The Best Actress race might come down to five veterans. With no Jennifer Lawrence in the mix this year (girl of the moment) the actresses vying for the top spot have been around. Not only have they been acting for decades already but this year they have whole films built around them; these aren’t girlfriends propping up the male character, but leads in their own right. The race had come down to two so far – Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, still the one to beat. And Sandra Bullock for Gravity, another strong performance worthy of the win. But now, Emma Thompson’s performance in Saving Mr. Banks? A revelation. It is going to be a difficult task, picking the winner of these three.
1. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
For her: Blanchett plays the ex-wife of a Bernie Madoff 1%-er who screwed the middle class mercilessly. Jasmine doesn’t particularly care about his crimes, nor does she care for the victim. But there is no doubt she’s suffering the fallout that her husband spared himself when he committed suicide. Jasmine, in Woody Allen’s film, is the sum total of the ruling class — a Marie Antoinette or Blanche Dubois — enduring as long as she can until she is swallowed up by the demise of the class that protected her. Since Bernie Madoff himself built an empire on funny money, so, too, does Jasmine emanate false sophistication. Blanchett’s Jasmine is still a vital, beautiful woman. As the movie and her character begins to unravel the genius of this performance slowly reveals itself. Blanchett’s might be the best of the year, male or female – one of those performances you can’t turn away from nor deny.
Against her: In many instances, the winning Best Actress is a likable, admirable character. It helps if voters fall in love with her. This is why the wins tend to favor younger actresses. That isn’t always the case, however, but it’s possible that her competitors might be more likable.
2. Sandra Bullock in Gravity
For her: Voters and audience members have been wowed by Gravity and only part of that is to do with the visual effects. The emotional connection anyone feels to the film is entirely wrapped up in Bullock, the main character. The entire film rests on her shoulders – and the movie has made $230 million so far, headed for $300 million. With a woman. In the lead. A woman who is almost 50. Sandra Bullock has altered the course of film history. Her character is vulnerable, admirable and ultimately strong. She gets herself out of the mess she’s in, even if she needs to invoke the dream image of her male superior to do so. It’s easy to attack the film for not being feminist enough – but to do that is to miss the bigger picture. And what a shame that would be. We are watching Hollywood change before our very eyes with the success of 12 Years a Slave and Bullock’s triumph. How awful and self-sabotaging it would be to complain right now. Bullock does flail around, terrified out of her mind (sorry but anyone would) and many have criticized aspects of the film for being realistic enough. But really?
Against her: She won for The Blind Side very recently and Cate Blanchett has never won a lead Oscar.
3. Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
For her: Oh, the glorious Ms. Thompson – one of the smartest, most talented actresses working in film. She has channeled her intelligence and full spectrum of emotions into an odd duck called PL Travers. Not only is the movie mostly unheard of in today’s climate – a whole film about a woman writer who isn’t noticed first for her attractiveness but for her talent — but Thompson’s complex portrayal is one for the ages. As Travers, Thompson fights to keep back her emotions, which is where the power of her performance lies. She’s a pain in the ass, but only because she holds on to what she knows and rejects that which she doesn’t understand. There are so many lovely moments she has in this film but they are spoilers so I won’t mention them now. The film is a richly satisfying one, though probably not for the cynicism that choked the life out of film these days. Nonetheless, Thompson could win this easily, her second lead actress Oscar.
4. Judi Dench for Philomena – because I have not yet seen the film I have to go on Ms. Dench’s versatile career. She is likely as magnificent in this role as she’s been all along because the woman has never turned in a bad performance. She is grossly unrewarded, despite having won an Oscar already for supporting for Shakespeare in Love. She’s been nominated for lead four times, and for supporting, twice (winning once).
Against her: If anything, Dench doesn’t really play the Oscar game. Blanchett and Bullock will be.
5. Meryl Streep for August: Osage County – should Streep get a nod for this it would again be a record-breaking nomination count for Streep, since she holds the record currently. This is, I suspect, why she is doing zero publicity for the film. And I mean zero. Does that mean she might get bumped for another actress possibly? It could mean that. There are several contenders vying for a spot. I suspect Streep is thinking: oh god, not again. Yet, because the simple fact remains that she is the greatest living actor, male or female, she is rarely overlooked, particularly for a part like this one.
Against her: only that she isn’t demanding Oscar attention this time around.
6. Amy Adams for American Hustle – no one has seen the film so no one knows how it will go. Her place in line is being held, however, but she’ll likely have to bump Streep. Adams has wracked up some major awards cred already and seems destined to be among those who have won. David O. Russell is great with actors and those actors usually win Oscars. So it’s not outside the realm of possibility that another will. At this race, he’ll be rivaling Woody Allen for the director who has produced the most amount of Oscar winners.
Against Her: She’ll have to get into the five.
7. Kate Winslet, Labor Day - In Labor Day, Kate Winslet plays a woman who has mostly given up on life, certainly on love. She can’t leave her house because of depression and anxiety. When her son brings home an escape convict from prison, the two make an unlikely bond, coming together in a short timeline because there really was no other way it could have down. It is a film that is faithful to the notion that there is a right person for everyone and that it’s just a matter of timing. Both Winslet and Josh Brolin bring to their roles a emotional honesty. It is a beautiful, sad rendering of love – and Jason Reitman’s best to date. Winslet could round out the five if Adams isn’t in and if Streep is bumped. I feel that the first three are locked, and probably Dench.
Against her: She has to knock out the two above and she’s already won a lead acting Oscar.
8. Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Colour - Oscar campaigning makes a big difference, especially if you’re young, beautiful and talented as Exarchopoulos is. She is hitting the Oscar campaign in a big way and that could help her get a leg up on the competition. There wasn’t any length this actress wouldn’t go when it was required of her by the director, who never let up. He was determined to get to the emotional truth of a young woman who has no idea who she is or what she thinks about anything yet. She must only react – react to desire, react to rejection, react to confusion, hunger, etc. It’s one of the most talked about films of the year and much of that is to do with the performances of the two actresses>
Against her: it’s a competitive year, and difficult for actresses in foreign films to break through. Not unheard of, just difficult.
9. Brie Larson, Short Term – to see just how good an actress Larson is you have to first see a little known film called Tanner Hall, in which Larson plays a provocative sex kitten high schooler. Contrast that with her work in Short Term 12 and you will see the makings of one of the greats. While she’s not going to be prom queen this year, her work, and the role that was given to her, are one of the year’s most notable performances. This is a studied work, one from a clever and intelligent actress. Just watch how fast she goes, and how fast. This is only the beginning.
Against her: Too much competition.
10. Julie Delpy, Before Midnight – Delpy will likely get more recognition as one of the writers of the Before series than Best Actress. The reason is that you really have to be down with all three films to really get how great Delpy is. That means voters have to see all three. How many will have in time for voting? Delpy has a strong, unforgettable scene at the end of Before Midnight. But its impact isn’t fully felt unless you know Celine’s whole story. She’s delightful throughout, of course, trying to balance her own frustration with her life with her aging face and the long marriage they’ve tried to make work.
The other actresses worth noting include Berenice Bejo for The Past, Rooney Mara for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha but these performances likely came out too early in the year. The Golden Globe award nominations, and perhaps even the New York Film fest and the National Board of Review might spit out other names that could shift the race significantly. Now, however, the power is concentrated into just a handful of names.