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Oscars: A Look At The Best Actress Front-Runners, Including Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock & Amy Adams

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 16, 2013 3:00 PM
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Oscars Best Actress 2013

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.

Blue Jasmine

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.

August: Osage County

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.

Saving Mr. Banks

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.

Blue Is The Warmest Color

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.

Short Term 12

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.

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  • SteveW | January 24, 2014 4:10 PMReply

    After being robbed by the academy (Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth), I hope they don't make the same mistake again. The performances of the nominated actresses are wonderful, however Cate Blanchett's acting reached that surreal, transcendental kind of dimension which demands the Oscar. I've just seen The Wolf Of Wall Street and have similar feelings about Di Caprio's role. Astounding. The Academy need to increase their relevance by naming the appropriate actors for the awards.

  • Rob | December 26, 2013 4:43 AMReply

    Cate Blanchett should win for several reasons. 1) Cate's performance was the best of those cited..though I missed the Streep performance which probably will not be honoureddue to Streepburnout. 2) Blanchett has not received her due..we all remember theridiculous Gwyneth Paltrow robbing Blanchett of an Oscar for Elisabeth for Shakespear in Love. Elisabeth has held up as one of the top performances in film history. 3)Blanchett is in the category of actresses of Streep and Bette Davis..deserving of multtiple leading actress wins and her Blue Jasmine performance should be one of tthose honoured. 4) Amy Adams is a first rate actress, but a future supporting actress nod would be an adequate honour for her. Remember that actresses such as LaurenBacaall never won a competitive Oscar... just a special Oscar. A nomination for Addams..fine but not a win over Blanchett.

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  • Joseph | October 22, 2013 12:42 PMReply

    I think you're underestimating Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It's one of those grand comedy performances that is critically acclaimed and the movie has become a sleeper hit. She's also beloved in Hollywood.

  • Mona | October 22, 2013 8:58 AMReply

    There were no test screenings for American Hustle yet, so im not believing Kendra's comment for now . Im rooting for Adams but I agree until response from the film is heard id say this is a pretty stiff competition this year for best actress.

  • Mirko | October 21, 2013 2:30 PMReply

    Emma Thompson is only actress winner in category screenplay, besides in category actress in a leading role. She as great talent. This year, I want Thompson in nomination, at last, absolutely.

  • Kendra | October 19, 2013 2:54 PMReply

    4 friends saw Hustle at test screenings and they all agreed Adams was the weakest link in the film. Accent all over the place and trying too hard to be tough and sexy. Also, Jennifer Lawrence steals her thunder. I think her odds are better for Her, a small but great part.

  • dan | October 19, 2013 2:29 PMReply

    Amy Adams, yes please! The only award I want American Hustle to get.

  • G | October 18, 2013 11:46 PMReply

    In a just world, Adele Exarchopoulos would be given her own category. I thought her performance was a class apart from anything I've seen in years.

    Otherwise, Bullock should win it. She carried that weighty film like it was in 0-g. And with all the technical crap she had to deal with, the performance is even more of a miracle! I think Emma Thompson is a great actress, so I would love to see her get a nom, the same goes for Meryl.

    The darkest horse, and one of my personal favorites is Gerwig. She co-wrote Frances Ha, and had a major hand in the overall sculpting of that film. She is genuine and warm on screen; she would make for a great addition, but I have a strong feeling she won't get the votes (due to the Academy's blowhard bias.) Oh well.

  • Pj | October 18, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Dench over Streep? What! Streep will take Comedy/Musical GG and that'll be all she wrote.

  • LISBETH SALANDER | October 21, 2013 10:03 PM

    streep won instead of rooney mara for TGWTDT

    then years earlier she was nominated instead of maggie gylenhaal for 'sherrybaby'

    the academy have to stop loving streep and ignoring better performances

  • H | October 18, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    I think there's another great actress that's generating buzz in festivals around the world, who could go for the usual foreign-unknown-for-Hollywood-parameters-actress spot, Paulina Garcia from the Chilean film "Gloria". Her performance is magnificent, and Hollywood should pay attention to her rare talent.

  • Leanna | October 18, 2013 10:37 AMReply

    Im feeling Adams will become a frontrunner here, her role in this film looks meaty. Or maybe just holding a grudge that 2008 Academy Award Ceremony when a nomination for Lead actress was snubbed for her and she had to sing and present for her film. Damn.

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  • Guest | October 17, 2013 1:34 AMReply

    You need to point out that Streep has THREE Oscars, not "two Oscars in this category", as that is not useful.
    Second, like someone else said, one of Thompson's two Oscars is for screenplay. She also would not be #5 on right now on any informed BA likelihood lineup. Fun fact, the only time a newcomer/first-time nominee wasn't included in the category since the 1940s was in '94.
    Third, there is no basis for a "guess" that Bejo will be like Cotillard. Cotillard didn't have SPC, and she also had another French actress and a potentially record-making kid competing for placement.
    Fourth, Amy Adams is not overdue. She's only perhaps been competitive once in those four years, and that was for Junebug. Someone like Glen Close is overdue. Plus, Adams ahead of frontrunenr Blanchett? really?
    Fifth, and this is comical, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is not even close to dark horse potential for Oscar for Enough Said.
    Sixth and last, you're one writer, one perspective, why do you intend on speaking for the entire Indiewire staff? Pronouns, use them appropriately.

  • BERNIE ROSE | October 21, 2013 10:05 PM

    Lindsay Burdge might be nominted for 'A TEACHER'

  • Oliver Lyttelton | October 17, 2013 3:22 AM

    1) I guess, but it's a lot more relevant that she's won twice in this category, the second time only two years ago, than that she won for Kramer Vs Kramer three-and-a-half decades ago.
    2) You're right, I did mean to mention that one of Thompson's Oscars was for writing, must have slipped my mind. As for her placement, I'm not sure if you're objecting to her 'only' being number 5, or to her being a nominee. If it's the former, they're listed alphabetically, starting with A for Adams, and ending with T for Thompson. If it's the latter, you're wrong.
    3) Cotillard did have SPC, who were the distributors of Rust & Bone. She was also, unlike Bejo, a previous winner.
    4) If you've been nominated four times and have never won, you're due. Not a comment on quality (sure, Close is due as well), but there is a cumulative thing here. Hence Streep winning for The Iron Lady, which is I'd argue, not one of her best performances. Also, again, alphabetical.
    5) Academy members really like Enough Said. It's a longshot, which is why I described her as a dark horse. Probably not going to be in there, but worth mentioning.
    6) It's the house style. A sanctimonious dick, be less of one.

  • Mark | October 16, 2013 9:33 PMReply

    For me, when it's all said and done, the Best Actress Oscar belongs to Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine". What she accomplishes is nothing short of miraculous. It is an incredible performance.

  • oogle monster | October 16, 2013 7:04 PMReply

    Please, Oscar Gods... let Amy Adams in!

  • billy | October 16, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    I think Judi Dench will win the BAFTAs, giving her some considerable moment I'm going in to the finish line for the Oscars. Great actress, great career, health issues, and a movie people will enjoy.. plus Weinstein..

  • Jake D | October 16, 2013 4:53 PMReply

    Blue Jasmine is going Comedy/Musical at the Globes, so...I wouldn't think too highly of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's chances there...

  • Mitchell | October 16, 2013 5:30 PM

    No, it's going Drama.

  • BEF | October 16, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    There's no track record to say that Cinedigm can't pull a Roadside. I mean Brie Larson does have that young, attractive, blonde quality that voters love ... I can't imagine a Best Actress slate without at least one young hottie for the dudes (and Best Supporting Actress is looking pretty old, too) ... hate to pull out that one, but ... (Also, I would like Larson to be nominated and I think my line of thinking is wrong as a human being, but Oscar voters aren't really human -- just read their reasons for not wanting to see "12 Years a Slave").

  • Guest | October 17, 2013 1:15 AM

    Heard of Adele Exarchopoulos?

  • NewYorker | October 16, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    my prediction for best actress are
    Amy Adams-American Hustle
    Emma Thompson-Saving Mr. Banks
    Julia Roberts-August: Osage County
    Kate Winslet-Labor Day
    Sandra Bullock-Gravity

    my prediction for best supporting actress are
    Jennifer Lawrence-American Hustle
    Meryl Streep-August: Osage County
    Octavia Spencer-Fruitvale Station
    Oprah Winfrey-Lee Daniel's The Butler
    Sarah Paulson-21 Years A Slave
    other cotenders there could be
    Jared Leto for Dallas Buyer's Club
    and maybe julianne moore for carrie.

  • Donella | November 5, 2013 10:48 PM

    At this point, Lupita Nyong'o has a better shot of the Supporting Actress nomination than Octavia Spencer, Oprah Winfrey, and Sarah Paulson.

  • dan | October 19, 2013 2:33 PM

    OMG is that the sequel where Soloman is held as a slave for 21 YEARS!?!

  • Oogle monster | October 16, 2013 10:53 PM

    I'm sorry, and I shouldn't laugh, but are you serious with the Leto category placement?

  • Kevin | October 16, 2013 7:49 PM

    There's absolutely no chance Meryl will be nominated in supporting. She's the matriarch of the family and is being campaigned as lead.

    Jared Leto, as a man, is a contender for supporting actor (not actress).

  • seren | October 16, 2013 4:02 PMReply

    What if Julia Roberts had remained in the Best Actress category and Meryl Streep went to the Supporting? Would Roberts have had a better chance than Streep? What if both had remained?

  • Chris | October 16, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    There's a bit of confusion in the Streep/Thompson portion of this piece. "...Thompson (who like Streep, has two Oscars)..." - Yes, as you mention, Streep has two Oscars for Best Actress, but has three Oscars total. And while Thompson has two Oscars, one of them is for screenplay, not acting. So the parallel you're trying to draw there doesn't work. I know, it's a nitpick, but it comes across as confusing.

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