In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!
After Oscar history was made last year when the Best Supporting Actor race fielded five former winners, it looked for the longest time as if this year's Best Actress category might follow suit. Happily, a late surge for “American Hustle” prevented such an outcome, but only just: this year's category features four former winners and one still-uncrowned darling of the actors' branch, with 38 nominations and six Oscars between them. Given that pedigree, you'd expect this to be a pretty feisty contest, right? Er… not so much.
The nominees are…
Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
If you were evaluating this race on paper, Amy Adams would look like an easy frontrunner: she's a well-liked five-time nominee still awaiting her first win, the only woman in her category without an Oscar, and delivers a grand, sexy, shape-shifting turn in one of the year's most-nominated Best Picture contenders. Some have taken issue with the performance, but I think it's crafty, layered work that balances Sydney Prosser's multitude of facades — some calculated, some subconscious — with great flair, referencing and recalling Barbara Stanwyck's immortal screwball turn in “The Lady Eve.” Perhaps if the film stuck with her more in its second half, or if that ensemble weren't so crammed with flashy star turns, she'd be more of a favorite. As it is, the comedy Golden Globe winner will have to settle for fifth bridesmaid finish. (Check out our interview with Adams here.)
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Not that there's any shame in losing to Blanchett — as indomitable a frontrunner as this category has seen since Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” Blanchett's ferocious, Blanche DuBois-inspired turn as a fallen society belle in Woody Allen's acclaimed tragicomedy was hailed as the likely victor when the film premiered way back in the summer, and she hasn't vacated the top spot since, winning the bulk of the critics' awards, as well as a drama Globe, SAG and BAFTA. It's a tremendously deserving performance, but the love-in is also a “welcome back” gesture of sorts: with the Australian having occupied herself principally with theater work in Sydney for the last few years, this is the first feature she's headlined solo since 2007's “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” General consensus is that 2004's Supporting Actress win wasn't sufficient for one of the most lauded actors of her generation; whispers of the ongoing Woody Allen controversy denting her chances reek of pundits desperate for a new angle. (Check out our interview with Blanchett here.)
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
If Sandra Bullock hadn't won that contentious 2009 Best Actress Oscar for “The Blind Side,” would she be more of a force to be reckoned with in this race? Perhaps. Certainly, her physically demanding, emotionally acute work as stranded astronaut Ryan Stone in the Best Picture co-frontrunner is more acclaimed (and arguably more impressive) than her charismatic star turn in the blockbuster football drama, inspiring a surfeit of clueless “Wow, she can really act!” notices from snooty critics who had somehow never noticed that before. But Bullock herself seems to recognize that it isn't her turn this year: charming as ever, she's nonetheless played it fairly cool on the circuit, promoting the film more actively than herself. With no precursor awards of note to her name, she's happily along for the ride — though the nomination is handy validation against any detractors who thought her first win was an anomaly. (Check out our interview with Bullock here.)
Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Yet another contender who might have been a greater threat for the win in another year, 79-year-old Dench has been away from the race for seven years — rather a long time, considering she racked up her first six nominations in less than a decade. She returns with one of her most crowd-pleasing lead performances in a Best Picture nominee that not everyone saw coming: as Philomena Lee, the working-class Irishwoman on the trail of the son taken away from her by the Catholic Church, she's plucky and endearing, while also finding more stoic reserves of tragedy in this true-life character. (The film may occasionally patronize Lee, but I don't think Dench ever does.) It's a performance for which scarcely anyone has a bad word, but it's also not the flashiest or most forceful — which may explain why not even the routinely loyal BAFTA voters could actually give her the win.
Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
With Oscar voters having finally relented and given Streep her long-awaited third Oscar for “The Iron Lady” two years ago, they can safely return her to also-ran status; even the nomination (her record-extending 18th) looked like a touch-and-go deal for a while. Perhaps she'd be right in the thick in the winner conversation again if she'd lost that tight 2011 race to Viola Davis, but I suspect not. Her to-the-rafters portrayal of acid-tongued, cancer-stricken Midwest matriarch Violet Weston is grandly entertaining (and, dare I say, rather more sure-footed than her similarly OTT Margaret Thatcher), but the critics were rather more divided this time: some found it overblown, while others suggested her very casting lacked imagination. With the film itself, once touted as a potential Oscar heavyweight, having landed with something of a thud, Streep is running a distant fifth here.
Will win: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Could win: Amy Adams, “American Hustle” (but hardly)
Should win: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Should have been here: Adèle Exarchopoulos, “Blue is the Warmest Color”
All in all, it's a colorful and accomplished slate of performances, but not one that shows much daring or curiosity within the actors' branch — that the only non-winner in the bunch is herself is a perennial nominee says it all, really. Had they been willing to look beyond the familiar, perhaps Adèle Exarchopoulos' dazzling breakout turn in French sensation “Blue is the Warmest Color” might have registered. Or Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha,” Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight,” Paulina Garcia in “Gloria” … the list goes on. Still, we'll have a pretty unimpeachable winner at the end of the day.
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How do you think this race will pan out, and which contender do you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.