Of all the major categories this year, Best Actress is easily the hardest to predict. It’s the one category where it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of the nominees had their name read out at the Kodak Theater on Sunday night. The nominees range from Oscar record holders to ingenues making their Academy debut, and the case can be made for each. It’s a thrilling category and tough to make sense of, but I’ll try to do just that. Here are the five nominees:
Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)If there’s a true longshot in this category it has to be Close, but she’s certainly not trailing by much. She has the requisite “career win” potential in her favor as she’s been a respected actress for nearly four decades, but has yet to notch the big prize in five previous nominations. Voters are also bound to respect the dedication Close showed in bringing this story to the screen. Having played the role on stage, 30 years ago, Close wrote and helped produce the film and its being a passion project of hers is bound to strike a note with voters who’ve had similar dreams and similar visions. The problem here is probably the performance. Not the quality of it, but the type of performance. Oscar voters don’t normally go for subtle and nuanced (see Matt Damon’s criminal non-nomination for his work in The Good Shepherd) and this performance is almost non-existent, it’s so unassuming. It’s going to be a tough sell for voters, but not impossible.
Viola Davis (The Help) Davis took home the SAG Award a couple weeks ago, giving her the biggest precursor win of anybody in this category. Another big mark in her favor is that The Help also took home the SAG for Best Ensemble showing that this movie has clearly caught the eyes of the Actor’s Branch of the Academy, which is the largest voting bloc by far. She’s also made a bit of history as only the second African-American woman nominated for both acting Oscars (Whoopi Goldberg being the first). A lot is lined up here for Davis to take home the big prize, both through precedent and the impact it could make for her winning for such a socially conscious film. The big strikes against her is that in such a loaded category, this is a role that doesn’t really carry its film. In actuality, it’s really a supporting role as The Help is a true ensemble without a real lead. Having a role that doesn’t anchor a movie like that, could get her blown away by the forces elsewhere in this category. The question will be whether or not the quality of her scenes can overcome the lack of quantity.
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) The mild surprise nominee is also the only actress in this category without any history at the Oscars. In fact, she doesn’t really have much of a film history at all with a small role in The Social Network as her most prominent performance thus far in her young career. Astounding then, that she was able to burst onto the Oscar scene with such force in a role as challenging as any written for a woman in the last few years. This is probably the most complete and confident performance of all the nominees, played with an amazing amount of control considering the material. Mara inhabited this character as well as any actress we’ve ever seen and her nomination is a testament to that dedication. The issue though is both her lack of experience and the subject matter of her film. A lot of voters feel like actors have to “earn” their Oscar, and that often has nothing to do with the performance. Instead it has to do with attaining a certain stature within the community and that only comes with years of making films. The film itself will also likely be difficult for many older voters to get into considering its incredibly dark tone. Those who do get in, and vote solely on the performance, will probably check off Mara. In a crowded field, that may just be enough.
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) Streep is a living Oscar legend at this point with more acting nominations than anybody else, this being her seventeenth nomination. While Streep has racked up the nominations over her career, it’s important to point out that she’s only won twice, with the last time being for Sophie’s Choice back in 1983. In other words, she may have been nominated for more Oscars than anyone else in the last 30 years, but she’s also lost way more than anyone else. This has to do with the fact that everyone kind of feels like Streep has gotten the awards she needs and it’s going to take something truly exceptional for voters to hand her another Oscar. It may be unfair, but that’s the way it works. The Iron Lady probably won’t be that exception. It’s a tremendous performance, but the film itself is rather dull and I think voters will wait to honor Streep for something truly transcendent. Which can’t be that far off.
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) Williams’ role as Marilyn Monroe has landed her more magazine covers, interviews and overall hype than anybody else in this category, but doesn’t have the impressive precursor totals of some of her rivals. Her biggest win being for Best Actress in a Comedy (fwuh?) at the Golden Globes. What she does have in her favor is all that hype and the Oscar Machine that is Harvey Weinstein at her back. The Weinstein Company has put a lot of effort into this campaign with many special events touting Williams. They’re making sure every voter sees this and makes their mind up right away to vote for her. The problem there may be that the strategy backfires. Like Davis, Williams’ is really more of a supporting role in this film and she doesn’t really have “the scene” that so many voters crave to put her over the top for a win. It’s hard to ignore all that hype though.
In a stacked category, it’s hard to identify the favorite, but I’m going to attempt to do just that. I’ll give the edge to Viola Davis here due to one big factor: Octavia Spencer winning the BAFTA. Yes, that doesn’t make much sense, but hear me out. There was no way Meryl Streep was losing at the BAFTAs for playing a British icon, so we have to look elsewhere and find that Octavia Spencer upset some more British performances, showing this film has really resonated deeply with all voting blocs. While Davis didn’t win the BAFTA, Spencer’s win is still a big mark in her co-star’s favor. There is some overlap with the voting bodies and the fact that a film so wholly American as The Help struck a chord with British voters speaks very well to her chances with the Academy. This is an actor’s film that seems to be transcending all bounds. I think Davis takes it, but wouldn’t be surprised by any of the names being read.

Road to the Oscars Series

January 27: Best Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 31: Best Animated Short – Savanna New

February 1: Best Documentary Short – Christa Youngpeter

February 2: Best Documentary – Dantzler Smith

February 3: Best Foreign Language Film – Steve Neumann

February 4: Best Visual Effects – Michael Benedict

February 5: Best Sound Editing – Michael Benedict

February 6: Best Sound Mixing – Joseph Doherty

February 7: Best Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 8: Best Costume Design – Jax Russo

February 9: Best Art Direction – Scott Youngbauer

February 10: Best Film Editing – Michael Benedict

February 11: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

February 12: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 14: Best Animated Feature Film – Steve Neumann

February 15: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Doherty

February 18: Best Supporting Actress – Angela Stern

February 20: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 22: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 23: Best Picture – Kit Bowen