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Open Up the Best Actress Oscar Race: Five Locks and Eight Must-See Performances

Open Up the Best Actress Oscar Race: Five Locks and Eight Must-See Performances

As usual, there are more viable men hustling after a Best Actor slot than women in contention for Best Actress. (My current predictions are here.) ‘Twas ever thus, as the myopic film industry continues to chase the male demo and sequester “soft” relationship movies to the indie realm. Which means that many worthy films don’t make it to the top of Academy voters’ screener piles. How many film panels and Q & As have you seen with a row of men in suits and one woman in a frilly frock and impossibly high heels? Women in film are often a supporting afterthought. 

Yes, Sandra Bullock and New York Film Critics Circle winner Cate Blanchett are welcome locks in the Best Actress Oscar race. And it will be a close one. No one is likely to catch up with them, not even Meryl Streep, who will likely grab a nomination for her fierce Bad Mom in John Wells and Tracy Letts’ actor-friendly “August: Osage County,” or Dame Judi Dench, who has earned raves for her role as a woman who gave up her son for adoption in Stephen Frears’ real-life heart-tugger “Philomena.” 

Both Oscar perennials seem to have sure-fire slots in this race, but do they really give the best performances of their careers? Recent winner Streep (2011’s “The Iron Lady”) is arguably over-the-top, while six-time nominee Dench, who has only won one supporting Oscar (“Shakespeare in Love”), is admirably muted as a woman searching for her long lost son. Both are playing older women to whom the Academy actors branch can relate.

Bullock deserves kudos for probably being the only woman working in Hollywood today who could have pulled off the discipline of training and execution of “Gravity”‘s precise choreography–with an emotionally compelling performance on top. She’s also a popular industry insider who is beloved by her peers and crews. But she has already recently won the Best Actress Oscar (2009’s “The Blind Side”). 

But people tend to take Bullock a bit for granted, to underappreciate her stardom (was Melissa McCarthy really the only reason that “The Heat” was a summer smash?). Bullock’s secret weapon: she’s close pals with Warner Bros. co-president/marketing genius Sue Kroll, who will move mountains to make sure she takes home the win. 

Blanchett delivers one of the great performances of any year in “Blue Jasmine” as a contemporary hard-swilling Blanche DuBois on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And while Woody Allen wrote the role (without admitting any credit due to Tennessee Williams), he essentially abandoned Blanchett, as he does all his actors. She was on her own, which actors recognize as a degree of difficulty. Like Daniel Day Lewis in “Lincoln,” she molds a character that is bigger than the movie that contains it. 

The Australian actress, who recently left her other job running a Sydney theater company, is a respected and admired Master Thespian who also took home a gold man, for her supporting role as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” But she has not won in the Best Actress category. The challenge for Sony Pictures Classics is to keep the summer hit fresh and in the forefront of people’s minds so that it does not feel like old news. That’s where the year-end critics come in–the more wins she racks up, the more momentum behind her.

Coming up fresh on the outside is smart-as-a-whip comedienne Emma Thompson as “Mary Poppins” author P.J. Travers in late-December entry “Saving Mr. Banks”; she won Best Actress from the National Board of Review. The adapted screenplay Oscar-winner (“Sense and Sensibility”) and Best Actress winner (“Howards’ End”) is the best thing in the John Lee Hancock movie that recreates the battle of wills between Travers and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) during the making of the musical classic based on her character. Thompson is pitch-perfect as she plays a tough-as-nails, sad, lonely, powerful woman whose heart must melt by film’s end. It does. 

These five would seem to have Best Actress slots nailed down. But who else should the Academy check out in order to bring in some new blood into contention? I have eight performances to suggest.

1. Now that one of Variety’s Ten Actors to Watch, Brie Larson, has won the Best Actress Gotham Award and an Independent Spirit nomination for her breakout lead role in writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s SXSW jury-prize winner “Short Term 12,” perhaps distributor Cinedigm will step up to a proper award campaign for the 23-year-old actress. Larson is exceptional as Grace, a supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers who is facing past demons as she confronts an abused teen girl as well as her own pregnancy. Much of her best acting is in silent reaction shots; she also popped in two 2013 supporting roles, in “Spectacular Now” and “Don Jon.”

2. Breakout French actress Adele Exarchopoulos was so good, along with her more experienced costar Lea Seydoux, in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” that the Cannes jury wanted them to share the Palme d’Or for the first time with their director. Abdellatif Kechiche, a proud man, has engaged in a rather unattractive back-and-forth with his actresses, who he perceived as critical of his demands during an extended improvisation over five months of filming. In any case, actors recognize how brave these two actresses were in this intimate lesbian romance. 

3. Oscar regular Amy Adams, who has earned four supporting actress nominations since 2006’s”Junebug,” gives her richest lead performances to date in “American Hustle” as complex conwoman Sydney Prosser, who is fiercely fighting Rosalie (Jennifer Lawrence) for her husband Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Adams has to rapidly morph between playing American Sydney and her fake persona as the British Lady Edith, who tortures her conman partner by flirting with an FBA agent (Bradley Cooper). Clearly, this David O. Russell set was not necessarily fun for Adams, as he placed his actors under extraordinary pressure to summon up their performances on demand as he shouted instructions at them. Many of the principals weren’t thrilled with the experience, but the results are extraordinary.

4. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has spent much of her career in top-notch television, from “Seinfeld” to “Veep.” Now that her family is older she has broken out in Nicole Holofcener’s best and most accessible movie to date, “Enough Said,” a relationship comedy about two Los Angeles divorced parents. Louis-Dreyfuss is funny and moving as a masseuse who navigates the shoals of a relationship with a gentle man (the late James Gandolfini). Unfortunately, the Academy tends not to reward comedy (unless it’s Woody Allen, David O. Russell or James L. Brooks), relationship two-handers, “chick flicks,” and TV stars. Why penalize this gifted actress for her years in TV? She’s a movie star now. Fox Searchlight is fighting this uphill battle and may have to settle for a Holofcener writing nod. 

5. “The Artist” supporting actress nominee Berenice Bejo took home the Cannes Best Actress prize for her role in “The Past” as a beleaguered woman caught between her current fiance, her ex and their daughter. “The Past,” written and directed in France by Iranian Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) is a long, complex family drama that will most likely be a strong contender for the best foreign film prize, as it may not be seen by enough members of the actors branch. Sony Pictures Classics will work its magic, however. 

6. French-born American transplant Julie Delpy is one of the most gifted women in film today–a writer, director and actress. Her collaboration with director Richard Linklater and co-writer and co-star Ethan Hawke over 20 years and three movies has been rewarded with one screenplay Oscar nomination, and the writers may see the worth of the “Before Midnight” script as well. But it’s Delpy’s acting that energizes and drives this movie, which may not be seen by enough people. 

7. Chilean actress Paulina Garcia gives one of the year’s most powerful solo performances in the official Chilean submission, “Gloria.” She carries the movie as a lonely divorced middle-aged grandmother looking for love and–she thinks–finding it. Heart-breaking, vulnerable, sexy–this performance must be seen.  

8. Because Jennifer Lawrence will nab a supporting nomination for “American Hustle,” she will be overlooked for her second go-round playing archer-fighter-rebel Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” She’s tough but fragile, damaged by the horrors she has endured, a survivor of war who seeks to protect her family, and doesn’t know how to choose between her two loving swains. Lawrence does not deserve to be consigned to popular Young Adult blockbuster purgatory. 

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