All season long, two prominent Oscar players have straddled the uncomfortable line between aligning with the supporting and leading categories. One appeared in approximately two-thirds of her film’s running time, most of it not merely the center of attention but arguably the black hole of attention; her handlers gunned for a Best Actress nomination, no doubt confident that “female lead in Mike Leigh’s newest film” translates to instant Oscar buzz. The other appeared in all but the final three or four minutes of her film (when an older actress took over the role for a “30 years later”-style coda), but admittedly spent significant chunks of that running time making room for her male costar’s grizzled, drunken antics; her handlers pushed her for a Supporting Actress berth. Both won various awards and nominations in their chosen categories, but now all the buzz surrounding these two particular races is whether the latter, Hailee Steinfeld, can pull off a Keisha Castle-Hughes miracle, which we now believe she can. All the while, virtually no one even mentions the name of the former, who would’ve probably been a slam dunk if she’d switched category allegiance. The hard lesson for Another Year’s almost certain also-ran Lesley Manville to learn from this: Don’t you dare, even when both the relative centrality and overtly showy nature of your role would justify the placement, stiff up in class when you could just as easily slum. Manville will be punished for daring to do the right thing, whereas True Grit’s Steinfeld will be doubtlessly rewarded—and, we think, in the correct category—for feigning modesty about her chances among the big girls. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that youth helps in Oscar’s distaff categories—a double-edged sword which only actually cuts those who play women who openly lust after men 10 to 15 years younger than themselves.
Meanwhile, Oscar voters are almost certainly capable of sidestepping SAG’s ludicrous attempt to brutalize Tom O’Neil’s delicate sensibilities by nominating Conviction’s Hilary Swank against Annette Bening and, in effect, setting us all up for Trillion Dollar Baby: This Time, It’s Personal. Swank has apparently embraced what Goldie Hawn in The First Wives’ Club called the “District Attorney” phase of every actress’s career, but that particular Oscar template died, well, before Steinfeld was even born. Plus, if the through line of O’Neil & Company’s Annette Bening narrative has been that of the established Hollywood veteran falling not once, but twice to a younger, more arrogantly technical performer, then there’s no need for Swank to be recruited to fill a role Natalie Portman will just fine, thanks. Bening and Portman have been duking it out all Oscar season, and it’s a credit to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance that she’s managed to hold onto presumptive nominee status without actually winning much of anything. (Then again, one could argue the movie isn’t so much “Ozark noir” as it is a really lo-fi Joan Crawford maternal melodrama, at least in the eyes of some Oscar voters.) Nicole Kidman ought to be in the same boat, since her performance in Rabbit Hole has been granted nominations in almost every trial heat, but we say Michelle Williams scores higher on the Rosey Grier “It’s All Right to Cry” barometer. Kidman has a honey of an 11th-hour breakdown, but it’s the only time in her—it must be pointed out, largely unseen—film she doesn’t cry to prove someone else wrong. In contrast, Williams’s ducts bear the salty fruits of a decade’s worth of improvisatory character sketching.