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A Look at Best Actress

It is being said that this is the Year of the Actress. It very may be, and if it is, it’s a long time coming. As we head out of the bulk of the year and into a very heated next four months, there are some things we know for sure. We know that Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) are the two strongest contenders right now to win. We know that Jennifer Lawrence emerged with one of the year’s best performances in Winter’s Bone, and she will likely also be nominated. That leaves two open slots. And for those two spots, things might get a little heated.

There are many reasons why Bening and Portman lead, and only one of those is that their performances were memorable. Bening is a Hollywood fixture by this point, and though she came close to winning, has never won. Portman is a hard-working actress who also has yet to be recognized. She takes things to a whole new level with Black Swan, however, and though she really had nothing to prove, this performance will be one of the few, I figure, that lives up to the hype.

Best Actress contenders get there because of popularity, likability of star and character, great publicists, how much they “work the line,” and, not to put too fine a point on it, f*ckability. In the end, though, it comes down to buzz and timing. Buzz because they are the girl we all can’t stop talking about, and timing because, like with the erectial enhancement drug Cialis, you know when the moment is right.

Last year the moment was right for Sandra Bullock because:

1) She had been turning in great work for years and never reached that hard for Oscar.
2) She played an admirable character that most, or many people really liked.
3) She didn’t have strong enough competition (She could not have beaten Kate Winslet for The Reader, for instance).
4) She gave great speeches whenever it was her turn at the podium. This cannot be stressed enough, folks. If you keep winning, it better be interesting. Graciousness, humor and brevity go a long way. In short, make us laugh, make us cry and the Oscar is yours.
5) It helps to be in a Best Picture nominee. A little bit, at least. Six winners from the last ten have been from Best Pic nominated films.

As far as I can tell, it is harder for newbies to break through and win because the nomination is seen as its own reward. It does happen – it certainly happened for Marion Cotillard.

This year, there are veterans and newbies turning in Oscar-worthy performances. The early part of the year gave us Annette Bening and Julianne Moore — Scott Feinberg keeps insisting that Julianne Moore is also a strong contender and that she will be nominated alongside Bening, a la Terms of Endearment. I maintain that a choice like that will weaken Bening’s chances to win, but it is not an objectionable idea; if Moore deserves it, she may very well find herself in. Moore is someone who has also been turning in one great performance after another.

So how do these two actresses stack up in terms of Oscar history?

Julianne Moore
2002 – nominated for both The Hours (supporting) and Far From Heaven (lead), lost to Nicole Kidman, who won for The Hours, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who won for Chicago.
1999 – nominated for The End of the Affair, lead, lost to Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry
1997 – nominated for Boogie Nights, supporting, lost to Kim Basinger for LA Confidential

Annette Bening
-Being Julia, lead, lost to Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby
1999-American Beauty, lead, lost to Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry
1998-The Grifters, supporting, lost to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as co-nominees is an “Oscar story,” and sometimes those are the most powerful motivators.

Natalie Portman is said to turn herself inside out with a brilliant turn in Black Swan. She plays a ballerina under intense pressure to be the best. She may in fact be the girl people can’t stop talking about this year and she may very well win the thing. There is some talk that she isn’t likable enough as a character – but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If the performance is good enough, it can overcome the usual “she has to be likable” thing. Portman’s career path also seems to be reaching a new level this year. She was pretty good playing desperate and crazy in The Other Boleyn Girl, but no performance she’s ever given has gotten this kind of praise.

Jennifer Lawrence is on the map with her performance in Winter’s Bone. It doesn’t hurt that she is beautiful and about to star in a major blockbuster. Her star is on the rise, and what better way to punctuate that than with an Oscar nomination? But it isn’t just manufactured buzz with Lawrence: she is an actress who commands the screen – her performance is authentic, bare, and compelling. She manages to show her vulnerability masked underneath toughness. She is particularly good in the quieter scenes with her younger siblings or her mother. The only thing that might be a slight problem for her is a conflicting filming schedule. You have to work the line in a competitive year like this.

Lesley Manville – unless they move Manville to supporting, it’s hard to imagine this performance not being seriously considered as one of the best of the year, male or female. Manville is so good, complex, so sad and messed up in Mike Leigh’s Another Year it is astonishing. She plays a woman who is so wrapped up in her own neurosis she has no real friends except a kindly married couple who endure her out of the kindness of their hearts. Manville handles it beautifully, never over-doing it, never relying on the same tricks. It’s one of the great ones.

Nicole Kidman – when a star like Kidman gives a praise-worthy performance she must be considered. There isn’t a sense of immediacy with her nomination, and it might go to someone who has never been there before. Then again, a star like Kidman always turns up in a gorgeous dress and brings old fashioned glam to the ceremony. This cannot be underestimated. I say this because I don’t have a lot of to go on other than post-Toronto buzz about her performance. I wouldn’t count her out.

Gwyneth Paltrow – Paltrow is kind of going for it Crazy Heart style with Country Strong. It’s a tricky sell because, for whatever reason, Paltrow is the subject of scorn online. Is it bullying? Is it jealousy? Who knows. They’re marketing the film the right way, though – taking it to the people who will want to see it: the country/western crowd.¬† The only slight problem here is that she looks too good to be washed up. But if she nails it, she nails it. Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side, Paltrow can certainly be nominated for Country Strong (unless it bombs spectacularly).

Hilary Swank – it would be a hell of an Oscar story of Swank and Bening faced off for a third time and Bening won. It’s hard to say. Fox Searchlight is pulling out the stops for Conviction. I’m not hearing a lot of praise for Swank’s performance, though, not like with Million Dollar Baby or Boys Don’t Cry. But one can never tell. Swank is said to have been in a ridiculous amount of hard work and research into this role. A few nominations here and there and Swank could be in.

Michelle Williams – you won’t find a more moving performance than Williams and her co-star, Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance had his characters living and breathing their parts. It’s rare to find anyone who commits that way to a role. Williams must go from a pregnant teen to an embittered wife in about a five year span. Time was spent between playing her younger and older self. All of this attention to detail shows; you never think for one second that they’re acting.¬† But will the NC-17 rating hurt the film for Oscar?

Anne Hathaway – Hathaway has a couple of things going for her here. She was already nominated for Rachel Getting Married, and is a star on the rise. She also gets very naked in this movie, and Oscar loves him some young naked actresses (not always, but every once in a while.) She is also playing someone with Parkinson’s Disease, and we know Oscar loves him some life-threatening prognosis. It sounds glib to say, but whenever an actor or actress plays someone afflicted with something serious everyone immediately thinks Oscar. The jury is still out on this film, though. So we have to just wait it out.

Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame with an exceptional amount of intensity and attention to detail. She clearly studied Plame’s voice and mannerisms. It’s uncanny watching her on screen after seeing Plame in so many interviews. She and Penn are strong in their roles, playing off of each other on the same level as Williams and Gosling. We haven’t heard the final work on Fair Game yet. We don’t know how it will be received. How it is received will influence whether or not Watts or Penn are recognized for their fine work in the film.

Diane Lane is still hanging in there for Secretariat. Although the movie kind of under-performed at the box office, Lane was singled out for her performance. She is someone reliable and beloved. If the movie has legs – Lane might be its sole nomination. Stranger things have happened. It is probably a long shot at this point. But things change.

Sally Hawkins is one of the few actresses playing someone admirable and heroic. That is always a force to be reckoned with. She also has a hell of a publicity team behind her and that might make the difference here. Hawkins almost got there for Happy-Go-Lucky, and now she has another chance at a nomination. Made in Dagenham is supposed to be enjoyable – and again, need we repeat ourselves — enjoyable films in a year full of hardcore emotional ones is a welcome relief.

Reese Witherspoon – I might be the first to throw this up, but Jim Brooks is particularly good at getting his leading ladies Oscar nominations. We don’t know anything about the movie yet – and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t look as good as Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets or Broadcast News, but still, it’s Jim Brooks.

If I had to line them up now, this is how I’d do it:

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Lesley Manville, Another Year

If Lesley goes Supporting, the next one for me would be Naomi Watts for Fair Game.

After that, I’d rank them:
Nicole Kidman
Sally Hawkins
Michelle Williams
Hilary Swank
Anne Hathaway
Diane Lane
Reese Witherspoon

A random comment to note: it is not a year where a lot, or any, women of color are represented. It is a very white year for actresses. Strangely, many of the frontrunners are American, not British for once.