By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com October 16, 2013 at 3:00PM
Received wisdom has it that, in most years, the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards is less competitive than their male equivalent. It's certainly true, if it even needs to be said, that great roles for women are far, far less common than they are for men. But one only has to think of the performances that haven't been nominated in recent years to realize that it's not the lack of talent out there, so much as the Academy, or even the prognosticators, tending to be a little more conservative in their picks.
More often than not, five or six names are in the fray, with everyone else deemed a long shot. And while the occasional fresh face can slip through—Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence spring to mind of late—for the most part, we usually see a familiar roster of names rotating around. That certainly seems to be true this year, with some having believed for months that five actresses are close to locked, with everyone else on the outside looking in. And in this case, all five, as with the Supporting Actor category last year, are previous winners.
Of the quintet, the frontrunner is probably Cate Blanchett (a Supporting Actress winner for "The Aviator" in 2005) in "Blue Jasmine." The concept of one of our most lauded actresses taking the lead in a Woody Allen film always seemed like it had awards potential, even if no one's been nominated for a lead in an Allen picture since Sean Penn. And when the film was unveiled, the guesses turned out to be correct: the Australian actress carries the film entirely on her shoulders in a way that's rare in one of the director's more ensemble-minded films, and won some of her best notices ever in the process. She's a surefire nominee, and perhaps more than anyone in any of the acting categories, seems like a potential winner at this point.
Then again, she does still have some stiff competition. For one, if there was ever any doubt that Sandra Bullock was going to be in the mix for "Gravity," that's been disposed of with the film's monster box office and critical success. The film's virtually a solo effort for much of the running time, and Bullock (who won four years back for "The Blind Side") is doing something different here from the bulk of her work in the last few decades (you have to go back to "Speed" for its closest counterpart, and there's much greater emotional heft here). There's part of us that anticipates some kind of whispering campaign against the film involving how much of her work was CGI and/or abetted by puppeteers. But we can't see that making much difference with the people who actually matter.
Then, inevitably, there's Meryl Streep. Now a two-time winner in the category, Streep hasn't been nominated since winning for "The Iron Lady" two years back, but the stars seem to be aligning for another go around for "August: Osage County." It's a feisty, funny part, and while the reviews haven't been glowing, that's rarely mattered for Meryl. That said, with the film showing some weakness, it could in theory give voters a reason to go for someone else—there could be a feeling that she's been recognized recently enough to give someone else a go. Still, with Julia Roberts having officially decided to go supporting, the risk of votes being split is lesser here.
There's also another veteran looking good: Judi Dench, in Stephen Frears' "Philomena." The film picked up surprisingly strong notices on the festival circuit, and Dench (a Supporting Actress winner in '99 for "Shakespeare In Love") could be due again, having just missed out on another nod last year for "Skyfall." The film gives her plenty of emotional material to play with, it's a real crowdpleaser, and it's likely to be one of Harvey Weinstein's top priorities over the season. We'd be surprised if she was a real threat to win, but a nomination is more than feasible.
Of the hotly-tipped five, only one hasn't been seen yet: Emma Thompson, in "Saving Mr. Banks." The buzz on the film (which premieres on Sunday at the London Film Festival) has been solid in advance, and Thompson (who like Streep, has two Oscars) has her most promising role in years as "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers, which combines the always awards-friendly elements of a tragic backstory and a sharp-tongued old lady (of which Thompson is the third in contention, after Streep and Dench).
Between the five (all previous winners and, unusually, all over forty), it does certainly seem to be hard to break in past them. But that's not to say that there aren't serious contenders. First and foremost among them is Amy Adams, whose role in David O. Russell's "American Hustle" looks like it might be a player. The actress has four nominations already, but all in the supporting category, and without winning, so she's one of the most overdue actresses at work right now. Russell's films have been magnets for acting nominations of late, and the part looks to let Adams show even more facets of her range. If anyone can break up this initial line-up, it's her.
Beyond her, there are a couple of Cannes-derived foreign-language actresses who could follow in the steps of Emmanuelle Riva from last year. Berenice Bejo took the Best Actress prize at the festival for her excellent performance in Asghar Farhadi's "The Past," while Adele Exarchapalous was specially lauded, alongside co-star Lea Seydoux, for Palme D'Or winner "Blue Is The Warmest Color." Bejo's certainly the more likely candidate—the three-hour, sexually explicit 'Blue' seems less awards friendly—but despite Sony Pictures Classics' success with Riva last year, our guess is that Bejo will be more like Marion Cotillard and miss out on the cut.
Meanwhile, Kate Winslet is theoretically in the mix, thanks to "Labor Day," but Jason Reitman's film was received underwhelmingly by the critics, and having caught it this week, I'm inclined to think that Winslet's chances are slim; despite her previous popularity, she's not doing anything especially new or attention-grabbing here. Similarly, Naomi Watts looked good on paper for "Diana," but vitriolic reviews will certainly put paid to that idea.
Someone who's been gaining traction as a potential dark horse in recent weeks is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for "Enough Said." The actress—a relative neophyte in the movie world, though she's loaded with Emmys—gives a lovely performance in Nicole Holofcener's film, and the movie has been doing remarkably well. Even so, as a comedy, it has a trickier run at recognition (though depending on which category Dench and Thompson end up in, she might end up winning the Golden Globe for Comedy/Musical, which could help). Meanwhile, Julie Delpy provides the best chance at a nomination for "Before Midnight" (except perhaps for in Adapted Screenplay), and it's become a priority for Sony Pictures Classics, but it'll need some of the frontrunners to lose traction—or major support from the critics' awards—to get closer.
And finally, two actresses from the indie side of things, whose films are unfortunately unlikely to get traction, but would both be in the final five if we had our way. Greta Gerwig had some awards buzz ever since "Frances Ha" premiered at Telluride in 2012, and the film certainly hit the zeitgeist among younger viewers. But unfortunately, she's still unknown among older Academy crowds, and IFC Films don't have a great track record when it comes to the Oscars (the latter would also prevent Rooney Mara making the cut for "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"). Similarly, while few who see "Short Term 12" come away not wowed by Brie Larson, a minor bow at SXSW, and Cinedigm as distributors, mean that she won't be in serious contention, but look out for her at the Indie Spirits.
So, our predictions, for the moment. Next week, we'll take look at the screenplay race.
Best Actress Predictions - Wed October 16th
Amy Adams - "American Hustle"
Cate Blanchett - "Blue Jasmine"
Sandra Bullock - "Gravity"
Judi Dench - "Philomena"
Emma Thompson - 'Saving Mr. Banks"
The Best Picture chart will return next week.