The recent Oscars, it should be said, were not a headline year for the Best Actress race. Of course Emmanuelle Riva, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence et al were thoroughly deserving of their nominations, but the category was generally deemed to be a bit thin by Oscar watchers, with something of a dearth of good female roles, bar the five that were nominated (plus a handful of others overlooked by the Academy, like Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone” and Emayatzy Corinealdi in “Middle of Nowhere“).
But looking ahead to the potentials for 2014, as we already have this week with Best Picture and Best Actor, the story’s quite different. On paper, anyway, it looks to be a fiercely competitive year, with a number of legendary actresses in parts that seem tailor-made for awards buzz…if our guesswork is correct. While our other long-distance predictions were fairly reasonable a year ago, Best Actress was something of a disaster, with none of our predictions ending up with nominations. But we’re certainly more confident of things this time around. To see what we’re predicting, take a look below, and you can make your own guesses in the comments section.
Meryl Streep – “August Osage County”
Meryl Streep, playing a character with cancer, in an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, produced by George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein? What do you think is going to happen? Of course, the more interesting question is whether her win in 2012 for “The Iron Lady” will have any impact on how much of a contender she’ll be, or if voters will want to award fresh blood. Could she tie Katherine Hepburn for four Oscars? Or will the Academy feel that she’s had her moment, at least for the next few years?
Sandra Bullock – “Gravity”
Like Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” which we wrote about yesterday, Sandra Bullock is fighting for survival mostly solo in Alfonso Cuaron‘s “Gravity.” In this case, she’s an an astronaut stranded when her spacecraft and space station are destroyed. On the page, it’s a very different kind of role for Bullock, and given that she has to carry most of the film on her shoulders, it’s a part that should get her a lot of attention. The risk is that the effects and spectacle end up overshadowing her, but given that Bullock’s a recent winner, and that the part’s a good one, this is a definite possibility.
Nicole Kidman – “Grace Of Monaco”
The Best Actress category luurves biopics; 9 of the last 15 winners have played real-life figures. And there’s a trio of possibilities that look incredibly strong. First up, 2003 winner Nicole Kidman, who’s playing a great icon of cinema in “Grace of Monaco,” in the shape of Hitchcock-favorite turned European princess Grace Kelly. The film sounds a little dry (it apparently revolves around her role in the feud between her husband and French president Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s), but Kidman’s a voter favorite, and as Cate Blanchett proved in “The Aviator,” playing a great actress can be a quick shortcut to a nomination. Plus, director Olivier Dahan won Marion Cotillard her Oscar for “La Vie En Rose.”
Naomi Watts – “Diana”
Of course, there’s another princess who may not let Kidman walk straight toward the trophy. Naomi Watts is playing Princess Diana in the aptly-titled “Diana,” directed by Olivier Hirschbiegel. The film, like “Grace of Monaco,” seems to take a more focused approach, dealing not with her semi-arranged marriage to Prince Charles, or its subsequent collapse, but her romance with surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan, and her work campaigning against landmines. We’ve expressed our doubts about the film already, but only a fool would bet against the power of Watts playing one of the world’s most iconic women (and looking so much like her while she does it). Plus, unlike our other tips in this category, she’s never won despite two nominations, so may be seen as due in a way that her fellow nominees in the category are not.
Emma Thompson – “Saving Mr. Banks”
She might have two Oscars, but it’s getting on twenty years since Emma Thompson was last nominated for an Academy Award. But with her profile increasing again in recent years, the time feels right for a return, and she’s got a major role in “Saving Mr. Banks,” John Lee Hancock‘s film about the making of “Mary Poppins.” Of the two lead roles in Kelly Marcel‘s script, Poppins author P.L. Travers is definitely the meatiest; she’s amusingly grouchy and tough, with her relationship with her alcoholic father serving as the script’s emotional backbone. Meryl Streep turned the part down: but could she grow to regret it come Oscar night?
Jennifer Lawrence – “Serena”
The “Silver Linings Playbook” star might still be blowing the engraving dust off her Oscar, but she’s hardly letting up; 2013 sees another “Hunger Games” coming, a reunion with David O. Russell (in a smaller role, this time), and most importantly for our purposes, “Serena.” Reteaming her with Bradley Cooper, this time for director Susanne Bier, it’s a definite change of pace; a period drama about a couple trying to make their lumber fortune in Appalachia in the 1920s. And Lawrence has a killer role, landing somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Daniel Plainview. Had Lawrence not won this weekend, we feel like she’d be a virtual lock — as it is, voters may feel that a third nomination in four years could be too much, especially if the film doesn’t work. But if Bier can pull it off, Lawrence could well be at the Dolby Theater again, and may even trip her way up to the podium for the second year in a row.
Marion Cotillard – “Lowlife”
Many believed that Marion Cotillard should have picked up another nomination this year for “Rust & Bone” — the actress was certainly in the running, and probably only just missed out on the final five. But she’ll get another shot, teaming up with James Gray for “Lowlife,” in which she plays an immigrant forced into prostitution before falling in love with a magician (Jeremy Renner). As we said yesterday, Gray’s never been an Oscar favorite, but with a period piece and three awards favorites in the cast (Joaquin Phoenix also features), that could change this year, not least with Cotillard who has the lead role and whose character seems to undergo the kind of suffering that Academy voters eat up. We still wonder if “Lowlife” is likely to be this year’s equivalent to “The Master” (a critical favorite, but less so with the Academy), but given that “The Master” still picked up three Oscar nods for its actors, Cotillard’s very much in the running.
Felicity Jones – “The Invisible Woman”
The subject of light Oscar speculation for “Like Crazy” two years back, which never came to pass, Felicity Jones hasn’t rushed into big roles, with most of her subsequent films (“Hysteria,” “Cheerful Weather For The Wedding“) flying somewhat under the radar (though she has just nabbed a part in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2“). But that could change with “The Invisible Woman,” the second directorial feature from Ralph Fiennes, which sees the actor/filmmaker also play Charles Dickens. But as the title might suggest, it’s Jones who’ll be front and center, playing Nelly Ternan, a young actress who became Dickens’ mistress. Jones is undeniably talented, and with a script from “The Iron Lady” writer Abi Morgan, this should be taken very seriously, even if period pieces of late haven’t been the home runs in this category that they once were.
Judi Dench – “Philomena”
Yes, we know you haven’t heard of this film, which marks one of the few times that Judi Dench could ever be described as an Oscar wild card. But when you look at it on paper, it’s certainly a film worth considering here. The Oscar winner (who had buzz last year for “Skyfall” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but hasn’t had a nomination since “Notes On A Scandal” in 2007) plays the titular Philomena Lee who, as a pregnant teenager in Ireland, was forced by nuns to sell her illegitimate baby to a couple in Missouri. Years later, aided by journalist, civil servant and “The Thick Of It” adviser Martin Sixsmith (who wrote the source material, “The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee“), she set out in search of her child. While it’s directed by Stephen Frears, who’s been off his game of late, one shouldn’t forget that the filmmaker was also behind Helen Mirren‘s victory for “The Queen.” And a script co-written by Steve Coogan (who also plays Sixsmith in the film) could mean that this picture is sharper than its premise suggests. “Philomena” is likely to mostly be under the radar for a while, but it’s a definite dark horse. If a big distributor picks it up, this film could gallop ahead.
Cate Blanchett – “Blue Jasmine”
We’re not all that convinced that Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” will be a big Oscar player — despite the success of “Midnight In Paris” at the 2012 ceremony, we tend to take a wait-and-see approach on the prolifically inconsistent filmmaker’s new output. But we’re definitely keeping an eye on the film, if only because it features Cate Blanchett in the lead role. The Australian actress is a five-time nominee but hasn’t had a nomination since 2008, so is certainly overdue for a return, and if anyone can bring something fresh to an Allen protagonist (in this case, a wealthy Bay Area woman who faces financial difficulties), it’s her. We’re also intrigued about the film for another reason, in that Blanchett’s casting feels to us like it could signify a return to the director’s more Bergman-influenced work. But then, Louis CK and Andrew Dice Clay are among the supporting cast, so we’re probably wrong on that front.
Kate Winslet – “Labor Day”
This is one of the cases where we’d be more confident in the possibility if we knew for sure what category Winslet was going to be in: after all, the six-time nominated actress hasn’t had a nod since she won for ‘The Reader” in 2009, and playing an agoraphobic character in a team-up with Jason Reitman, who saw Ellen Page and Anna Kendrick to the ceremony, would seem to be a no-brainer. But Winslet’s role is a secondary one to the character of her son, which means it could qualify as a Supporting Performance. Given that the same was true of her performance in “The Reader,” we think that Paramount may end up campaigning her in lead, but it’s very much up in the air this far off. Still, whichever category she ends up in, she’s definitely a contender.
Jessica Chastain – “Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: His & Her”
Once touted as the potential winner of Best Actress for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain ultimately was beaten out by Jennifer Lawrence this year. But Chastain, like her comrade, is going to be an Academy fixture for a long time to come, and like Lawrence, hasn’t taken her foot off the accelerator, with more roles on the way in 2013. The one we’ve got our eye on is “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Her.” The twist here, and the potential difficulty with it, is that it’s one of two movies (the other being “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: His“) that will premiere simultaneously, detailing the dissolution of a relationship, with James McAvoy playing the other party. The films, directed by newcomer Ned Benson, have attracted an impressive cast including Viola Davis, William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert, and seem to be very much a showcase for the two leads. We’re assuming that ‘Her’ is the more Chastain-centric of the two, but will the two-film structure risk splitting votes between the pair? Or will whoever ends up distributing the film be able to unify voters behind just one? Either way, it’s one of the more interesting possibilities of the 2014 Oscar season.
Elizabeth Olsen – “Therese Raquin”
Despite her phenomenal performance, Elizabeth Olsen failed to get an Oscar nomination in 2012 for her head-turning breakthrough in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The films she signed on to after her initial success are starting to come through the pipeline, and while her performance in “Kill Your Darlings” probably isn’t significant enough to factor into the season, there are other possibilities. There’s a chance that her role in the “Oldboy” remake might qualify in the Best Actress category, but we’d put more weight on “Therese Raquin.” An adaptation of the classic novel by Emile Zola, it’s essentially a sort of 19th century film noir, with Olsen as the title character, who has an affair with a friend (Oscar Isaac) of her sickly husband (Tom Felton), before the pair decide to bump off the ailing spouse. It’s a killer part (ha), one that should really give Olsen the chance to show her range, and the cast (which also includes Jessica Lange) is strong, but with the film being directed by TV helmer Charlie Stratton, we do wonder how much of an impact it’ll make. But if Olsen is as fierce in the role as we imagine she could be, it’s not one that should be overlooked.
Samantha Morton – “Decoding Annie Parker”
We’re thinking of “Decoding Annie Parker” somewhat as this year’s equivalent to “The Sessions,” in part because it has Helen Hunt in a major role. The feature directorial debut of “Monster” cinematographer Steven Bernstein, it sees Hunt play Mary-Claire King, a geneticist trying to research breast cancer, and Annie Parker, who watched her mother and sister die of the disease, and was diagnosed with it too, aiding King in her research in the process. Hunt might be one to watch as well, but it’s really Samantha Morton we’ve got our eye on here. The actress has two nominations, but hasn’t had one since 2004, and has the kind of part that awards voters swoon for here. It might sound like a Lifetime movie on paper, but Morton’s likely to class the joint up, so keep an eye on this one as we get deeper into the festival season.
Zoe Saldana – “Nina”
The “Avatar” star (who arguably deserved a nomination for her motion-capture performance in James Cameron‘s film) has taken a while to capitalize on her success in that and “Star Trek,” but 2013 looks to be a big year for her — not only is she back for “Star Trek Into Darkness,” but she’s also got supporting roles in “Blood Ties” and “Out of the Furnace.” And we reckon she’s got a chance at an Oscar run in another biopic, “Nina,” in which Saldana plays the great singer Nina Simone. The independent film and directorial debut of “The Brave One” writer Cynthia Mort, the film is something of an unknown quantity at this point, and it’s already been the subject of controversy due to Saldana’s casting; she’s lighter-skinned than Simone, and has been wearing makeup to split the difference, resulting in outrage from some quarters. Will her near-unrecognizable appearance do her favors, a la Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman in their Oscar-winning roles? Or will it make the performance a non-starter? We’ll see later in the year — we’re betting the film debuts at TIFF.
Also Worth Considering: There’s the possibility that Amy Adams will end up in this category for David O. Russell‘s latest film, but we think that she’s more likely to go supporting again, and the same is probably true of Carey Mulligan in “The Great Gatsby” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” sight unseen. Besides them, there’s also Oprah Winfrey in “The Butler,” Hilary Swank in “You’re Not You,” Reese Witherspoon in “Devil’s Knot,” Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight,” Keira Knightley in “Can A Song Save Your Life,” Shailene Woodley in “The Spectacular Now,” Lindsay Burdge in “A Teacher,” Rebecca Hall in “Closed Circuit,” Hailee Steinfeld in “Romeo & Juliet,” Chloe Moretz in “Carrie,” Rooney Mara in “Side Effects,” Berenice Bejo in “The Past,” Mia Wasikowska in “Tracks” and Saoirse Ronan in “How I Live Now.”
And for the record, our precise predictions are…
Sandra Bullock – “Gravity”
Nicole Kidman – “Grace Of Monaco”
Meryl Streep – “August: Osage County”
Emma Thompson – “Saving Mr. Banks”
Naomi Watts – “Diana”