We've been looking in detail at the acting categories in recent weeks, and this week, we figured it made sense to examine Best Actress, given that one potential contender has her film arriving in theaters. Today sees the release of "Smashed," which sees "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" star Mary Elizabeth Winstead play a schoolteacher who comes to realize that she has a serious drinking problem, and sets about kicking the habit, even as it puts her marriage to her equally sozzled husband (Aaron Paul) at risk.
The film's been picking up strong reviews since it premiered at Sundance, and to generalize a little, there seem to be two kinds of people: those who believe that Winstead has a shot at a nomination, and those who haven't yet seen the film (this writer currently falls in the latter category, though if someone wanted to send a screener in the direction of London, we'd be grateful…). By all accounts, she's terrific in the film, marking a real breakthrough in her career, and Sony Pictures Classics seem to agree, as they're planning a major push for the actress.
Do they have a chance, though? The field has been deemed to be a weak one, but some heavyweights have emerged of late (Helen Mirren in "Hitchcock" shook things up a fair bit), and for all the praise that Winstead's attracting, the film still seems to be a little under the radar, which in the week of release isn't a great sign. Sundance darlings like Elizabeth Olsen and Felicity Jones arguably had more buzz last year, and neither were close to a nomination. Furthermore, SPC are fighting a battle in this category on several fronts (see below), and their attention will only be split further over the coming months. It didn't perform especially well this past weekend, either, with a screen average that suggested it's not going to be a phenomenon as such. That said, the film seems to be an easier watch than, say, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," so if they can get screeners out there, Winstead could make an impression; this is one category where almost nothing is fixed.
The one nominee that probably is fixed now — and is pretty much the frontrunner to win — is Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook." David O. Russell's TIFF favorite has been receiving praise across the board, not least for the young actress (nominated two years ago for "Winter's Bone"), and of the three acting nod possibilities in the film, her nymphomaniac grieving wife looks like the most locked in. She's doubly likely thanks to being the lead in "The Hunger Games," in which she doesn't just give a strong performance, but also became one of the disappointingly few women to carry a successful tentpole on her shoulders. A nod for 'Silver Linings' would be as much in recognition of that as anything else.
Also looking likely but not necessarily 100% sewn up is another of the Sundance '12 graduating class: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who would become the youngest ever acting nominee (just beating "Kramer Vs. Kramer" star Justin Henry by a hair). We've got more to say about Wallis to come next week, but to sum up, we suspect she'll be a nominee but probably not a winner.
Festivals also provided strong contenders in the shape of Winstead's two Gallic Sony Pictures Classics classmates from Cannes, "Rust & Bone" star Marion Cotillard and Emmanuelle Riva from Michael Haneke's "Amour." Both performances are undeniably terrific, but we suspect, given the Anglocentrism of the Academy (the last time two foreign language nominees got in was 1976, when Marie-Christine Barrault of "Cousin, cousine" and Liv Ullmann of "Face to Face" lost out to Faye Dunaway in "Network") that only one will make the cut, especially as the same distributor is behind both. Cotillard is the bigger name, and the company are behind her in a big way, organizing tributes at Telluride, Gotham and AFI festivals, but won already, five years ago. Riva is less familiar to Academy voters, but is more obviously extraordinary in the part. Both are tough watches, and it's possible that both could get in, or neither, but our gut goes with Riva at this point in time; we suspect she'll get more support from the precursor awards and critics groups.
Elsewhere, the trailer for "Hitchcock" has made clear that Helen Mirren is just as much a lead in the film as Anthony Hopkins, and indeed, her role as the director's long-suffering wife looks much more like awards bait. She's again a recent winner, so the nomination may have to be the prize, but unless the film stinks (and Searchlight moving the film into 2012 suggests that that's not their view at all), she'll likely make the cut. Unless Jessica Chastain ends up campaigning as lead for "Zero Dark Thirty" (unlikely…), most of the other yet-to-be-revealed fall films don't have lead actress-worthy roles (a sad state of affairs), but TIFF provided two potentials with Keira Knightley and Naomi Watts, in "Anna Karenina" and "The Impossible." The former was a presumptive frontrunner ahead of time, but the film may be too divisive to get anything but technical nominations. As for the latter, though we're not confident at the Best Picture chances of "The Impossible," it has some fervent fans, and Watts might be its best chance at a nomination — it's certainly a more Academy friendly part than many out there. Both could still rally on release, though.
Not to be counted out, as ever, is Meryl Streep in "Hope Springs," but given that she won last year and that the film never caught on with audiences, she'll probably end up sitting this year out (only to come roaring back with "August: Osage County" next year, no doubt). Also in the veteran's club, and a little more possible, are Judi Dench in "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and Maggie Smith in "Quartet." Don't go placing bets just yet, though: Smith looks likely to be a Supporting nominee for 'Best Exotic,' while Dench's role was a less showy one: when the category was still thin, she had a better shot. Warner Bros. announced over the weekend that they were campaigning for Anne Hathaway's performance as Selina Kyle in "The Dark Knight Rises" in the Best Actress category. It has next-to-no chance of actually happening (though Hathaway was great in the role), but it's more of a way of clearing the way for a potential supporting nod for the actress in "Les Misérables" (a film which only Hugh Jackman is going lead for).
Pretty much out of the running at this stage are Viola Davis in "Won't Back Down" (which got poisonous reviews, and no one saw), and Amy Adams in "Trouble With The Curve" (again, the film underperformed, and Adams should be in for "The Master"). Others whose chances aren't much better than slim include Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams in "The Deep Blue Sea" and "Take This Waltz," and Ann Dowd in "Compliance." But worth keeping an eye on as a possible dark horse? Barbra Streisand in "The Guilt Trip" — it's a part that seems guaranteed for a Golden Globes nomination, and if the film works, love for Streisand could carry over to the Academy. But if we had to pick five right now:
Jennifer Lawrence – "Silver Linings Playbook"
Helen Mirren – "Hitchcock"
Emmanuelle Riva – "Amour"
Quvenzhané Wallis – "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts – "The Impossible"