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Open Up the Best Actress Oscar Race: Five Locks and Eight Must-See Performances

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 5, 2013 at 3:40PM

As usual, there are more viable men hustling after a Best Actor slot than women in contention for Best Actress. (My current predictions are here.) 'Twas ever thus, as the myopic film industry continues to chase the male demo and sequester "soft" relationship movies to the indie realm. Which means that many worthy films don't make it to the top of Academy voters' screener piles. How many film panels and Q & As have you seen with a row of men in suits and one woman in a frilly frock and impossibly high heels? Women in film are often a supporting afterthought.
9
'Gravity'
'Gravity'
Cate Blanchett in 'Blue Jasmine'
Cate Blanchett in 'Blue Jasmine'

As usual, there are more viable men hustling after a Best Actor slot than women in contention for Best Actress. (My current predictions are here.) 'Twas ever thus, as the myopic film industry continues to chase the male demo and sequester "soft" relationship movies to the indie realm. Which means that many worthy films don't make it to the top of Academy voters' screener piles. How many film panels and Q & As have you seen with a row of men in suits and one woman in a frilly frock and impossibly high heels? Women in film are often a supporting afterthought. 

Yes, Sandra Bullock and New York Film Critics Circle winner Cate Blanchett are welcome locks in the Best Actress Oscar race. And it will be a close one. No one is likely to catch up with them, not even Meryl Streep, who will likely grab a nomination for her fierce Bad Mom in John Wells and Tracy Letts' actor-friendly "August: Osage County," or Dame Judi Dench, who has earned raves for her role as a woman who gave up her son for adoption in Stephen Frears' real-life heart-tugger "Philomena." 

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'

Both Oscar perennials seem to have sure-fire slots in this race, but do they really give the best performances of their careers? Recent winner Streep (2011's "The Iron Lady") is arguably over-the-top, while six-time nominee Dench, who has only won one supporting Oscar ("Shakespeare in Love"), is admirably muted as a woman searching for her long lost son. Both are playing older women to whom the Academy actors branch can relate.

Bullock deserves kudos for probably being the only woman working in Hollywood today who could have pulled off the discipline of training and execution of "Gravity"'s precise choreography--with an emotionally compelling performance on top. She's also a popular industry insider who is beloved by her peers and crews. But she has already recently won the Best Actress Oscar (2009's "The Blind Side"). 

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks

But people tend to take Bullock a bit for granted, to underappreciate her stardom (was Melissa McCarthy really the only reason that "The Heat" was a summer smash?). Bullock's secret weapon: she's close pals with Warner Bros. co-president/marketing genius Sue Kroll, who will move mountains to make sure she takes home the win. 

Blanchett delivers one of the great performances of any year in "Blue Jasmine" as a contemporary hard-swilling Blanche DuBois on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And while Woody Allen wrote the role (without admitting any credit due to Tennessee Williams), he essentially abandoned Blanchett, as he does all his actors. She was on her own, which actors recognize as a degree of difficulty. Like Daniel Day Lewis in "Lincoln," she molds a character that is bigger than the movie that contains it. 

Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County"
Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County"

The Australian actress, who recently left her other job running a Sydney theater company, is a respected and admired Master Thespian who also took home a gold man, for her supporting role as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." But she has not won in the Best Actress category. The challenge for Sony Pictures Classics is to keep the summer hit fresh and in the forefront of people's minds so that it does not feel like old news. That's where the year-end critics come in--the more wins she racks up, the more momentum behind her.

Coming up fresh on the outside is smart-as-a-whip comedienne Emma Thompson as "Mary Poppins" author P.J. Travers in late-December entry "Saving Mr. Banks"; she won Best Actress from the National Board of Review. The adapted screenplay Oscar-winner ("Sense and Sensibility") and Best Actress winner ("Howards' End") is the best thing in the John Lee Hancock movie that recreates the battle of wills between Travers and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) during the making of the musical classic based on her character. Thompson is pitch-perfect as she plays a tough-as-nails, sad, lonely, powerful woman whose heart must melt by film's end. It does. 

These five would seem to have Best Actress slots nailed down. But who else should the Academy check out in order to bring in some new blood into contention? I have eight performances to suggest.

This article is related to: Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Brie Larson, Hunger Games: Catching Fire , American Hustle, Philomena, August: Osage County, Gravity, Gravity, Sandra Bullock, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Julie Delpy, Julie Delpy, Blue Jasmine, Judi Dench, Before Midnight, Awards, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Oscars


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.