By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 30, 2011 at 4:59AM
If the Best Actor category, which we examined last week, is competitive, Best Actress is even more so -- as has been the case in the last few years, in fact. While there are plenty of thankless girlfriend and love interest roles most of the year, people are writing good roles for women, thank god, and there's a plethora of great actors, both veterans and newcomers, capable of taking the role and knocking them out of the park.
This year's contenders are a mixed bunch, with several heavyweights and past winners in the mix, along with a smattering of relative newcomers, with roles as diverse as a young cult escapee to one of the most iconic movie stars in history. Unlike with the actors, however, the festival season didn't shed much light, with most of the really big hitters still being kept under wraps for the moment. Nevertheless, things are starting to come into focus a bit more. Head after the jump for look at the Best Actress race as it stands right now.
We've been saying since the start of the year that two of the major threats in the category are both incarnations of famous figures, one by a relative newcomer, albeit one who's already managed two nominations, the other by a true titan. In the last decade, six of the winners in the category were playing real-life people (Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard and Sandra Bullock), so there's proven form, and on paper at least, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn" and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" seem to tick an awful lot of boxes.
Streep has sixteen Oscar nominations, but hasn't won since "Sophie's Choice" thirty years ago, so there's a feeling that she's overdue. Playing the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seems to follow the success that Mirren had with "The Queen" not so long ago, showing the more vulnerable side of a famously steely public figure. We've expressed doubts about the film in the past; "Mamma Mia" director Phyllida Lloyd did a poor job, cinematically speaking, on the ABBA musical, and the brief teaser that hit a few months back suggested a rather broad turn from Streep. Unless the film is really surprising, we suspect that she might be the bridesmaid again in terms of victory, but only a fool would suggest that she won't get a nomination.
Michelle Williams, meanwhile, is coming off a nod last year for "Blue Valentine," and taking on old Norma Jean in "My Week With Marilyn" is likely to appeal far more to voters than that emotionally raw picture, so she's certainly got a strong chance. The film won't be widely seen until it premieres at the New York Film Festival a week on Sunday, but it has been screened: Baz Bamigboye praises Williams to the sky today, and says she's "bound" for an Oscar nomination. It should be noted, however, that, while we love Baz, he did also like "W.E." The other thing to note is that The Weinstein Company are behind both this and "The Iron Lady," and if one looks like a likelier candidate than the other, they may not push them equally, so it could turn out to be an either/or situation.
One veteran whose film has been seen is Glenn Close, who doesn't just star in "Albert Nobbs," but also co-wrote it. It's been a real passion project, and the material, where she plays a 19th century Irish woman who's disguised herself as a man for much of her life, is the kind of thing that voters swoon over when it comes to performances. The performance has been universally praised, but the film less so, but that's not always an issue -- witness, say, Annette Bening in "Being Julia" a few years back. Roadside Attractions will have to work hard, but you know that Close will campaign hard, so it's a very good contender, and a possible winner, if it gets in. We'd originally pegged Viola Davis as supporting for "The Help," but she'll be campaigning as a lead, and she's absolutely a force to be reckoned with, particularly with a nomination already in the bag for "Doubt." She's the closest thing to a lock in the tough category.
There was some talk last year of a nomination for Noomi Rapace in "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," which never materialized, but we've always had a hunch about Rooney Mara in David Fincher's English-language remake, and this week's extended trailer hinted at a very impressive performance from the young actress. The transformation may not be as obvious as it might have been if a better known star had taken the part, but if she hits the circuit enough to remind voters that the boyish, pierced figure of Lisbeth Salander is the same pretty, wholesome girl from the beginning of "The Social Network," it could well do the trick, particularly if the film turns out to be popular; ingenues have better luck in the Actress race than up-and-coming actors. Speaking of those on the rise, Elizabeth Olsen's performance in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Jennifer Lawrence's nomination last year for "Winter's Bone," but with more competition, and Mara more likely in the "rising star" slot, our gut says that she'll miss out.
Charlize Theron in "Young Adult" is a very tricky one to call. The studio has confidence in the film, and there's no doubt that she'll get a heavy push, but from the script, the character is defiantly unsympathetic, and we feel that it'll turn a lot of voters off -- unsympathetic women always have a harder time with audiences than unsympathetic men. She's not to be counted out -- the word on the film is very good -- but however brave the performance might be, the tough category might mean trouble for Theron, even if she's proven popular with voters in the past. The "tough watch" factor may also be an issue for Tilda Swinton in "We Need To Talk About Kevin" -- she's, by all accounts, brilliant in the film, but it cuts deeper than many will be comfortable with, and while Oscilloscope managed to bag Woody Harrelson a nomination for "The Messenger" a few years back, this may be a harder fight.
Rachel Weisz has a similar problem; she's meant to be terrific in "The Deep Blue Sea," but the relatively small Music Box Films have the movie, and will probably be outspent by the bigger dogs. Sandra Bullock will have no such problem for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but we also suspect that, with so much competition, she might lean towards Supporting Actress consideration, and early buzz doesn't peg the film as particularly special.
Sony Pictures Classics has two big dogs in the fight; Keira Knightley in "A Dangerous Method" and Jodie Foster in "Carnage." We think that the former is unlikely; she's been derided for her bold, risky choices in the part by as many critics as have praised her, so despite her previous nomination, we don't think it's her year. She might end up jumping over to supporting (as we originally figured), but even there she's far from a certainty. Foster has a better chance, having emerged as the consensus candidate over co-star Kate Winslet, and Marcia Gay Harden won a Tony for the same part on stage. But we don't think it's quite showy enough, and the film wasn't particularly beloved by anyone who saw it in Venice (NYFF reactions have been more enthusiastic, for the most part).
Finally, two Brits have been mentioned on the fringes of the conversation, but look very unlikely to get further than that. Felicity Jones became a star after "Like Crazy" landed at Sundance, but it's a very young-skewing film, and she'll struggle to make any headway with voters. We're sure a nomination will come down the line for something, but it's not going to be this. Olivia Colman got astounding reviews for Paddy Considine's "Tyrannosaur" at the same festival, but relative minnows Strand Releasing have the film, and haven't even slated it for a release this year, so it's not going to happen. She's very likely to get a BAFTA nomination however, and could even be a dark horse winner there. In an ideal world, Juliette Binoche would be in the mix for "Certified Copy," but unfortunately Tyler Perry is more likely to get a Best Actress nomination. As it stands, our five predictions below. Next week: Supporting Actor and Actress.
Glenn Close -- "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis -- "The Help"
Rooney Mara -- "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"
Meryl Streep -- "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams -- "My Week With Marilyn"
1. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (5)
That trailer looks awful. Awful. But it also looks right in the 9/11 anniversary zeitgeist, and test screening reports this week suggest that it's gone down a storm. The Hanks/Bullock/Roth/Daldry/Rudin behemoth is nothing to be sniffed at either.
2. "The Artist" (=)
Post-festival season, the Weinsteins are basically going to the ground with this, which is probably the smart move, avoiding "Up in the Air" style over-exposure.
3. "War Horse" (1)
A second trailer for this one is set to arrive within the next week; the first was image heavy, but that should be a better indicator of whether this is "E.T." or "Amistad."
4. "The Descendants" (3)
NYFF press screenings suggest that the critical praise won't be totally unanimous, but this'll certainly end up among the final number.
5. "Moneyball" (4)
The film's opening was decent, without being spectacular, and audiences love it (it got an A Cinemascore), so it should hold on. But we wonder if, even with all the critical love, it might be forgotten for more significant-seeming pictures.
6. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (7)
A genuine phenomenon at the U.K. box office, which suggests it's far from the chilly critical favorite that some have painted it as. Could sequel talk cheapen it, though?
7. "Hugo" (8)
This is Paramount's biggest dog in the fight, and it was so expensive, and such a tricky sell, that chasing awards may be a good bet at making back its budget. The good buzz we mentioned last week helps.
8. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (8)
We suspect that this and "Tinker Tailor" are chasing the same slot, so to speak, and the other film is a better fit to the older crowd, but maybe Mara will help it surf on her wave.
9. "The Help" (13)
We've been cool on the chances here, and we still think it'll end up missing out, but plenty of other prognosticators rate it as a threat.
10. "Midnight In Paris" (6)
We keep feeling this is slipping down, particularly with "The Artist" and "The Help" both chasing that older crowd, with the same nostalgia factor. But it's also Sony Pictures Classic's biggest hope.
11. "The Ides of March" (=)
The film is starting to grab a few fervent supporters -- Kris Tapley at In Contention among them. But we still think it's unlikely to grab enough first choice votes, especially with a rival Clooney film around, and "Moneyball" and 'Dragon Tattoo' from the same studio.
12. "Young Adult" (10)
Another week gone by, another week with no trailer. It's not out 'til December, admittedly, but questions will start to be asked if it's not been glimpsed by next week, considering the film has screened to (heavily-embargoed) long-lead press already.
13. "My Week With Marilyn" (15)
While that early rave should be taken with a pinch of salt, as we said, it does make the film seem more substantial than we'd previously suspected. Maybe we've been underestimating it.
14. "J. Edgar" (12)
'Extremely Loud' stepping up for Warners seems to be another negative factor on this one, even if a TV spot did a better job at selling it than the trailer.
15. "50/50" (20)
One of the best reviewed films of the year, and should play well on screeners at home. Summit's best candidate as well. But, not tracking too well at the box office. Let's see how it does over the weekend.
16. "The Iron Lady" (14)
Still being kept close to the chest, which could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. The Weinsteins haven't even released a domestic trailer yet -- that could see it move up significantly.
17. "The Tree of Life" (16)
Still feeling like it's lost any momentum it once had, but if does well at the critic's awards, maybe it'll build up again.
18. "Contagion" (18)
Continues to be a solid box office performer, and lingering in the consciousness somewhat, but still principally a commercial film.
19. "The Wettest County" (17)
Is this coming out this year or what? It's still being kept quiet. If it does get a date in 2011, it probably means that "The Iron Lady" or 'Marilyn' have been given up on by The Weinsteins.
20. "The Adventures of Tintin" (-)
Have we been underestimating this? With no Pixar, and no real blockbusters, there are slots from the last few years empty, and it looks like Spielberg on top-class escapist form. But assuming "War Horse" doesn't disappoint, it's unlikely to happen; "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List" weren't nominated together, after all.