OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actress Race

Although not offering nearly the same level of intense competition as the lead actor race this year, the race for best lead actress is shaping up as one of the more intriguing matchups in recent years, with a wide divide in age, experience, and roles. Although 17-time nominee Meryl Streep finally won her third Oscar last year for The Iron Lady (her first win in 29 years), it is not likely she will four-peat, despite widespread praise for her role as a wife looking to put sexual pizazz back into her longrunning marriage in Hope Springs. She isn’t even letting the studio campaign the performance, which should at least let somebody else out there have a shot, considering Streep is bound to be back in serious contention next year with the much-awaited August: Osage County. So this year there is a large group of Oscar virgins from ages 8 to 85 competing for one of those five coveted slots, but Streep aside, they will have to face an imposing trio of British Dames and past winners Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, not to mention Oscar’s French crush Marion Cotillard, and an overdue Australian dynamo named Naomi Watts, among others. Here’s the lineup from the top 10 to those looking for a way into the mix.

Jennifer Lawrence, The Silver Linings Playbook
As a young woman coming out of her own personal hell and trying to live life again, 22-year-old Lawrence proves her first best actress Oscar nom two years ago for Winter’s Bone was no fluke. Her scenes opposite costar Bradley Cooper are priceless, and she effortlessly navigates the tricky waters from flat-out comedy to heart-wrenching drama. It probably doesn’t hurt that she also starred in one of the year’s biggest hits, The Hunger Games, to cement her frontrunner status here.

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actor Race

Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
The great French star, a winner recently for her earth-shattering turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose is back and equally fine as an orca whale trainer who loses both her legs in a tragic accident and finds new purpose and love she never knew. Her La Vie en Rose win probably makes a second Oscar so soon less likely, and the film might not be as widely seen as other contenders, but she’s a knockout in the role.

Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Mirren won in 2006 for playing Queen Elizabeth, and now she is back in contention for another real-life role, the lesser-known Alma Hitchcock, wife and partner of Alfred who was the brains and the force behind the genius. The film is more of a love story between the pair during the making of Psycho, and Mirren once again shows great dignity and has the money scene where she gets to tell off her husband and elicit the audience’s sympathy.

Related: ‘Hitchcock’ Opens AFI Fest, Starts Oscar Talk

Naomi Watts, The Impossible
As an extreme accident victim whose family is separated during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Watts has her most physical and, perhaps, most demanding role. Speaking mostly through her eyes, Watts is extraordinary and could land her second best actress nom after first making the grade with 21 Grams.

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
This great actress, now 85 years old, first came to fame more than 50 years ago in the classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), but now, at a point when most actors are long retired or forgotten, she has perhaps her greatest role as a stroke victim whose rapidly declining health takes a great toll on her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Much like Watts, Riva says so much by saying so little, and it’s heartbreaking — and difficult — to watch. If nominated she would be the oldest ever in this category.

Related: OSCARS: Studio-by-Studio Look At This Year’s Hopefuls

Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
As the pint-sized powerhouse named Hushpuppy, first-time actress Wallis won praise and stole hearts in this magical festival sensation, the story of a 6-year-old dealing with a fading father and challenging weather conditions threatening her life on the bayou. Wallis is Riva’s opposite: she would be the youngest ever nominated, and the thin ranks of true contenders means she has a real shot to make it happen. An Indie Spirit nomination, and possible win, is assured.

Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Tackling one of the great roles in all of literature, Knightley brings just the right amount of moral ambiguity and suffering to Tolstoy’s heroine. Performing in the shadow of Greta Garbo’s unique and unforgettable portrayal, but helped by director Joe Wright’s imaginative and fluid staging, Knightley matches her Oscar-nominated turn in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, looks sensational, and makes the role her own. Mixed reaction to the overall film could hurt her chances in the end.

Maggie Smith, Quartet
Two-time winner Maggie Smith shines in a sterling ensemble of veteran actors who bring Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut to shimmering life. Playing an aging opera diva who moves into a home for retired stars, Smith still knows how to deliver a brittle, caustic line with the best of them and still make us care. She stands a good chance of getting back into the Oscar game after bagging her second Downton Abbey Emmy in September.

Related: ‘The Impossible’ Exclusive Featurette – Video

Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Not to be outdone by her Marigold costar Maggie Smith, Dench dominates a true ensemble and who’s who of British senior stars as a lonely widow finding renewed life on a trip to India that turns into a challenge for all when they check into the rundown Marigold Hotel. Add to that her strongest turn yet in the Bond film, Skyfall, and Dench is having a very good year. She should, at the very least, merit a Golden Globe comedy nom for this.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Although a late-breaking entry in this year’s race — and the most secretive movie of the lot — Chastain appears to have a very good chance to repeat her career roll and nab a second consecutive Oscar nomination (after her supporting nom for The Help last year) for her role as a tough CIA operative. Chastain calls her part awesome, but will Academy members agree?

Also in the Mix…

Elle Fanning, Ginger & Rosa
Sporting a British accent and attitude, the teen star got top reviews on the fest circuit but has an uphill climb for Oscar recognition—although she is one to watch in the future.

Meryl Streep, Hope Springs
As usual Streep knocks it out of the park, but even she says enough is enough. Still, she’s Streep, so never say never.

Leslie Mann, This Is 40
Mann is simply terrific in this semi-autobiographical movie from her husband, Judd Apatow. Could be a sleeper contender if the movie catches on. This is her best work yet.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
It never hurts to play an alcoholic, and Winstead delivers a major performance with surprising subtlety as a teacher with a constant hangover and troubled relationship. The film might be too small and forgotten by the time ballots are filled out.

Laura Linney, Hyde Park on Hudson
Bill Murray’s spot-on portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is what seems to be drawing the attention to this movie, although Linney was entirely fine and wonderfully subtle as the distant cousin who has a most unusual relationship with the president. She’s likely to get overlooked for a performance that does not get that one ballbreaking scene that makes voters take notice.

Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Many found Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Terence Rattigan story pretentious, but all agree it was a raw and riveting turn by Weisz that made it worth watching. It would require a big campaign just to remind people this spring release came out this year.

Amy Adams, Trouble With The Curve
Eastwood was Eastwood and might have hurt himself with that chair, but Adams was the heart and soul of this estranged father-daughter relationship set in the world of baseball scouting. Her best chance this year lies with The Master in supporting since Curve didn’t quite hit a home run in its September release.

  1. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd have enormous chemistry. Sad that Rudd always gets overlooked, but at least Mann should get some plaudits this go-round.

    1. The problem with Paul Rudd, he continues the play himself in all his movies. The poor guy has no acting range, and, plus, he doesn’t take chances. He should be bored with his film career, and hire a new agent.

  2. My two cents :

    1. Jennifer Lawrence (early frontrunner)
    2. Naomi Watts (most viable threat)
    3. Marion Cotillard (near-lock status since Cannes)
    4. Jessica Chastain (Chastain in carriemathison-mode ? OSCAR!)
    5. Keira Knightley (big, iconic titular role)

    I could be easily wrong NOT predicting Wallis and Riva considering their performances have beeen receiving raves/buzz since Sundance/Cannes, respectively, not to mention the Academy might not be able to resist making history by nominating their youngest and oldest in the Best Actress category in the same year. However, foreign language performances rarely make the cut, especially not 2 in the same year and Cotillard seems stronger to me at the moment, not to mention as brilliant as the film and Riva’s performance is, Amour is depressing as hell and considering their most recent BP-winners, the Academy might not be up for something this devastating. As for Wallis, she has to overcome damaging factors like the early release date, SAG-ineligibility and if my memory serves me well, the Academy-screening wasn’t exactly a smash, either, I could be wrong about the last one, though. So I guess it will come down to whether the voters got the film or not and if not, could they still love her performance enough to reward her with a nomination ?

    The Academy probably wont feel pressure to recognize Oscar-winning acting legends like Streep, Mirren, Smith and Dench. If their films were strong BP-contenders, than maybe, bu all 4 seem to be good-not-great, light crowdpleasers. Having said that, Mirren is gaining serious momentum at the moment, meanwhile Maggie ‘downtonmarigoldquartet’ Smith and Judi ‘skyfallmarigold’ Dench are having a phenomenal year, not to mention Smith can also count on the famous Weinstein-push.

  3. Lawrence is fantastic, but is she really going to win over Riva, Cotillard, and Mirren? The fact that the films are foreign language will work against the first two, but can anyone honestly say they think Lawrence in SLP gave a better performance than Riva in Amour?

  4. If only enough votes watched Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead would be a shoo-in. A breakthrough performance.

    1. I hear that, her relapse scene alone haunts me to this day, to me it’s right up there with Riva’s brilliance in the slap-scene in ‘Amour’ and Cotillard’s awakening-scene in ‘Rust & Bone’.

      Winstead is bound to be the overlooked relevation of the year. Good news ? Even if the role won’t secure her an Oscar, it could secure her roles in the near future that MIGHT.

  5. If you see Silver Linings Playbook and don’t fall in love with Jennifer Lawrence there’s something with you.

  6. Sorry but nothing special about Quvenzhané Wallis and in what has got to be the most overrated movie, as well as the dullest, of the year.

    1. Both are campaigned in the supporting category, which is perfectly reasonable considering former exits in the first half and latter only appears in the second. Only Hugh Jackman will get a lead campaign.

    1. Because it was a so-so performance in a lame, sitcom-like indie that had zero buzz and that almost nobody saw. That’s why.

  7. Jennifer Lawrence is the most overrated, overhyped actress in the business right now. Very few average people have seen Silver Linings, and frankly, I am annoyed by the paid hype. It’s a Redbox or Netflix movie for me, either way. Sorry.

    1. Let me guess? You think Kristen Stewart is the best actress EVAAAH. Well tell me what young actress is as good as Lawrence right now?

      1. Not everybody who thinks Jennifer Lawrence sucks as an actress is a big fan of Kristen Stewart. It’s called having an opinion, dimwit. And his opinion, and mine and lot of other people, is that Jennifer Lawrence is extremely overrated. She’s not horrible but she’s not this astounding performer that everybody must like. Good for her awards buzz but it doesn’t mean much. I can list Oscar-nominated actors who aren’t doing zilch right now.

    2. I couldn’t agree more. She was bland in ” The Hunger Games.” Plus, Jennifer Lawrence is too young for her role in SLP, and she doesn’t completely pull off the comedy & drama seamlessly . Now, Bradley Cooper, surprisingly, pulls off his role. And, he is the heart & soul of SLP. Bradley deserves the Oscar nomination out of the whole cast in SLP.

    3. “Very few average people have seen Silver Linings”

      Maybe because it just opened up in limited release two days ago?

    4. I absolutely agree, it’s getting ridiculous. They act like they’ve never seen a good actress before. They’re calling her “a miracle” and “the finest actress of her generation”… it’s like she’s a plant that they put there to promote, it’s just very weird. It’s making me hope that she doesn’t win the Oscar. I think Chastain is going to come in and knock her out. Now SHE is great.

    1. I saw a screening of this when it was called My Mother’s Curse. I am surprised it is not mentioned here. I thought this was one of Streisand’s best performances and honestly better than some of the ones being mentioned. The trailer makes the movie look silly and while it has its silly moments it is closer in feel to Hope Springs. Streisand’s dramatic scenes were excellent. The movie itself is very sweet and I think will get good reviews and do well at the box office.

  8. Emayatzy Corinealdi has the best performance I’ve seen this year in Middle of Nowhere. Hopefully you’ve yet to see it, but it is your job to. If you have seen it and neglect to mention her than I think that’s absurd and you lose credibility.

    1. Agreed…

      I’ve been waiting for this to come to my area (I’m in Pittsburgh and we seem to get many of the oscar bait movies a few weeks after they originally come out)…

      And I hear Emayatzy is a powerhouse in this movie. I hope somehow the film gets that extra push for the awards season because from what I’ve been hearing and been told by folk who’ve seen this movie, she should be in the running for Best Actress

  9. IF Lawrence wins, what’s that five or six features and two noms and a possible win by 22? Pro athletes out of high school do this shit usually not actors. Impressive.

  10. This is clearly a joke. Nicole Kidman delivers her best work in The Paper Boy. Her nomination is pretty much a lock

  11. Pete, If your aim is to be thorough, how can you have overlooked Emayatzy Corinealdi’s powerfully refines performance in ‘Middle of Nowhere’? Even if you don’t figure her in the top 5 fine but she is absolutely one to watch, as potentially up-seating a favorite. If you didn’t see this film yet, that’s even worse and utterly inexcusable for my treasured go-to trade site.

  12. I think The Impossible will pave the way for a Naomi win next year, for Diana. Or maybe she’ll win the year after for Queen of the Desert. Either way I think she’s on her way to more awards recognition.

  13. Cotillard, Lawrence & Riva should have their chair at the Oscars. One of them deserves to win, whatever who (My personal favorite is Cotillard but for me all 3 delivered an Oscar worthy performance, all better than Bullock!). One thing is sure, Riva, Cotillard & Lawrence are the best performances of the year, by a hundred miles. I’m a little scared for Riva but I hope with all my heart she will get in because she really broke mine in “Amour”.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Sadly, Riva is not “popular” with the Hollywood set, but she gave an indelible performance in one of the most important, formally re-defining films in history in “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” What she does in “Amour” is just the stuff that never leaves you. Not only do I want her to earn a nom, I would love for her to win.

  14. Meryl was okay in Hope Springs, nothing special at all. The best performance came from Tommy Lee Jones.

    1. Saw Streisand in The Guilt Trip and she was better than Meryl in a similar type role. To me Meryl was very clinical in Hope Springs. Streisand was much warmer. Also think Streisand would get my vote over Dame Judi and Amy Adams mentioned above. I think this could be the season’s surprise. Will definitely give Jennifer Lawrence a run for the money for the GG Best Comedy Musical Actress. HFPA loves Barbra.

    1. I’m with you Sally. “Beasts” is the only one of these films that I’ve seen so far, so I can’t say anything about the others, but “Beasts” and Wallis knocked me out, and I couldn’t talk for a while after the movie was over. It may end up being my number one movie of all time.

  15. Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely amazing in Silver Linings Playbook…wonderful film, I will dfinetly see this film again. Jennifer Lawrence for the nomination and win!!. I must say, of all the potential oscar films that I have seen so far, Silver linings Playbook was the film that stayed with me long after i left the theater.

  16. If you’ve included the great Maggie Smith in a lightweight charming role, why not Streisand in The Guilt Trip?

  17. What about Lisa Cardellini’s portrayal of a U.S. soldier returning from the war in Iraq only to struggle with getting her life back in order stateside.

    Granted, the movie “The Return” wasn’t the greatest but Cardellini’s acting in it was a revelation. She oozes talent. Maybe the Academy will notice?

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