The race for Best Actress has not yet gotten started but looking over the year’s slate, finding five nominees should be easier than it’s been in a while. It already looks like a competitive season, with most of the big performances yet to be seen.  Already, Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Julie Delpy in Before Midnight and Berenice Bejo in The Past have made an impression, but the year ahead will also bring us leading roles by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Emma Thompson, Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, to name a few.

The race for Supporting Actress also looks strong so far, with performances by Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station, June Squibb in Nebraska, Kristin Scott-Thomas in Only God Forgives, and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now already having been seen, and Catherine Keener in Captain Phillips, Julianne Moore in Carrie, Amy Adams or Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle,  Carrie Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, Oprah Winfrey in The Butler, Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (again, might be campaigned as lead) still to come.

All in all, that makes 2013 a better than decent year for actresses, but particularly for those older than 40.  Is there a winner yet or even a frontrunner? Most would probably say Meryl Streep for August: Osage County, and indeed, Streep is the best there is. With two lead Actress Oscars and one Supporting, Streep could very well win her third lead Oscar as she approaches Katharine Hepburn territory.  But Cate Blanchett has never won lead, and neither has Annette Bening, and either of them could lean toward achieving that honor this year, theoretically. All of the other major names that might be in the race have already won at least one Oscar — Roberts, Kidman, etc.

Usually the two most exciting Oscar categories are Best Picture or Best Actress. There isn’t usually enough oxygen in the room for both to burn with equal passion. This year, Best Actress might be where all the heat is. But let’s go through the contenders that rise to the top so far, bearing in mind that other names and other performance could break through.

The Powerhouses

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County, who should bring the roof down in August: Osage County, might be looking at her 18th Oscar nomination and potential 4th win. Streep, who is probably the best actor who ever worked in Hollywood, male or female, doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.   Her win for the Iron Lady was recent, and who knows how the critics will respond to Osage County (not to mention theater purists).  Those factors could be potential obstacles. But first and foremost, Streep always fills up the screen and never turns in a lazy or uninteresting performance.

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County, who might be campaigned in supporting to give more room for Streep. But the trailer indicates that Roberts is the lead, and those who’ve seen the play all say Roberts and Streep are both co-leads.  So it will just depend on how the film’s received, how well Roberts stands up to Ms. Streep, and how well the film is liked overall.  Is Roberts getting better as she gets older? She seems to be more comfortable in her own skin and this young Southern woman is close to home for her (though Roberts is from Georgia).

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks, of which Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere wrote, “The script, which appeared on the 2011 Black List, is so wise and clean and well-crafted that you can hear Hanks and Thompson say the lines as you read them. It seems highly likely that Thompson will end up as a lead contender for Best Actress.”  Thompson is beloved in the Academy and always a welcome presence whenever anyone has the good sense to turn the camera on her. She’s won two Oscars already, one for writing and the other for acting.

Blue-Jasmine-image

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine.  When Woody Allen puts his focus on a single female character it can produce interesting results, particularly when he’s working with a seasoned actress. One of his great underrated works, and one of the most overlooked performances in any of his films, has to be Gena Rowland in Another Woman. While early word has it that Blue Jasmine is “one of the good ones,” we’ll have to wait and see. As with most of Woody’s films, this one has been kept mostly under wraps.  EW’s synopsis: “After recent excursions to London, Paris, and Rome, Woody Allen shifts his focus back to American shores, following Cate Blanchett’s New York housewife through a personal crisis that takes her to San Francisco. Alec Baldwin plays Blanchett’s husband, whom the actor describes as ”a go-getter, hard-charging corporate type who wants to buy her everything and keep her happy. Then he turns around and trades her in for a younger woman.'” Sounds like territory that hits particularly close to home.

nicole-kidman-olivier-dahan

Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco.  It’s going to be a tough hustle for the Weinstein Co with this film and Osage County in terms of promoting lead performances for actresses. Kidman was brought out in Cannes and many minutes of Grace of Monaco were shown. The Weinstein Co. also have Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with Rooney Mara, who was also present in Cannes. But it looked to me like they were putting their chips behind Kidman, hard core, perhaps because they think Streep is a no-brainer and that Kidman’s Grace might need a little more of a push. The film focuses on a specific point in Kelly’s career, “Grace Kelly, age 33 and having given up her acting career to focus on being a full time princess, uses her political maneuvering behind the scenes to save Monaco while French Leader Charles de Gaulle and Monaco’s Prince Rainier III are at odds over the principality’s standing as a tax haven.”

Sandra Bullock in Gravity.  Surprisingly, Bullock has her name above George Clooney’s on the poster.  She plays a brilliant scientist who gets detached from her ship and ends up floating in space.  This is Bullock playing against type, meaning she’s not the funny one or the cop.  It will be somewhat interesting to see her go up against Meryl Streep again, should a nomination come to pass, but since both women have won relatively recently neither might pull it off again so soon.

680x478-4

Annette Bening in The Face of Love. [comingsoon’s description] “The story of a widow named Nikki (Bening) who, several years after the loss of her husband Garrett, meets a man named Tom (Harris) who looks exactly like her deceased spouse. Suddenly, a flood of old feelings rush back to her and she realizes she’s met the love of her life….again. The film is a romantic story filled with humor, surprise, and reflections on the mystery of love. Weixler will play Bening’s daughter in the picture.”  We’re all still rooting for Ms. Bening to finally collect a deserved statuette, as we are for Michelle Pfeiffer, Viola Davis, Julianne Moore and others who have come so close and yet, for whatever reason, didn’t capture the prize.

Chloe Moretz in Carrie has got a hard act to follow, no doubt, since Sissy Spacek stands as the definitive Carrie. But with a part this good one has to consider the possibility that this promising young actress can really pull it out. She is closer to Carrie’s real age in the book, though Spacek’s age allowed her more life experience to bring to the role. Still, Moretz could knock it out of the park.

Already seen:

Berenice Bejo in The Past. We’ve been down this road before, with two best actresses contenders from France out of Cannes. Last year it was Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone and Emmanuelle Riva for Amour. Where it seemed at first like Cotillard would have had the edge — since she is younger, hotter and more naked — in the end, Riva was nominated, only to travel to America to attend the Oscars on her 86th birthday and then lose to a 22-year-old American actress who was really more of a supporting player than a lead. But let’s not go there, shall we? Either way, because of the scant few names in the pot already for Lead Actress, Bejo must be considered. Her performance is so good you’d never know it was the same actress we saw tap dancing her way through The Artist. Can Bejo last until the end of the year?

Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, another French actress but acting in an English language film, has never been nominated for Actress though this could be her year.   Delpy brings two decades of backstory to her work as Celine as they approach the harder parts of their relationship. Does she get extra points for having also co-written these three films? Maybe.

Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  Buzzed out of Sundance and definitely primed for Spirit award attention, Mara is worth remembering as one of the year’s standouts.  Wildly different here from her role in Side Effects and Dragon Tattoo, Mara is one of the few actresses working who continues to challenge her boundaries as an actress.

Audrey Tautou “stars as a provincial housewife in 1920s France, whose suffocating marriage to a boorish landowner inspires her to a fatal bid for freedom, in the late director Claude Miller’s adaptation of the classic 1927 novel by François Mauriac.”