‘Challengers’ Courts Oscar Buzz as Zendaya Looks to Net Her First Best Actress Nom

In Luca Guadagnino’s latest cinematic endeavor, “Challengers,” Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist form a dynamic, throuple-esque trio, each delivering performances that scream Oscar-worthy. The real question is, will Academy voters look beyond the palpable sexual chemistry to acknowledge the film’s artistic merit? That’s a challenge for the marketing maestros.

Penned by newcomer Justin Kuritzkes, the spouse of “Past Lives” writer-director Celine Song, “Challengers” weaves through a 13-year narrative, chronicling the life of Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a tennis wunderkind-turned-coach, who hatches a plan for her husband Art’s (Faist) comeback. The plan pits him against his ex-buddy and Tashi’s former flame, Patrick (O’Connor), setting the stage for a dramatic unraveling.

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CHALLENGERS, from left: Mike Faist, Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, 2023. © MGM /Courtesy Everett Collection

Initially set for a grand reveal at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, its premiere was thwarted by the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. The delay prompts the question: could Zendaya have joined the best actress fray, competing with Emma Stone, last year’s winner for “Poor Things?” As “Challengers” unfurls its narrative like a multi-faceted Swiss Army knife, you can only imagine Annette Bening (“Nyad”) silently thanking the stars for the scheduling shift.

Femme fatales have been an Oscar staple for many decades. Yet, securing a nom for such a character is no small feat today. Amid the tales of Oscar snubs, like Sharon Stone’s bisexual ice-picking murderer in “Basic Instinct” (1992) or Nicole Kidman’s overly ambitious journalist in “To Die For” (1995), some have broken through. Kim Basinger won a statuette for her Veronica Lake-adjacent turn in “L.A. Confidential” (1997), while recent nominees such as Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl” (2014) and Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” (2020) slipped into the race.

Also a credited producer on the film, Zendaya, a two-time Emmy victor, continues to swiftly ascend Hollywood’s ladder. Given her magnetic presence, she’s a shoo-in for awards campaigning and is the film’s best shot at recognition. History shows that standouts like Goldie Hawn (“Private Benjamin”) and Julia Roberts (“Pretty Woman”), who were the “it girls” of their times, can shine during an awards season, even if their films fail to ignite.

Read: Early 2025 Oscars Predictions in every category on Variety’s Awards Circuit.

CHALLENGERS, from left: Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor, 2024. ph: Niko Tavernise /© MGM /Courtesy Everett Collection
Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in “Challengers”

The strategic maneuvers of Faist and O’Connor within the awards circuit will remain a topic of intrigue. The awards purist in me vehemently views “Challengers” as a three-lead-acting effort, and any separation of the trio will be deemed “category fraud” (at least in my eyes). But it’s more likely we’ll see O’Connor in lead and Faist in supporting (or a complete shock of both in supporting).

Faist, a standout as the Jets gang leader Riff in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the musical “West Side Story” (2022), is the emotional center of the sports drama, as he elicits the most sympathy from the viewer. O’Connor, best known for his Emmy-winning role as Prince Charles in Netflix’s “The Crown,” has entered his “hot guy on a bedroom poster” era. Continuing his scruffy beard look seen in the Italian “La Chimera” and the upcoming war drama “Lee,” I found O’Connor’s performance to be the most energetic and scene-stealing, tackling the New York bad boy character that feels plucked from the life of John McEnroe.

“Challengers” signifies one of two collaborations between Guadagnino and Kuritzkes this year (the next is “Queer” with Daniel Craig), showcasing a brave narrative willing to delve into homoerotic themes (and some will see it far beyond those labels). While the Academy has been open to diverse genres lately (i.e., “Barbie” and “Top Gun: Maverick”), promo teams will have to work double-time to have more than 10,000 Hollywood industry professionals see the film that falls in a similar vein as “Cruel Intentions” (which by my measure, should have been an awards darling for Sarah Michelle Gellar).

I’m perpetually thrilled by Guadagnino’s work, notably his Oscar-nominated masterpiece “Call Me by Your Name.” His commitment to how he represents Black women in cinema is commendable, as seen in his unique take on the cannibal romance “Bones and All” with Taylor Russell, and now with Zendaya in “Challengers.” In these films, race is acknowledged respectfully without being exploited as the central narrative element. More directors should take note.

In my book, “Challengers” is nothing short of an ace, an undeniably cool and fluid offering to the movie landscape, and ready to captivate audiences, critics and Oscar voters alike.

Read: All Primetime Emmy predictions in every category on Variety’s Awards Circuit.

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