While the Oscar race for Best Actor has heated up to a frenzy with, as previously reported here, at least 30 viable candidates and only five slots, most observers have labeled this year’s Best Actress crop from weak to thin with not even enough sure things at this point to make a list of five.

pete_hammond_300x100That’s a bit of an overstatement as pundits generally agree there are at least three, possibly four near-certainties for nominations: Julianne Moore for the still-unreleased Still Alice (out Dec. 5)Felicity Jones for The Theory Of Everything and Reese Witherspoon for Wild (also out Dec. 5).

movies-eddie-redmayne-felicity-jones-theory-of-everythingWhen Gone Girl opened earlier this fall, it not only became by far the biggest awards contenders with a female lead released this year, it stirred up talk of an inevitable nod for Rosamund Pike. In terms of the campaign though, she has been a bit out of sight/out of mind back in England this season because of her pregnancy.

And despite its hit status in theatersGone Girl’s reception among Academy voters was mixed. There can be no question she’s deserving of a nomination because she was absolutely brilliant in an extremely tricky role that actors will recognize, but the buzz factor is a little cooler at the moment. I would still give her that slot.

Fox is also actively competing with itself by 'Gone Girl' Looking to Beat 'Annabelle' At Weekend B.O.campaigning Shailene Woodley for the YA summer smash, The Fault In Our Stars. They even threw a lunch and did a Q&A with the key players, most notably Woodley, on Thursday. But will voters go for a performance, no matter how good, in a film aimed at younger audiences? Or will the snob factor kick in?  It’s a viable question, which in effect leaves one more open slot that any number of actresses in big or small films could fill.

WildCould Amy Adams be that one, gaining her sixth nomination for low-key work in Big Eyes (out Dec. 25)? She’s certainly proven to be an Academy favorite but at this point, the Weinstein Company’s real push for the film seems to be just getting her into the Musical or Comedy Actress race at the Globes.

Jessica Chastain‘s supporting work in A Most Violent Year and Interstellar seems to be overshadowing the fading memory of her exceptional, but little buzzed performance in The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigbya portrayal available in three different versions just to add to the confusion.

And Disney is going to push Emily Blunt for Into The Woods. That could work for the Globes, but the role seems to0 small for a real chance at the Best Actress Oscar. She’s more an outstanding part of an outstanding ensemble.

sandra-bullock-oscar-winner-2010So, despite talk about the field’s “thiness,” I would say if the actors branch does their homework there are bountiful riches to be uncovered. Remember at this point in 2009, there was no pundit joining me in predicting that Sandra Bullock could become an Oscar winner for The Blind Side. Even the studio was skeptical. It helped when the Thanksgiving release became a huge hit, but for a while it was like tilting at windmills.

I have been touting Jennifer Aniston’s transformative work in Cake  since it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8. Now thatJennifer-Aniston-Sam-Worthington-Film-Cake-LACineLou, its distributor (along with Freestyle Releasing) has fully committed to a campaign, and the star herself is out on the meet-and-greet Q&A circuit (Friday night she held court at a special screening and post reception on the Sunset Strip), look for her chances to increase. Voters love an actor known primarily for commercial comedies taking chances, deglamorizing themselves and going dramatic.

That is what Aniston, heartbreakingly good playing a victim of Chronic Pain, has done, much like what Steve Carell has achieved on the male side in Foxcatchera role that has him poised for a nomination. The trick is obviously to get the small movie seen by as many acting branch voters as possible  and perhaps also land a Golden Globe nod.

Handlers talked originally about trying to put Aniston in the Musical or Comedy category for the Globes but this week the HFPA ruled, correctly, that Cake belongs in Drama. The plan is also to send out screeners to Oscar voters in the first week in December shortly after the movie (with a planned commercial break in January)  begins a one-week qualifying run.

That will be a still alicebusy time for those required seven-day runs, as not only actors Kevin Costner (Black Or White and Al Pacino (The Humbling are going that route that week, but also Moore with two films, Still Alice and, more quietly, Maps To The Stars (to qualify for the Globes Comedy category).

Moore has managed to become the frontrunner even though most voters haven’t seen the movie, which only had its debut in Toronto (directly following Cake). There, Sony Pictures Classics quickly snapped it up and shrewdly announced an Oscar run.  Moore’s overdue, having previously gone 0 for 4 with her nominations and she brilliantly plays a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s. You don’t need to see the film to know that’s a winning combination when it comes to Academy Award roles.

archaeologyofawomanBut there are a number of other actresses, getting little or no buzz, that are quietly going for that presumed fifth slot. In some cases they are doing it on their own. Sally Kirkland famously launched an indie campaign in 1987 for Anna, taking out numerous ads and hitting the circuit in a time when campaigning wasn’t nearly as intense as it is now.  It worked.

She won the LA Film Critics Award, the Indie Spirit Best Actress, a Golden Globe and finally an Oscar nomination (losing to Cher in Moonstruck). Now, after more than 25 years, she has another strong lead role in the tiny indie Archaeology Of A Woman as a victim of severe dementia.

Kirkland’s remarkable performance touches raw nerves so she’s taking another shot for a movie still without a distributor. She personally set up a run at Beverly Hills’ Music Hall theatre across the street from the Academy, also that first week in December. She will be sending screeners as well but, being the darkest of horses, knows this is an uphill climb. Again the goal is just to get the work seen and take it from there.

A 75mention from this Tuesday’s reveal of the Independent Spirit Award nominations could supply some momentum, as it also could Jenny Slate in A24’s Obvious Child (also hoping for a Globe nom in Comedy) , and particularly for Michelle Monaghan, who deservedly won raves, but little distribution for her fine work as an Army vet returning home from Afghanistan in Fort Bliss. That film is currently standing at 80% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

To drum up interest, Monaghan did a packed Q&A for the SAG Nominations Committee this week at ICM followed by a reception. Every little bit helps, but clearly movies like this (which only played a week on a single Burbank screen when it opened quietly in September) need a lot more than that as they are competing against huge awards-season machines like Fox, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus for those Best Actress slots.

thumbnail_19989Another independently made and distributed film, Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks (out Dec. 12 is getting a larger push in the form of lots of For Your Consideration ads, early screeners , and even a Dec. 2 Chinese Theatre hand- and footprint ceremony (which doesn’t come cheap) for luminous star Gena Rowlands, back in great form at age 84 as a feisty Florida widow taking dance lessons in the sunset of her life.

Rowlands is simply wonderful in a movie that is a joy to behold, particularly for the older voters who should respond well. She doesn’t make a false move, and the two-time Oscar-nominated, but never winning star (A Woman Under The Influence) deserves another shot. Letters have been written every year trying to get her an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards but so far, no go. This performance is further proof of her magnetic talents. Attention should be paid.

annette-bening-ed-harris-the-face-of-loveAnd speaking of overdue, there’s Annette Bening, way overdue with, like Moore, four previous nominations but no wins though I thought she was going to pull it off in 2010, ironically opposite Moore in The Kids Are All Right (Natalie Portman won for Black Swan).  

Bening famously lost twice to Hilary Swank and Swank is back again this year – wouldn’t you know – with a realistic chance at grabbing that fifth slot for her fine work in The Homesman (just this week she was out on the circuit doing a Q&A for SAG Nom Comm).

FOL Bening FYCBut Bening is also enormously popular among her fellow actors in the Academy, even serving as a Governor of the Actors branch. But do you even remember she had a film this year?  That’s the problem.

She was great as a woman seeing visions of her dead husband in The Face Of Love, which IFC Films opened quietly in March. But the film, reminiscent of those kinds of soapy female-driven studio dramas of the ’50s, didn’t wow critics (it’s only 41% at Rotten Tomatoes), even if Bening herself won glowing notices for lifting the material to a different place. That’s a feat that could impress fellow actors if they get the chance to see it.

the-homesman-posterIFC doesn’t appear to be campaigning it , instead throwing nearly all its resources at Boyhood (understandably, as that film has a real shot) and in the actress race for Marion Cotillard, again terrific in the Dardenne Brothers’ foreign-language entry, Two Days, One Night (it’s getting a qualifying run before the end of the year). Nevertheless, producer Bonnie Curtis tells me screeners are being prepared for SAG and Academy. There’s an ad prepared too. And remember, it’s Bening.

So with all these riches can we still say it’s a thin field? Are vets of the Oscar wars like Bening, Rowlands, Kirkland  and newcomers to the game like Monaghan and Aniston  just “tilting at windmills” with their deserving, if tiny, indies? In the current world of Oscar campaigning, doing nothing means sure defeat. So let the tilting begin. The time could be ripe for an underdog.