, we might have seen Ammonite‘s Kate Winslet or Hillbilly Elegy‘s Amy Adams ignite awards season on the power of celebrity alone, but middling reviews for both films kept voters at bay. While these types of splashier productions faded from memory, smaller but more acclaimed films rose in their place.
2021 has been the year of the international breakthrough artist. Supporting actress contenders Yuh-Jung Youn and Maria Bakalova are separated by nearly 50 years, but their slyly comedic roles in Minari and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, respectively, each gained major traction this season thanks to grassroots word-of-mouth campaigns.
Youn, who recently won SAG and BAFTA awards, is one of South Korea’s most beloved actresses, often popularly described in American media as the Streep of her nation amid a half-century career. She sloughs off all grandmotherly stereotypes as Minari‘s emigre matriarch Soon-ja, playing a woman who is at once patient, loving, funny and foul-mouthed.
In contrast, 24-year-old Bulgarian upstart Bakalova must, by the nature of her protean character, remain less grounded in the prank mockumentary sequel to Borat. Cast straight out of drama school, she stars as the teenage Tutar, daughter of fictional Kazakhstani journalist Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen), who travels to the U.S. so her father can gift her to various American politicians. Nimble and game for anything, the young actress never flinches or drops character, not even when asking a real-life cage salesman, “How many other girls are going to live in here with me?”
British powerhouses Riz Ahmed and Vanessa Kirby barreled through awards season thanks to their brutally raw work as, respectively, a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal and a mother who loses her newborn in Pieces of a Woman. Ahmed, also a rapper and musician, made a name for himself in such lauded independent films as Four Lions and Nightcrawler and gut-punching HBO series like The Night Of and Girls, while Kirby initially broke through to audiences via her gutsy performance as Princess Margaret on the Netflix hit The Crown.
The worlds of music and television also helped launch fellow first-time Oscar nominees Steven Yeun, LaKeith Stanfield and Andra Day. For six seasons, Minari‘s Yeun played fan favorite Glenn on AMC’s postapocalyptic drama The Walking Dead, eventually transitioning to dark auteur film work in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Judas and the Black Messiah‘s Stanfield, who also starred in the Riley film, has had a similar rise through TV, starting off on the idiosyncratic comedy Atlanta before coming to prominence through mature parts in Uncut Gems, The Photograph and Knives Out. In the meantime, Grammy-nominated R&B singer Andra Day stuns viewers in the otherwise tepid biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starring as the jazz singer in her first major film. Each actor is thrilling to behold in these embattled roles.
Ultimately, there’s no Oscar success story quite like Paul Raci’s. The 73-year-old journeyman has worked on stage and screen for nearly four decades, but he embodies the role of a lifetime as a deaf mentor in Sound of Metal. Raci, the hearing child of deaf parents and a fluent American Sign Language speaker, brings authenticity to his tough-love character, but it’s his gnawing and understated emotionality that becomes the beating heart of an already thrumming film.
This story first appeared in an April stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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