The Biopic Oscar Battle: Kristen Stewart vs Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain vs Kristen Stewart in Lead Actress

It’s early in the awards cycle. The Oscars are still three months away and the field has yet to be formed in any of the major categories. Only frontrunners at this point are purely conjecture, but there are a few names that feel bound to last until late March.

Two of those names to rise above a murky crowd of potential players are likely the major biopic stars. First off, Kristen Stewart, who takes on the gargantuan task of idealizing a massive figure in human history in Princess Diana. The other is Jessica Chastain, taking on the Betty Boop persona of Tammy Faye, the wide-eyed, faux ignorant heir to the televangelist throne.

Both performances are wholly immersive, transformational performances, but the two couldn’t be any different.

Kristen Stewart Portraying Princess Diana

Her role portraying the legendary figure of Princess Di garners attention from that alone, but Stewart’s internalization of her fears, disorders, and pent-up frustration brings an entirely different layer to the character. It’s a performance that lives off her physicality, that tells large portions of the story without her uttering a word. 

Stewart makes the audience feel every single emotion in the subtlety of her eyes and face. It’s a towering performance but not in any obvious way. She’s complex and her delivery unpredictable. It plays into the larger vision of the film and her discomfort with her situation and desire to breakaway but bound to the utter empty feeling of being trapped. It feels as if Diana has no control over her own life, contradicting the mere idea of royalty and shows that all walks of life have their personal struggles. All that hurt is conveyed in Stewart’s unbelievably controlled performance.

She’s a true marvel. Beautiful, confident in her unconfidence, and utterly lost until she finds herself – as we see in the film’s final act and finish. The journey shows dramatic change in her character and the three day Christmas vacation displays a force not pinned down by traditional values and can’t be swayed simply by the pressure of her life. Stewart doesn’t condemn Diana or absolve her – she plays her truthfully.

Jessica Chastain portraying Tammy Faye

On the contrary, Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye is the epitome of flash, as her imitation pops off the screen. The facial makeup of Faye, the prosthetics, the chirpy voice inflection, and her physicality is begging to be noticed, where Stewart wants to be forgotten. It’s a performance that wears the emotion on the sleeve and is obvious in the way we’re supposed to see her character. 

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of complexity in her character, even if the film is entirely unsubtle. The only subtlety is through Chastain’s performance as she melts away into the character. The makeup work deserves plenty of credit, and Chastain disappears into Tammy’s bold exterior with her layered on lips and eye liner. She understands her moods that don’t make logical sense and that her upbringing greatly impacts the woman she becomes later on.

It’s a classic biopic imitation that captures the person as she was portrayed in the media and through testimony. The collective vision of Tammy Faye that is saved in the minds of those that remember her is what we get on screen – that’s the brilliance of Chastain’s performance 

What Performance will AMPAS voters prefer?

Subtlety vs flash. The constant pressure at the heart of the awards race. One attracts the eye immediately, the other takes time to break down and decipher the emotional complexity. Chastain falls under flash, and Oscars often go for the obvious – we saw this two years previously with Rene Zellweger winning her second Oscar for portraying Judy Garland. However, it’s not a guarantee that flash is the inherent winner. Frances McDormand playing a quiet, internalized Fern from Best Picture winner Nomadland took the top prize.

So, the two have solid cases to make for a win. History favors Chastain, in this case, as a life-spanning portrayal of a controversial figure with endearing qualities against Stewart’s more confrontational character, with less redeeming qualities. The fact that the zeitgeist is still obsessed over Princess Diana does give her a distinct edge in terms of being recognized solely for the character and Spencer is widely considered the better film than The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Importantly, neither film is likely to garner attention outside of the lead actress category, so that hurts both their cases. Spencer could be a contender in picture, but that feels far from a guarantee with how alienating Pablo Larrain’s direction is for the film. Tammy Faye got middling reviews and only Chastain’s performance doesn’t feel like a caricature.

Again, it’s still too early to say either are true frontrunners, but all the early buzz is flowing towards Kristen Stewart with Chastain following closely. There’s still time for Lady Gaga to build a strong campaign around The House of Gucci or Olivia Colman to surprise people with The Lost Daughter, but in terms of recognizable biopics, Stewart and Chastain stand alone and that’s a great sign for their Oscar chances.

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