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Best Actress Race Is Wide Open: Oscar Perennials vs. Newbies

Best Actress Race Is Wide Open: Oscar Perennials vs. Newbies

As soon as an actor wins an Oscar, they enter the Academy fluke zone. It means that going forward, they have earned an advantage: they will be taken seriously as a possible nominee.

This means that the ever-growing media covering the Oscars tend to assume that because an Oscar-perennial is in a movie, they will be nominated.

This year’s Best Actress race reveals this trend. As soon as a publicist revealed that current it-girl Jessica Chastain–who was nominated in her first year starring in some six movies for her supporting role for “The Help”–was the lead in Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” she lept onto the best actress charts. This was before anyone had seen the film, which was kept under wraps until after the presidential election. (The final cut is due to be submitted November 19; press screenings begin Thanksgiving week.)

As usual, the actress field is weak and wide open. And Chastain is a highly regarded performer who so far can do no wrong. And this is Bigelow’s follow-up to “The Hurt Locker” (which Sony has deemed not commercially robust enough to go against the holiday big guns; the wide release of “Zero Dark Thirty” has been pushed back to January). Word is that Chastain has a juicier role (as a CIA analyst obsessed for 12 years with tracking Osama bin Laden) than Ben Affleck’s stoic agent in “Argo.” (As popular as he is, and as many nominations as “Argo” will get, Affleck will not be nominated for that role.) We still don’t know if Chastain has that key dramatic scene that earns Oscars.

There’s also an assumption that Marion Cotillard is a lock for her extraordinary performance in Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” I’m the only Oscar-watcher who did not vote for her at Gurus ‘O Gold. Why not? Because I worry that there isn’t room for two great French actresses in the best actress top five. Sony Pictures Classics is pushing both Cotillard and “Amour” star Emanuelle Riva as Best Actress. While it was overlooked at Cannes, “Rust and Bone” is admired by many who’ve seen it. (It will be on my ten best list partly due to Cotillard’s amazing performance.) But it’s a challenging film with an ick factor that may put off some viewers: at the start, Cotillard’s whale trainer suffers an horrific limb-severing accident. The film is about her recovery, and how she changes as a result of this dramatic change in her life. If the New York or L.A. critics go with Cotillard, it’s a whole new ball game.

And I may change my vote. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association likes “Rust and Bone,” and Cotillard learned fluent English and wooed over many voters and critics the year she won best actress for “La Vie en Rose.”  The list of actress suspects is all over the place, and anything can happen. But for now I’m betting that “Amour” will wow Academy voters, and that 85-year-old Riva, who starred in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” a movie that many Academy seniors remember, will get the nod (which would make her the oldest best actress or actor nominee ever; “Cocoon”‘s Jessica Tandy was 80).

What will year-end critics and awards groups and guilds do, and what will Academy voters embrace? “Silver Linings Playbook” star and “Winter’s Bone” nominee Jennifer Lawrence is a slam dunk; everyone falls for her in this romantic drama from David O. Russell. And newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, eight, has the best shot at an Oscar slot for the superb indie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” She could be the youngest Best Actress ever nominated (she will be nine in January). Keisha Castle-Hughes was 12 when she was nominated for Best Actress for 2002’s “Whale Rider.” Tatum O’Neal won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Paper Moon” at age 10 in 1973. Adrien Brody is the youngest Best Actor winner at age 29 for “The Pianist” in 2002. Mary Badham was nominated for supporting actress for “To Kill a Mockingbird” at age 10 in 1962. And Justin Henry was eight when he was nominated for supporting actor for “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979. (More Oscar age details here.)

Naomi Watts is extraordinary in the true story “The Impossible,” as a mother fighting for survival for the sake of her son. If I’m right that another Gurus fave, Helen Mirren, will not wow Oscar voters in “Hitchcock,” that leaves open another slot. We have yet to see what “Anna Karenina” will do for Keira Knightley, who unlike Chastain, has not been earning rave reviews of late, and could be due for a major comeback as Tolstoy’s tragic heroine.

Here’s what the field looks like at Gurus ‘O Gold:

  1. Jennifer Lawrence “Silver Linings Playbook” 82
  2. Marion Cotillard “Rust and Bone” 54
  3. Quvenzhané Wallis “Beasts of the Southern Wild” 39
  4. Helen Mirren “Hitchcock”  29
  5. Jessica Chastain “Zero Dark Thirty” 26
  6. Naomi Watts “The Impossible” 21
  7. Emmanuelle Riva “Amour”   20
  8. Keira Knightley “Anna Karenina” 20

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