Quvenzhané Wallis

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At tomorrow night’s Golden Globe ceremony you will see two competing Best Actress contenders likely win: Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, who are in two different categories.  These award shows can sometimes build momentum in one actress’ favor propelled by how well they do in front of a crowd accepting the award.  Speeches can sometimes make a difference, though not always.  Both are beautiful young women with very bright futures ahead of them. But we will likely end the night still not knowing who will win Best Actress and that’s because the state of the Best Actress race has suddenly shifted.

When Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild were nominated in the Best Director and Best Screenplays categories, the chances for Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhane Wallis to win skyrocketed. The frontrunners are still the two bigger stars, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty and Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. The fifth contender is another potential dark horse, Naomi Watts for the Impossible.

My first instinct when I heard the nominations was to say that Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest ever Oscar nominee, is the biggest threat. But Wallis and Beasts is hard to resist. If you loved that movie you will love her in it. And if she won she would also make history as only the second African American actress to win Lead. In 85 years.

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1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. There might not be another actor alive who would devote many months just to find Lincoln’s voice. Fewer still who could take what history told us about him, subtract the multitude of falsely deep Lincoln voices because they sounded “more important” and give us the real Lincoln via his unusual and less familiar voice. He was going to take some shit for this choice, as no one was ready to accept a Lincoln with that voice. Take on its own in isolated clips it might at first have sounded  a little strange, but when you witness Day-Lewis immersed in Lincoln’s totality, the actor vanishes. The voice comes alive with thoughtfulness, and that unmistakable color of sadness that Lincoln carried around with him since he was young, when his mother and then his sister died. Somehow Day-Lewis knew how to capture that sadness. He knew that Lincoln was weary — from the war, from the burden of doing what was a right at a time when there opposing forces seemed insurmountable — and weary from his wife’s mercurial disposition, crying or raging, depending on the day or the haunting.

Day-Lewis has captured so much in one breathtaking turn that this becomes, maybe, a bar to which all others might aspire. His head hung to one side, his tall person’s slouch, his lopsided walk. That any group would award someone else for the prize of best performance only illuminates, in many ways, Day-Lewis’ unequivocal work. They can’t say he wasn’t good enough. They can only say they’d like someone else to have a chance to share the spotlight with him. If Oscars are meant to be given out as career achievements, Day-Lewis would easily and handily win his third Oscar. We all know that the Oscars, despite their intentions, do not always award the best. But history should remember Day-Lewis, whether they give him a gold statue for it or not.

The supporting players: Sally Field – for her astonishing work as Mary Todd Lincoln Field gained some weight and reseacrhed the extensive first-hand historical record, as any great actress would, to find out that Mary Lincoln possessed a fiery intelligence, shared a love for reading with her husband, and didn’t have much else to do back then but stand by her man. Field captures Mary Lincoln’s craziness, unending grief and inner battle with depression so well it makes you long for the days when you had to be this good to get into movies. Tommy Lee Jones brings with him the great memory of Thaddeus Stevens, and perhaps the best moment of his role is the conflicted scene when he has to support the notion of freeing slaves but knows he must withhold his feelings in agreeing that they’re equal in all terms. He does this through his teeth, against everything he believes in — but he does it because he knows that tearing down an old sturdy wall is done brick by brick. Other wonderful turns in Lincoln include James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the great Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, self-freed slave who became an author.

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By most estimations, Jennifer Lawrence has the Oscar race for Best Actress sewn up. The one-two punch of her work in Silver Linings Playbook, currently receiving very good reviews, and the $400 million she generated for the Hunger Games franchise, gives her the edge heading into the race.

But there are a few competing factors at play. The first, Jessica Chastain is about to hit with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain carries the film. Unlike Lawrence, she isn’t “the girlfriend” but is the CIA agent obsessed with the capture of Osama Bin Laden. Imagine that, after all is said and done a woman gets to take credit for that? It is arguably among the best characters of the year.

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