Taking Kate Winslet out of the equation seemed to turn this category into any Academy Award fan’s dream scenario: an Oscar ripe for the taking in a veritable five-way contest. While it’s true that this is the only one of this year’s four acting categories where you can conjure up a pretty realistic scenario for any of the nominees being declared the winner, and we were all deprived a truly representational trial heat for this category, it’s myopic to act like there weren’t a couple clear favorites before Winslet’s departure that are now, consequently, favorites once again. Back in late December, Penélope Cruz was making a pretty unbroken sprint through the most important critics’ prizes, winning citations from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Granted, and as Sally Hawkins could tell you, this isn’t one of those years wherein critical attention seems to be any sort of dealmaker. But in a tight race, critics’ endorsements could be enough to buttress the role’s Oscar-friendly cultural minstrelsy and erection-friendly lesbianics to an easy win. If any of the other four nominees can surmount Cruz’s early lead, it will be Viola Davis, if for no other reason than the desire to throw an award to one of Doubt’s four Oscar-nominated performances. Some carp that the role is too brief to win here, especially given Amy Adams, in a much more durationally substantial role, is competition. But if there’s a category where it’s totally okay to show up for a single scene and knock it out of the park (Beatrice Straight, Judi Dench), this is it. Adams could conceivably win on the “Ooh, she’s a hottie” ticket if Cruz and Marisa Tomei’s veteran stripper are too exotic for the Academy’s demonstrable white-bread crotches. But Adams’s character spends the entire movie attempting to defuse situations and explain away the entire plot’s inciting incident. Oscar prefers dur-ah-ma, and next to Davis’s epic, tearful stare-down against La Streep, Adams’s “can’t we all just get along” blubbering comes off as an irritating, protracted whine. Hell, for that matter, Cruz’s fiery stereotype refused to cry unless she could do it in Spanish. And so we see the Academy, forced to reboot in Winslet’s absence, reverting to the early favorite here.
Will Win: Penélope Cruz, Vicki Cristina Barcelona
Should Win: Viola Davis, Doubt