This category is even more difficult to nail down than Best Supporting Actor. The reason for this is that so many of the largest female roles in movies are still limited enough in screen time that they often land here rather than in Lead. Category confusion confounds all the acting categories, but nowhere more so than here.
That said, as of today (okay, two days ago) the buzz looks(ed) like this:
1. The Help - Viola Davis (61) (0 wins out of 1 nomination)
The Academy caught flack for last year's lack of minority nominees, they already respect Davis, and her reviews are great. It would be in the bag. Except...she will probably campaign as lead.
2. Corialanus - Vanessa Redgrave (57) (1 win out of 6 nominations)
74-year-old legend getting rave reviews...oh...and the Weinstiein Co.'s most buzzed about horse in this race. Then again...The Weinsteins COULD back Riseborough in W.E. instead.
3. The Help - Octavia Spencer (50) (never nominated)
Other than the previous nomination she has everything going for her that co-star Davis does. When Viola goes lead, this becomes a lock. Then again...there's a VERY small chance that allegations of stereotyping might hurt her campaign.
4. A Dangerous Method - Keira Knightley (43) (0 win out of 1 nomination)
Should have a lot of meat to chew for a supporting turn, and Knightley can chew. Then again...Might she suffer from category confusion?
5. J. Edgar - Naomi Watts (30) (0 wins out of 1 nomination)
Many feel she was treated un-Fair-ly last year. Could this be her consolation? Then again...if the overall film falls flat, she will be far less likely than Leo to land a nod anyway.
6. The Tree of Life - Jessica Chastain (29) (never nominated)
She is easily the most celebrated new actress of 2011 and if she makes wise choices she will be around for a long, long time. Then again...NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR ACTING IN A TERRENCE MALICK FILM.
7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Sandra Bullock (25) (1 win out of 1 nomination)
Everybody loves Sandy and if she's great in this it would prove that her serious acting aspirations extend beyond The Blind Side. Then again...am I the only one who thinks that Bullock and Hanks make an undeniably talented, but potentially cheesy combo?
8. The Ides of March - Marissa Tomei (21) (1 win out of 6 nominations)
Oscar loves her, and she rarely disappoints with quality material. Then again...Will co-star Wood steal her thunder?
9. J. Edgar - Judi Dench (21) (1 win out of 6 nominations)
It's Judy Dench. She can win this award with 90% of a movie's screen time tied behind her back (and has). Then again...Her co-star Watts seems to have stronger buzz.
10. War Horse - Emily Watson (17) (0 out of 2 nominations)
She's been out of the awards game for awhile. This could be her comeback. Then again...you know what they say about working with children and/or animals.
Also, with ten or more points: Albert Nobbs (Mia Wasikowska), Carnage (Kate Winslet), Drive (Carey Mulligan), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Viola Davis), Hugo (Chloe Moretz), Midnight In Paris (Marion Cotillard), My Week With Marilyn (Judy Dench), Take Shelter (Jessica Chastain), The Descendants (Shailene Woodley), The Help (Jessica Chastain), The Ides of March (Evan Rachel Wood), W.E. (Andrea Riseborough), and...whew...We Bought a Zoo (Scarlet Johanssen)
Do you see how many possibilities we still have to consider? All right, pure hunches at this point...I can easily see it coming down to Redgrave and Spencer. That is making the big assumption that Davis goes lead. Of course, if Take Shelter gains awards traction, make that Spencer/Redgrave/Chastain. Knightley also seems like a formidable candidate Wasikowska, Moretz, Wood, or Mulligan could easily swoop in. Anything can happen in Supporting Actress. This time last year, three of the eventual nominees weren't even in my top ten yet.
Hoppin to it,