Jeff Wells has gone to bat for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady:

You can dribble the Viola Davis basketball all over the court and shoot swish shots to your heart’s content, but that won’t change the fact that Meryl Streep’s freakishly dead-on performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (Weinstein, 12.30) seems like a much more likely winner of the Best Actress Oscar right now. As far as I’m concerned it’s a Streep vs. Michelle Williams (i.e., as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn) contest with Davis half-elbowed aside.

There is no doubt that Streep turns in yet another brilliant impersonation with The Iron Lady. At some point while watching her in the film you forget completely that you’re watching Meryl Streep doing Margaret Thatcher and you feel like you are really watching Margaret Thatcher — and all of the good and bad that goes along with that. It’s sort of the same quandary Leonardo DiCaprio finds himself in in J. Edgar. We believe he’s J. Edgar. But then we have to deal with our feelings about J. Edgar.

The other problem with the Iron Lady is that the movie keeps distracting us from Streep. She is the reason to watch and yet the camera cuts away from her during her best scenes and makes us watch things we don’t really care about, like Thatcher as a youngin’. That makes it a somewhat confused biopic – it doesn’t really seem to know how it feels about Thatcher, therefore it doesn’t really take a strong point of view. On the other hand, there’s Streep to marvel at — and one cannot deny the power of her intelligence as an actress and her ability to completely alter herself to play another person. It’s truly astonishing. She and Glenn Close are the two vets this year who disappear in their roles and unearth characters who are brilliantly played but not exactly the kind you warm to. And that, in the end, might prove difficult where the Oscars are concerned.

To my mind, it’s tough to choose between Glenn Close and Meryl Streep this year in terms of who gave the more impressive transformative performance. You can’t really say Streep is better than Close this time. It’s perhaps the first time that situation has ever occurred. They are both working at the very top of their game — accents and makeup, posture and vocal inflections — they are both lost and stuck with an inability to express themselves. And yet both seem a bit hindered, too, by these constraints – with Streep, the makeup seems to pen her in too much – she is at her best when she’s got her own skin on and is playing Thatcher as we remember her. Close is at her best when she can strip herself of her Albert Nobbs costume and the real woman emerges.

They both play characters who aren’t warm and fuzzy. My own hatred for Margaret Thatcher made me not want to watch the movie, frankly. I tend to watch Meryl Streep movies over and over again. But I had to realize that I only watch the ones where I like the character. It was great to see Phyllidia Lloyd not try to smooth out the rough edges of Thatcher but even still, it’s hard to forget. Hard to remember. Hard to watch.

And then there is Michelle Williams as Marilyn – Williams is also a good mimmic — and seems to capture what Marilyn Monroe had in some ways, and yet form her own character in other ways (I still haven’t seen it but I’m going by what I’ve read).

Tilda Swinton is probably the next in line here, and will get competition from Rooney Mara for the dark character in the group. Mara utterly transforms herself for Dragon Tattoo in a way that is going to be, I suspect, too big to ignore. Charlize Theron is the third in this group for consideration. One of these three will probably get in.

There is no urgency to award Meryl Streep a second Oscar – she holds the record for the most nominations and had won two already. She will come out again with yet another brilliant performance next year and the year after that. You have to ask yourself, why this year? Michelle Williams also seems to have many more opportunities laid out for her. And finally, Glenn Close is the only one who should be in the conversation for winning, to my mind. She has never won. She should have over the years.

But the one actress who still shines brightly this year is the one whose film will be a strong Best Picture contender, one of 2011’s most profitable films, led by an all-female cast, and starring a girl who grew up so poor they couldn’t afford heating or even a telephone. An unlikely frontrunner, Viola Davis still stands out. It isn’t just that she great in The Help – it’s that it’s the flipside of The Blind Side. In that film, another very profitable one, the “Whitey” that Saves All ended up with the Oscar. In The Help, Emma Stone isn’t the one who’s headed for the Kodak; Viola Davis is. I can’t tell you the amount of goodwill that will fill the house if Davis is called up there to accept this, the second Oscar given to a black actress in 84 years of Oscar history. She just has to get close enough for that to be a possibility. And if it’s a possibility, it can be a reality.

Of course, nothing the Academy does surprises me anymore — it’s possible Viola Davis won’t even be nominated. Obviously if that happens it gets back down to Streep vs. Close.