Compared to most of the season's races, Best Actress has remained somewhat open, with only two gals firmly secure in their nominations, and at least five more boasting realistic chances. The two locks in question are, of course, Zero Dark Thirty lead Jessica Chastain and Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence, a pair whom most believe will duke it out for the win. Coming off of one of the most impressive breakthrough years of any actor in memory, Chastain took top billing in a film that never tried to promote girl power, but nonetheless emerged as a battleground riff on any number of feminist dramas, with a can-do female fighting powers that be to see justice done. Historically, it's the sort of performance the Academy lives to reward, right up there with the dead-on mimicry of late icons. Lawrence, meanwhile, used her turn in Silver Linings Playbook to cement her career longevity, which has been hinted at since Winter's Bone, the last film to land her a nod in this category. Far from a flash in the pan, Lawrence has that rare gift of deeply understanding the women she portrays, and her bone-deep grasp of unhinged widow Tiffany is the highlight of David O. Russell's flawed dramedy.
Things get tricky when it comes to who will join Chastain and Lawrence in the ring. The safest third choice seems to be The Impossible's Naomi Watts, who, like our sure things, scored the precursor trifecta of SAG, Golden Globe, and Critics' Choice nominations. For her work as the matriarch of a real-life family who survived the 2004 tsunami, Watts has a lot of apparent support from the Hollywood elite, like Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon, who professed their strong reactions to the character's maternal instincts. Watts's performance was hardly her best, as the movie made minimal use of her great dramatic gifts, but it proved one torturous physical ordeal, and is bound to earn her dedication points. Another actress with a heap of early nods is Rust and Bone star Marion Cotillard, who's been in the running since her French-language drama made its debut at Cannes. Giving life to a double amputee fighting to regain hope and humanity, Cotillard certainly found herself a baity role, but her acting in the film was rather subdued, particularly for Oscar's tastes. Moreover, the 2008 Best Actress victor was overshadowed by co-star Matthias Schoenaerts, whose street-fighting antihero was the movie's true surprise.
For her performance as the woman behind the man in the laughably awful Hitchcock, Helen Mirren has managed to snag a few early mentions, garnering nominations from SAG and the Golden Globes. But if the revered dame were to crack the Oscar lineup, for distinction-free work she could have tackled in her sleep, it'd be a new low for the Academy's process, reeking of knee-jerk idolization and Fox Searchlight's shameless, aggressive campaign. A more likely and deserving veteran contender is Amour's Emmanuelle Riva, who, despite the movie's failings, broke copious hearts as a woman slipping away, her body betraying her in a manner all too eerily human. Though left off the SAG and Golden Globes shortlists, and not exactly a woman beloved by the voting community, Riva will likely benefit from the amount of attention her film has received, winding up, at 85, the category's oldest-ever nominee. Conversely, Beasts of the Southern Wild's breakout discovery Quvenzhané Wallis could, at nine years old, be history's youngest Best Actress candidate, a feat we're predicting she'll pull off. Had she been eligible, odds are Wallis would have made the SAG cut, and as a born talent headlining the year's must-see indie, she stands poised to edge out lesser hopefuls.
So remains the inevitable crowd of deserving snubbees, who'll have to settle for little more than critical adoration. In a different year, Rachel Weisz may well have stormed to the end for her shattering work in The Deep Blue Sea, which afforded the actress her finest role in years. In Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley's dark, yet bubbly, drama, Michelle Williams continued her reign as the best actress of her generation, playing a woman undone by her own pursuit of happiness. In Silent House, Elizabeth Olsen brought grade-A chops to an otherwise ill-conceived remake, and in Hysteria, Maggie Gyllenhaal got her Downton Abbey on, adopting a British accent while playing a feminist equal parts infectious and affecting. And finally, there's Zoe Kazan, who gave what may be the year's most unjustly overlooked performance in Ruby Sparks, a movie the actress not just starred in, but wrote. Emerging from the mind of a neurotic novelist (Kazan's real-life beau, Paul Dano), the title character Kazan plays is a passionate storm of action and emotion, her every whim controlled by her maker's typewriter. Perfectly executed, the role was startlingly complex, and a testament to the payoff of soldiering past the industry's limited leads for women.
Will Be Nominated: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emanuelle Riva, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Should Be Nominated: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz