By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist January 28, 2013 at 12:44PM
Unlike Best Actor or Supporting Actress, Best Actress seems to get more competitive over time this year, not less. Jessica Chastain has had the biggest head of steam of late, but it's not a showy performance, and the extensive PR campaign against "Zero Dark Thirty" has potentially damaged it in the eyes of Academy voters. And so Jennifer Lawrence stepped up, with a busy few weeks including a funny Golden Globes speech and a hosting gig on SNL, both of which have kept her in the spotlight. Despite being only 22, her nomination two years ago means she's a viable candidate to take the prize, and she's certainly a figurehead for the well-liked "Silver Linings Playbook" in a way that Cooper or Robert De Niro aren't. But it's far from a two-horse race, and in fact, Naomi Watts is probably the only nominee who doesn't stand a chance at winning. Neither Quvenzhane Wallis or Emmanuelle Riva were SAG nominees (the former was ineligible, the latter missed the cut), but it's conceivable to see either winning. There's still some degree of debate of whether Wallis, only 6 when she shot the film, is giving a performance or being cleverly directed (the former, we'd argue), but the film's popular, and Wallis is plenty adorable. Meanwhile, Riva, as the oldest nominee in the category's history, has a narrative to match her 70-years-younger co-star (indeed, she'll celebrate her birthday on the day of the Oscar ceremony), and has clearly been striking a chord with Academy voters. Chastain and Lawrence are sure to have nominations for years and years to come, but this is likely to be the Academy's last chance to honor Riva. So while Chastain and Lawrence are getting the lion's share of the attention, Riva still has a very decent chance of sneaking in for the win.
For the last five years, there have been few surprises in the Supporting Actor category -- Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, Christoph Waltz, Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer all dominated the precursor awards, and were anointed months before Oscar night. This year, it couldn't be further from the truth, with another wide-open field, but the SAGs did at least indicate what we've suspected for a while, that "Lincoln" star Tommy Lee Jones is in the lead here. As the most emotional and passionate element of an otherwise cool-headed film, he's the obvious choice, and it's close to twenty years since the actor last won an Oscar, and it would certainly be more deserved here than for his previous victory for "The Fugitive." That said, the competition is tough. Robert De Niro also has his first nomination in two decades, and "Silver Linings Playbook" love, and gratitude for his turn away from paycheck fare, may see him be awarded. Alan Arkin is always a popular vote, and could repeat his 2006 upset. And despite Christoph Waltz's "Django Unchained" performance essentially being a benevolent reprise of his winning performance from "Inglourious Basterds," he did as well at the precursor awards as anyone else; clearly, people can't get enough of Tarantino's verbose dialogue coming from Waltz's mouth. Indeed, the one arguably least likely to win is by far the most deserving -- Philip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master" -- but even that isn't totally inconceivable. Interestingly, though, this is the first time in a while that the SAG have awarded the same film Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, and while it happened in 2004 for "Mystic River," that was the first film to do so in over forty years ("Ben Hur," which won for Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith, was the one before). And let's not forget that no actor has ever won for a performance in a Steven Spielberg film. So there's a certain amount of history against Tommy Lee Jones picking up another Oscar.
Assuming "Argo" does win Best Picture -- and again, it's far from a foregone conclusion at this point -- the absence of Affleck from the Best Director nominees again makes it an unpredictable category. Benh Zeitlin's probably the least likely to win, given his status as a first-timer, but we're sure he'll be back. Comedy directors tend to not have much luck, but there's a growing sense that David O. Russell is due, and the popularity of "Silver Linings Playbook" could see it happen. The thought of Michael Haneke winning might be surprising when you think about it, but he's got a near-legendary reputation, and given that the film's already performing well with the Academy, it could yet happen. But the greater likelihood comes with two previous winners, who each won their last awards while missing out on Best Picture, in Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee. Both are as respected as any directors out there, and Spielberg would join William Wyler and Frank Capra as the only three-time winners (and be just behind John Ford, who holds the record with four). But would awarding them without their films feel like salt in the wound after "Saving Private Ryan" and "Brokeback Mountain"? Or would it be deserving recognition of impressive achievements? Unlike Zeitlin and Haneke, both are up for for the DGA, so if they take the prize, that may be the biggest indicator to date.
Your thoughts on the almost unpredictable Oscar race this year?