Photo: The Weinstein Company/Sony Pictures/Sony Picture Classic/Fox Searchlight
What do we do with a best-actress race without Meryl Streep? After
last year's win, she scratched with "Hope Springs." That leaves an open
field, from the very young -- pretween Quvenzhane Wallis -- to the
ingenues Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain to the grand dames Judi
Dench and Emmanuelle Riva. Will Oscar go for sexy and screwed up, sexy
and disabled, sexy and doomed -- or just plain tragically disabled?
Here's the current crop of best-actress contenders.
Photo: The Weinstein Company
Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") -- Lawrence
plays a manic widow on the verge of a nervous breakdown who exorcises
her demons ballroom dancing. Not only does she look great in leotards,
but also she's funny and fierce and has mad chemistry with Bradley
Cooper's bipolar, brokenhearted cutie in David O. Russell's Oscar-bound
dramedy. Add in her monster hit "The Hunger Games" (OK, I wish she'd get
nominated for that!) and her previous Oscar nom for "Winter's Bone,"
and you get frontrunner.
Photo: Sony Pictures
Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") --
Chastain leaps out of the supporting race into the softer best-actress
category as the woman behind the elite team searching for Osama bin
Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's first film since "The Hurt Locker." Nominated
last year for "The Help" and terrific in every movie she's been in,
including this year's "Lawless," Chastain appears overdue for
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Marion Cotillard ("Rust and Bone") --
Cotillard pulls off pure Oscar bait in this French-language drama. She
plays a gorgeous, sexy, sulky woman who loses her lower legs to a killer
whale and becomes a better woman for it through the sexual healing of a
bare-knuckles fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts). The 2008 Oscar winner for
"La Vie en Rose" and star of "The Dark Knight Rises" does damaged
exquisitely. When Cotillard's killer-whale trainer returns to the site
of her tragic accident, French Marineland, and reconnects with the beast
that ate her legs, the unusual scene is strangely exhilarating.
Photo: Focus Features
Keira Knightley ("Anna Karenina") --
Knightley dons the hats, veils, and upholstery silks of one of
literature's major heroines (played in the past by Greta Garbo and
Vivien Leigh). Working with her "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice"
director, Joe Wright, Knightley leads a production that breathes fresh
air into the tragedy of a virtuous wife and mother who falls into a
spiral of passion with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The
British actress wears the costumes and jewels -- they do not wear her.
She gives Anna a contemporary urgency, and after her overlooked turn in
"A Dangerous Method," she has become a top contender for the 2013
Photo: Sony Picture Classics
Emmanuelle Riva ("Amour") --
Break out the handkerchiefs as Riva, 85, goes the full downward spiral
from vital sparky senior to stroke victim to bedridden inarticulate
silent and not-so-silent screamer. Michael Haneke ("The White Ribbon")
makes aging an emotional horror story, and Riva is front and center,
spitting and drooling as her shattered husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant)
watches, twists in the emotional wind, and occasionally recoils. It's
strong stuff from a famed French actress with a lengthy career who
starred in the classic "Hiroshima Mon Amour" in 1959.
Photo: Fox Searchlight
Judi Dench ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") --
Dench has a brilliant turn as a newly widowed Englishwoman who suddenly
discovers that the husband she loved for decades wasn't exactly the man
she thought he was -- and her life of economic security is over. She
bravely sets out with the spirit of a Hobbit to belatedly explore the
world by outsourcing her retirement to India, along with a pack of
characters. Once there, she discovers her own curiosity -- and a very
good solicitous man played by the lovely Bill Nighy. An irresistible
love story at any age -- and a surprise hit -- scrubbed of
sentimentality by Dame Dench.
Photo: Fox Searchlight
Quvenzhane Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") -- "Nazie"
Wallis's debut performance as a 6-year-old survivalist, folk hero, and
wild child born on the bayou and desperate to save it from the
apocalypse astonishes both lovers and critics of the indie fable. She is
the passionate and self-possessed center of this winner of the Grand
Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. If recognized by the
academy, Wallis would become the youngest best-actress nominee in
Photo: Fox Searchlight
Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") --
Watts goes the route of the mother in peril in this intense disaster
movie about a family of vacationers caught, and divided, by the 2004
tsunami in Thailand. In the central role, Watts struggles physically and
emotionally in this wrenching story of survival and hope in the face of
horrendous odds. It's been nine years since her last Oscar nomination,
for "21 Grams," so Watts is overdue for academy love.
Photo: Sony Picture Classics.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead ("Smashed") -- Winstead
rises to a new level as a kindergarten teacher who reaches that
postcollege tipping point when she realizes that she's not just
hard-partying but, gasp, an alcoholic. That she reaches this awareness
ahead of her equally "fun loving" husband (Aaron Paul) makes climbing
the first rung of her 12 steps all the more difficult. The tall brunette
star of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" imbues her teacher with an
extraordinary ordinariness, quick to smile and slow to judge. Her
performance is so contemporary, raw, and fresh that she deserves an
Oscar nomination for her bravery as the girl next door who has to move
on with her life or drown in booze.
Photo: Focus Features
Laura Linney ("Hyde Park on Hudson") -- As
Margaret Suckley, a fifth cousin turned secret lover to President
Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), Linney plays a faded daisy. She
shows every wrinkle in a face that would have been plainly pretty but
has passed its marital sell-by date. Linney knows what she's doing, and
she doesn't give this poor relation any more power than Suckley would
have had when she entered FDR's inner sanctum. She is outmaneuvered at
every point, and yet her love, her sense of a spinster's rebirth at an
unexpected opportunity that takes her out of the musty cedar closet of
her life and puts her in the center of the president's household -- all
are real. Linney's performance is as precise and painstaking as
needlepoint as she artfully stitches the private life of a virtually
unknown woman in the shadow of a great man.