Boasting enough fine performances to fill a 10-wide field at least, Supporting Actress is this year's most riches-packed race, and the one with the least room for disappointment. In any season, Sally Field would be a worthy winner for her work in Lincoln, a film she nearly stole with just a few searing scenes, and one she adamantly fought to be a part of. Field was Steven Spielberg's initial pick to play First Lady Mary Todd, but as the length of delayed production climbed, so too did Field's age, forcing the actress to re-audition and reconvince her director. The result was surely one of Field's signature turns, a flawless blend of authoritativeness, maternal zeal, and borderline derangement. A Field victory isn't implausible, but the two-time Oscar winner falls second to Anne Hathaway, who continues to steamroll the competition for her show-stopping work in Les Misérables. We in these parts are far from agreed on the specialness of Hathaway's performance, with some of us joining the cheerleading chorus and others thinking it devalues the efforts of actual stage stars, who spend their careers nailing one-take numbers without nearly so much hubbub. Either way, Hathaway has handily won the support of critics, audiences, and, one should think, Oscar voters, and those whose theaters filled with applause at the end of "I Dreamed a Dream" will likely agree that the song alone is poised to win her the statuette.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's still much to consider in this category, like Helen Hunt's frank, yet tender, portrayal of a sex surrogate in The Sessions. The third lock in the race, Hunt reminded her fans of what they'd been missing in recent years, finding a wonderful role that demanded what she seems uniquely equipped to give, like an independence tinged with unalloyed generosity, and a tendency to warm to men most desperate for grace and understanding. Naturally, the 49-year-old star's nudity in the film netted her "bravery" points, but thanks to her, the nudity was hardly the movie's most surprising element. The fourth woman with the best chances here is probably Maggie Smith, who played a racist shrew on the path to goodness in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Smith's might be the least impressive performance in the batch, as it edged very close to the realm of self-parody, but it's hard to imagine many folks begrudging her the honor, and the phenomenon of Downton Abbey can only boost her odds.
If you ask us, any one of a host of deserving ladies could step into the final spot, for acting that ranged from the madly comic to the shockingly feral. Making a memorable waist-down entrance and only growing more twisted from there, Gina Gershon played to her seedy strengths in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, portraying a white-trash vixen that marked her best character since Showgirls. In Bachelorette, Isla Fisher gave viewers a contact high by ditching all inhibitions, and in Arbitrage, Brit Marling used slivers of screen time to upstage veterans Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. Emily Blunt brought soul and palpable history to the single mother she played in Looper, and Édith Scob proved more than just a peripheral chauffeur in Holy Motors, conveying an alternately poignant and bizarre bond with Denis Lavant's Monsieur Oscar. In Zero Dark Thirty, Jennifer Ehle made good on the buzz she built with her work in Contagion, playing Jessica Chastain's chain-smoking CIA pal with aplomb. But no discussion of remarkable 2012 performances is complete without mention of Nicole Kidman's wild transformation in The Paperboy, Lee Daniels's pulpy '60s crime flick that, for all its distracting sensationalism, burned itself in the memory. Like Mo'Nique before her, Kidman let Daniels guide her to jaw-dropping ends, emerging with a hyper-sexualized portrayal unlike anything in her—or anyone else's—filmography. With surprise nods from SAG and the Golden Globes, Kidman seems primed to steal the place once held by The Master co-star Amy Adams, an outcome that, for the Academy, would be both radical and just.
Will Be Nominated: Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy; Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Should Be Nominated: Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty; Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy