Last night I watched Ellen Barkin act her heart out in Sam Levinson's Sundance screenplay-winner "Another Happy Day" (Phase 4, November 18), which is saddled with an unfortunate generic title. At 57, Barkin has been around the block a few times, and while the movie opens with her two younger sons debating whether or not she is hot, the actress shows wear and tear, which never hurts with the Academy. In the movie, Barkin and her sons return to her family home for her older son's wedding, where her parents (Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy) seem to favor her ex-husband (Thomas Hayden Church) and his new wife (Demi Moore) over their own daughter. Her troubled teen is played by creepy Ezra Miller, who also tortures his mother Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Passed-down generational neurosis and dysfunction is the story here, and Barkin wallows in it.
Barkin joins Swinton (Oscilloscope's "We Need to Talk About Kevin"), Kirsten Dunst (Magnolia's "Melancholia"), Keira Knightley ("A Dangerous Method"), Gotham nominees Elizabeth Olsen (Fox Searchlight's "Martha Marcy May Marlene") and Felicity Jones (Paramount's "Like Crazy"), Michelle Yeoh (Cohen Media's "The Lady") and Mia Wasikowska (Focus Feature's "Jane Eyre") on the list of long-odds dark horse candidates vying for the fifth Best Actress slot. Crucial for these would-be contenders is who will win the New York and Los Angeles critics' best actress awards. A Gotham win and BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG and Indie Spirit nominations also wouldn't hurt.
While all these actresses are worthy, even highbrow critics will likely coalesce around one of four current frontrunners, all former nominees backed by seasoned Oscar campaigners with deep pockets. Viola Davis (DreamWorks/Disney's "The Help") leads the pack, followed by two Weinstein Co. candidates, Oscar perennial Meryl Streep (Weinstein Co's"The Iron Lady"), who is due for an Oscar win after 16 nominations, and 29 years since her second and only best actress win ("Sophie's Choice"), and Michelle Williams, who channels Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." Rounding the turn is Glenn Close, making her movie comeback as crossdresser "Albert Nobbs" (Roadside Attractions). The question is, who scores that fifth spot?
With way more money to spend on Oscar campaigns than a micro-indie, Paramount is pushing young Brit Jones as well as bad-girl Charlize Theron in Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's "Young Adult," which could be too off-putting for senior Oscar voters. And falling into edgy genre territory–as did last year's "Black Swan"– is David Fincher's big-budget adaptation "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," starring tattooed and pierced Rooney Mara, who is herself a new Academy voter.
Still, if the critics were to go for someone outside the top four, who would it be? The most likely: a respected actress in a consensus quality title, say, OIsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (76 on Metacritic), or Cannes Best Actress winner Dunst in "Melancholia" (80 on Metacritic). While spendthrift Searchlight is relentlessly hawking Olsen, tightwad Magnolia will wait for a big win for Dunst before opening their wallets for a full-on Oscar campaign.