In many ways, it is still a man's world. It's unfortunate, but not nearly as many movies feature strong leading roles for women as for men. Consequently, the Best Actress race rarely mirrors the Best Picture race as closely as does the Best Actor race. You would think that this would make the field less predictable. This would be true, except that there are so few "awards bait" films led by women that the initial field is much narrower. There have been noticeably MORE valid best actress contenders in the last couple of years. Last year the field was wide enough to snub Naomi Watts, Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton, Leslie Manville, and Noomi Rapace who could all have been shoo-ins in weaker years. Maybe the gender divide is closing. There are certainly no shortage of great, underutilized actresses to fill it.
On the cusp of the fall festivals (Venice started yesterday!!!), the 84th Best Actress race looks like this:
1. The Iron Lady - Meryl Streep (100) (2 wins out of 16 nominations)
It's Meryl...with Harvey. Then again...um...the Academy could be tired of teasing her?...?
2. Albert Nobbs - Glenn Close (70) (0 wins out of 5 nominations)
Brilliant overdue actress in a cross dressing role that she already won an Obie for. Then again...Might Streep take this year's only veteran slot?
3. My Week With Marilyn - Michelle Williams (64) (0 wins out of 2 nominations)
Highly respected actress playing iconic Hollywood figure. Then again...Early reviews have favored Branagh's performance more prominently. The Weinstein Co. already has one horse in this race.
4. Martha, Marcy, Mae, Marlene - Elizabeth Olsen (52) (never nominated)
Rave reviews on the festival circuit and I'm sure many in Hollywood would love to show her older siblings how readily they embrace a performance of quality. Then again...the film is small and she is a relative unknown.
5. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Rooney Mara (51) (never nominated)
She showed real promise under Fincher's guidance in The Social Network and we certainly know how much potential the role carries. Then again...that's the problem. She has to out-Salander Noomi Rapace.
6. We Need To Talk About Kevin - Tilda Swinton (49) (1 win out of 1 nomintion)
Outstanding reviews for a great actress in a role that carries her film. Then again...might the subject matter be too dark for many Oscar voters to sit through?
7. Young Adult - Charlize Theron (43) (1 win out of 2 nominations)
AMPAS approved actress leads movie by AMPAS approved writer/director team. Then again...will it be too light?
8. Melancholia - Kirsten Dunst (38) (0 wins out of 1 nomination)
Won Best Actress at Cannes, and stellar critical response. Then again...Von Trier is PR poison and the movie is reportedly quite bizarre.
9. Like Crazy - Felicity Jones (33) (never nominated)
Already won a Special Jury Prize at Sundace. Then again...she is much better known as a television actress.
10. The Help - Emma Stone (22) (never nominated)
Current Hollywood It Girl gives great performance in surprise hit Best Picture contender. Then again...co-star Davis may also campaign in lead.
Also with ten or more points: A Dangerous Method (Keira Knightley), Carnage (Jodie Foster), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Sandra Bullock), Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), The Help (Viola Davis), and The Lady (Michelle Yeoh).
A year ago, I was working from this list:
1. The Kids Are All Right (Annette Benning)
2. Winter's Bone (Jennifer Lawrence)
3. Blue Valentine (Michelle Williams)
4. Another Year (Leslie Mannville)
5. Love and Other Drugs (Anne Hathaway)
So, I had three out of five correct already, with the other two circling in close: Natalie Portman was in sixth for Black Swan and Nicole Kidman was in eighth for Rabbit Hole. Generally, this category is made up of one or two vets (Benning, Kidman), one or two established younger actresses (Portman, Williams), and one or two fresh faces (Lawrence). Those who are somewhere between the first two categories (Kidman last year, Bullock the year before) can serve in either capacity.
Unless The Iron Lady or Albert Nobbs really bomb critically, the veterans seem pretty established already. Sorry, Ms. Foster, but your cinematic year was bookended by a directee's antisemitism and director's statutory rape. Not a good position for the Academy PR wise. Olsen and/or Mara seem well positioned to represent the newbies.
The middle ground, however, seems much more questionable. Williams seems likely to slide down this list as her distributor pushes for Streep. Who is likely to take her place? If Viola Davis runs as a lead, she seems QUITE likely at this point, as does Tilda Swinton. Outside of them, Theron seems the most likely spoiler. Also, don't count out dark horse Michelle Yeoh.
Time flies when you're watching movies...or flies,