Remember earlier in the year when it seemed possible this year's best actress race would be a battle of the princesses? Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Diana" and Olivier Dahan's "Grace of Monaco" both looked like the kind of movies made to get best actress nominations, with the former seeing Naomi Watts play Princess Diana and the latter with Nicole Kidman and Princess Grace. More over, Watts and Kidman have been BFFs since they attended high school together in Sydney, making the potential showdown all the more dramatic. But that, officially, will not be the case.
"Diana" was released in the UK last week, where it bombed at the box office (grossing just £623,051 in its first weekend) after receiving remarkably dismal reviews (The Guardian called it "mediocre and ultimately pointless" in one of the nicer ones). It doesn't come out on this side of the pond until November, but it would be a true miracle if it did any better here than in its native UK.
That left "Grace" as the sole princess in contention, but then yesterday The Weinstein Company announced that the film, as well as James Gray's "The Immigrant" (featuring another -- albeit longshot -- best actress contender in Marion Cotillard, who oddly enough won an Oscar for starring in "Grace" director Dahan's "La Vie En Rose"), would be moving to 2014. And in the wake of these developments, we have a much tighter best actress race -- definitely the clearest of all the acting races this year (at least given its not even October).
Last week, myself and Eric Kohn traded thoughts on the Oscar race, and even then I noted it was the category I'm currently most fascinated by. There are already four performances that seem like almost sure-things: Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County," Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Judi Dench in "Philomena" and Sandra Bullock in "Gravity." As far as I'm concerned, Blanchett and Bullock are sitting at the top of the heap, both the nailing extremely challenging (in extremely different ways) roles of a mentally unstable alcoholic lost without money and an emotionally damaged astronaut lost in space. Streep -- also playing an unstable addict -- is slightly more iffy given the lukewarm response to "August" and the fact that after winning Oscar #3 two years ago there's little pressure to honor her again. But it's hard to deny the magnitude of her performance, which is a show-stopper if there ever was one. And then there's Dench, who is both heartbreaking and heartwarming as a Irish woman fighting to find the son she was forced to abandon in "Philomena." If more than one as-yet-unseen contenders come on very strong, Dench is probably the first to go. But it will be tough to deny her accomplishment in "Philomena," and -- like Streep -- she has Harvey and Co. backing her (and now Harvey has two less actresses to back).
There are a few interesting things about this potentially mighty quartet. For one, all four of them have already won. Last year, the best supporting actor race offered a first time situation
where every single nominee had already won, and it seems like we could
be heading there again. Even with Kidman and Cotillard (both former winners themselves) out, most of the potential contenders outside those four are also previous winners: Emma Thompson (who has the most buzz of the "Saving Mr. Banks"), Julia Roberts (also for "August"), and Kate Winslet (for "Labor Day").
Even more notable is that all four likely-to-be-nominated woman collectively represent great roles for woman over 40, with Dench (age 78), Streep (64), Bullock (49) and Blanchett (44) offering an average age of 58.75. Never has the best actress race featured all five nominees over 40 (it's even quite rare where all five were over 30), and even last year the average age was a lower 49, despite the nomination of 86 year-old Emmanuelle Riva.
The chances of the race remaining a 40+ crowd are decent. Kate Winslet (a child in this race at 37) is probably the least likely of the noted 3 possibilities, whereas more likely Julia Roberts and Emma Thompson would continue the trend at 45 and 54, respectively. But then there's the one contender I haven't mentioned, Ms. Amy Adams, who -- unlike everyone else mentioned here -- has never won an Academy Award, despite four nominations in under a decade. She also -- as of a month ago -- is 39 years old. Granted, no one has seen David O. Russell's "American Hustle" (and probably won't until late November), but the buzz for Adams performance is strong (which seems fair enough based on the trailer). If there's anyone that can steal this race (and ruin the all-winner, all-40-and-over dream), it's her. Given the competition, though, she'd have to really hit it out of the park. But if she did, with it would come another fun fact: It would be the first time the best actress category saw two consecutive winners from different films by the same director.
Whatever ends up happening in this race, it is at this point assured to be a competitive, interesting category featuring many of the greatest living actresses today. Just don't expect any of them to be playing princesses (though Jasmine French comes pretty close).
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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