Vanessa Kirby Leaps to the Front of This Year’s Oscar Race With Best-Actress Win at Venice Film Festival

Noble Horvath

The British actor Vanessa Kirby, perhaps best known to American audiences for playing Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown, won the best-actress award at the Venice Film Festival this weekend, immediately making her a front-runner in this year’s Oscar race. Kirby won for Pieces of a […]

The British actor Vanessa Kirby, perhaps best known to American audiences for playing Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown, won the best-actress award at the Venice Film Festival this weekend, immediately making her a front-runner in this year’s Oscar race.

Kirby won for Pieces of a Woman—directed by the Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó (White God) in his English-language debut — in which she plays a woman plunged into grief after losing her newborn baby. The film opens with Kirby’s character going into labor at home, suffering immediate complications, and then delivering her daughter alongside her partner (played by Shia LaBeouf in another strong performance) and a young midwife whom they eventually come to blame for their tragedy. (The harrowing opening scene is shot in a 30-minute continuous take.)

Kirby recently told Vanity Fair she was intent on presenting the delivery as authentically as possible and “without any vanity” and had researched her role as Martha by watching a woman give birth in the hospital. “I really wanted the audience to be with Martha fully through that experience,” said Kirby, explaining that she was struck by the “animal quality”  of childbirth. The woman she watched, Kirby said, was “completely transported to a whole other plane. It was like the animal of her body kind of took over from her mind.”

The performance is already attracting rave reviews. “The remarkable Kirby gives a tough performance,” wrote the film critic for the Hollywood Reporter, “bleeding beneath her armor-plated guard but refusing to soften Martha’s abrasive sides as she undertakes the isolating work of learning to live with her loss.”

Last year’s festival gave a crucial boost to Joaquin Phoenix when Joker unexpectedly won the top prize and his performance in the title role received almost unanimous raves. Five months later, Phoenix went on to win his first Oscar after three previous nominations.

Kirby isn’t the only one to leave Venice this year with Oscar buzz. The festival also recognized an actor that many awards prognosticators already think will offer the strongest challenge to Kirby when the pandemic-delayed Oscars are handed out next April: Frances McDormand. McDormand, who already has two Oscars (for Fargo in 1997 and for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018), stars as a woman adrift in the recent recession in Nomadland, a film written and directed by Chloé Zhao and based on a book by the journalist Jessica Bruder. Nomadland won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the festival, and Zhao was named best director, the first woman to be awarded that honor in 10 years.

Cate Blanchett, who headed the jury at the 77th edition of the festival, said at a closing press conference that the winner had been chosen after “healthy and robust” deliberations by the jury members. “Good discussion is good discussion with a mask or not,” she said, referring to the fact that mask-wearing was required at this year’s socially distanced festival.

Speaking via Zoom from her home in California, McDormand said, “Thank you so much for letting us come to your festival in this weird, weird, weird world and way.”  

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