Oscar-wise, it appears as if Laurie Metcalf‘s neurotic, tour de force Lady Bird performance is going to lose to Allison Janney‘s cigarette-smoking monster mom in I, Tonya. I wish it were otherwise, but the writing is clearly on the wall.
And the reason has just hit me. People don’t just vote for performances but for the characters, and most Academy members like largeness and intensity. They’ll vote for characters who are lovable or emotionally vulnerable on some level, and also for ones who’ve delivered a certain eccentric theatricality or campy trippiness. But they won’t vote for characters who make them feel badly or remind them of unpleasant frictions.
I suspect that Metcalf’s caring but high-strung and badgering mom hits too close to the bone for a lot of voters out there, particularly women who had contentious relationships with their own mothers when they were younger. They’re sensing emotional reality in her performance, of course, but also the guilt-tripping, shade-throwing and high-strung agitation, and they can’t quite “like” her character because it stirs unpleasant memories.
Janney’s character is a fiend — an awful mother and far more dislikable than Metcalf but also safely broad and evil and grand guignol-ish. In this sense she’s less real and relatable and less disturbing than Metcalf, and at the same time offering more of a show — “Look at how detestable I can be! Am I a hoot or what?”