Lily Gladstone may soon make history as the first Native American actress to win an Oscar for her quietly affecting performance in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. As Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman manipulated by her greedy husband and uncle (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro), Gladstone brings a profound stillness and humanity to the role that has captured critical and audience attention.
Born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in rural Montana, Gladstone found solace on the stage from childhood bullying for being “verbose and goofy.” Encouraged by her father to pursue acting, Gladstone recalls “when I was nine, it was the worst of it. I was struggling to keep friendships, bullied a lot. And he very matter-of-factly said, ‘Oh, it’s OK, honey. They’re all going to be your friend someday when you win your Oscar.’”
Breakout Performance Years in the Making
While Oscar talk swirls around Gladstone now, her rise to prominence hasn’t been overnight. With a few minor indie films and TV credits to her name, Gladstone considered walking away from acting in her mid-thirties after years of struggling to catch that big break.
It was her affecting 2016 role opposite Kristen Stewart in Certain Women that first put Lily Gladstone on Oscar-winning director Scorsese’s radar. As an lonely ranch hand pining after Stewart’s character, Gladstone commanded the screen with her subtle emotive power in the now famous diner scene. Of that ability to connect through stillness, Scorsese raves “There are so few actors who trust in stillness, quiet — and that trust comes from an extremely sharp understanding of their own presence. Lily is in complete command of her instrument.”
Flower Moon Cements Gladstone as Powerhouse Talent
When Scorsese began casting for his adaptation of the bestselling true crime book Killers of the Flower Moon, chronicling the systematic murder of oil-wealthy Osage people in 1920s Oklahoma, he knew Gladstone was the right fit for the crucial role of Mollie Burkhart.
As Burkhart, whose family becomes victim to her greedy husband and uncle scheming to control the family’s fortune, Gladstone brings heartwrenching authenticity. Her powerful-yet-understated performance opposite screen legends like DiCaprio and De Niro is already generating major Oscar buzz.
Both Mollie Burkhart and the story of the “Reign of Terror” against the Osage people have profound personal meaning for Gladstone as a Native woman herself. In playing Burkhart, she hopes to honor the resilience and humanity of her ancestors. Gladstone also recognizes the seminal importance of bringing this often overlooked history of Native oppression and exploitation into popular light.
Could Best Actress Victory Make History?
If Gladstone hears her name called on Oscar night, she would become the first Native actress ever to claim Hollywood’s highest honor. She would also join an elite club of actresses who skyrocketed from obscurity to Oscar winner in the span of just a few years.
Much like Hilary Swank with Boys Don’t Cry or Jennifer Lawrence with Winter’s Bone, Gladstone’s raw screen power would be undeniably affirmed. And with Native representation now at the forefront of debates around diversity and inclusion, the timing seems right for Gladstone to seize her moment.
Of course, she faces extremely tough competition, including Cate Blanchett’s tour de force in Tár. But early raves for Gladstone’s Flower Moon performance suggest she could be this Oscar season’s breakout. Either way, whether she wins or not, Lily Gladstone seems certain now to have staying power in Hollywood after years waiting patiently in the wings for her chance to shine. Just as her father predicted, the Osca may not be far behind.