At this point, being a Meryl Streep diehard who also cares about Oscar hoopla is a kind of brutal self-flagellation. Year after year, be it a silver fox in a royalty role, a can't-miss Brit in a Holocaust film, or a rom-com sweetheart awarded for years of box-office gajillions, there's always someone younger, fresher, or less-anointed to make voters feel better about passing on Streep, their near-perennial Oscar queen. This year, of course, the guilt-free alternative is Viola Davis, whose movie-carrying brilliance in The Help is fortified by the unavoidable race discussion, which, whether you pray at the church of Tate Taylor or Tavis Smiley, is all but certain to catapult her to victory. Up to now, Streep and Davis have more or less split the precursor trophies, and Streep has a fresh Kennedy Center Honor and Berlinale career kudo in her corner, but it's next to impossible to imagine Davis's snowballing awards narrative being derailed in the place where it would wring the most tears. Yes, a 2012 Best Actress win for a black woman in a maid role sends all kinds of regressive messages, but stronger yet is the voter urge to self-congratulate by coloring Oscar history, however sad the truth of the matter. Indeed, Streep had better hope she stays in her seat, for a win might make her look as monstrous as the shrew she so embodies in The Iron Lady.
It's too bad Streep isn't chummier with Glenn Close. At the Vanity Fair party, the two could wax melancholic on late-career disses, while Rooney Mara shares her contractually bound piercings with Michelle Williams, an actress who seemed like a frontrunner for all of one week this year. It's always interesting to watch how campaigns shift when it comes down to the wire, and how contenders unofficially concede defeat. Unlike Best Actor, which some would argue has become a very plausible four-way race, this category isn't offering a prayer to Close, Mara, or Williams, and Davis and Streep are the only gals you see on the last-minute circuit. Hearing Davis talk about her craft, in interviews and acceptance speeches and roundtable chats, is as much as anyone could hope for from a top Oscar hopeful. Her absurdly articulate insights and unwavering grace are almost baitier than her actual on-screen work. And what's more, while Streep's high opinion of herself has a way of always standing out (don't give us that "overrated" piffle), it's not outrageous to think that Davis even has her opponent's vote. Though partly and undoubtedly playing the game, Streep has been going to bat for Davis all season, and there's always the consideration that such may truly be a full-on endorsement. Where does that leave the 14-time loser? Looking forward to next year, of course, and the next year, and the next, until her portrayal of a senile octogenarian isn't mimicry, but reality. And we all know how much the Academy likes their overdue honorees with one foot in the grave.
Will Win: Viola Davis, The Help
Could Win: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Should Win: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady