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Oscar Watch: Which Indie Outsiders Have a Shot at Best Actress?

by Anne Thompson
November 16, 2011 4:24 PM
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Ellen Barkin Stars in "Another Happy Day"

Last night I watched Ellen Barkin act her heart out in Sam Levinson's Sundance screenplay-winner "Another Happy Day" (Phase 4, November 18), which is saddled with an unfortunate generic title. At 57, Barkin has been around the block a few times, and while the movie opens with her two younger sons debating whether or not she is hot, the actress shows wear and tear, which never hurts with the Academy. In the movie, Barkin and her sons return to her family home for her older son's wedding, where her parents (Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy) seem to favor her ex-husband (Thomas Hayden Church) and his new wife (Demi Moore) over their own daughter. Her troubled teen is played by creepy Ezra Miller, who also tortures his mother Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Passed-down generational neurosis and dysfunction is the story here, and Barkin wallows in it.

Barkin joins Swinton (Oscilloscope's "We Need to Talk About Kevin"), Kirsten Dunst (Magnolia's "Melancholia"), Keira Knightley ("A Dangerous Method"), Gotham nominees Elizabeth Olsen (Fox Searchlight's "Martha Marcy May Marlene") and Felicity Jones (Paramount's "Like Crazy"), Michelle Yeoh (Cohen Media's "The Lady") and Mia Wasikowska (Focus Feature's "Jane Eyre") on the list of long-odds dark horse candidates vying for the fifth Best Actress slot. Crucial for these would-be contenders is who will win the New York and Los Angeles critics' best actress awards. A Gotham win and BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG and Indie Spirit nominations also wouldn't hurt.

While all these actresses are worthy, even highbrow critics will likely coalesce around one of four current frontrunners, all former nominees backed by seasoned Oscar campaigners with deep pockets. Viola Davis (DreamWorks/Disney's "The Help") leads the pack, followed by two Weinstein Co. candidates, Oscar perennial Meryl Streep (Weinstein Co's"The Iron Lady"), who is due for an Oscar win after 16 nominations, and 29 years since her second and only best actress win ("Sophie's Choice"), and Michelle Williams, who channels Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn." Rounding the turn is Glenn Close, making her movie comeback as crossdresser "Albert Nobbs" (Roadside Attractions). The question is, who scores that fifth spot?

With way more money to spend on Oscar campaigns than a micro-indie, Paramount is pushing young Brit Jones as well as bad-girl Charlize Theron in Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's "Young Adult," which could be too off-putting for senior Oscar voters. And falling into edgy genre territory--as did last year's "Black Swan"-- is David Fincher's big-budget adaptation "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," starring tattooed and pierced Rooney Mara, who is herself a new Academy voter. 

Still, if the critics were to go for someone outside the top four, who would it be? The most likely: a respected actress in a consensus quality title, say, OIsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (76 on Metacritic), or Cannes Best Actress winner Dunst in "Melancholia" (80 on Metacritic). While spendthrift Searchlight is relentlessly hawking Olsen, tightwad Magnolia will wait for a big win for Dunst before opening their wallets for a full-on Oscar campaign.


  • AMStar | November 28, 2011 8:03 PMReply

    While most of those movies have been released lately, what about Brit Marling in "Another Earth" from earlier this year. Her portrayal of a common, intelligent and hurt young woman carried the movie without being melodramatic. If you haven't seen this, check it out.

  • Oscar Cheat | November 28, 2011 2:30 AMReply

    Vanity Fair are a bunch of heartless jerks. How nice to promote the entitled wannabe actress that Terry Gilliam and Nicola Pecorini exposed for her relentless attacks on Heath Ledger compliments of her lawyers for sole custody.
    Michelle can't even master Marilyn Monroe's essence and flirtatious loving personality.
    She doesn't have any romantic qualities in her personality and it shows in this movie.
    How hard is it to rent a Marilyn Monroe movie and soak yourself in it so much that you become
    her. Isn't that what being an actress means? I guess Michelle has her own definition of it and of course the rest of us are supposed to consider her for another undeserved oscar nomination

  • Eddie Lee | November 24, 2011 3:14 PMReply

    The most overlooked performance by an actress so far, in My opinion, is that of Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground.

  • bambam | November 23, 2011 11:25 PMReply

    i think the nominees will be
    tilda swinton
    elizabeth olsen
    kirstin dunst
    michelle williams
    and either glen close or meryl streep.

    i think viola davis will get a supporting nom and that will give her a better chance at winning. wherever davis gets the nomination, and she will get nominated -- the help is this year's "crash" and "liberal white guilt" balm.

    tilda should win for her amazing acting and plus her body of work (of course the nomination is often for your whole body of work) even though she's one already.

    williams could win because it seems like she truly nails the character, and academy rewards biopic acting. anyone who could successfully inhabit monroe would be a shoo in.

    dunst won't win probably, because even though she's a great actress, she's still got a huge career in front of her. plus the von trier nazi thing. hopefully this will be the first in a string of nominations to be eventually capped with a win. she's really done her best work and she survived a von trier movie and a von trier controversy.

    olsen is a revelation, and has the big outsider card, but if she would be the winner, then swinton acted circles around her and there is no competition.

    glen close could pull this one off, she's got five nominations and no win. if this is the list, then she probably will win due to her insider status.

    while i love meryl, i say don't nominate her unless she is a lock to win. she should have won for devil wears prada, honestly! so she might actually not get nominated for this. she doesn't completely transform.

    if viola davis is nominated for actress, she should probably win. i still think she will get her best supporting actress oscar.

  • DomizianoA | November 23, 2011 11:48 AMReply

    Oy Vey! I just say: Why don't we finally go with greatest performances, and not,instead 'the same faces'.. Those who come with an Oscar's aura since the beginning of their careers!
    And by that, I don't mean that a great performance cannot be given by a 57, or even a 77 years old! Was touched when Hal Holbrook was nominated,for example, and rightly so, for his turn in "Into the wild"!
    Age is not an issue here: respect for the true artists, and their achievements, stands definitely out, as the better rule,although,again,even Picasso, had a few 'less mesmerizing moments', and so is Meryl Streep,or a few others 'great ones' who have not truly shined this year!
    So, I just hope all the Oscar nominees will be big surprises,at least for the most, bringing audiences to explore also, some greater,personal films with excellent work "this year" ,and, not the usual suspects dealing with politics,studio campaigns and a certain God, called money.

  • Eyan Stomper | November 23, 2011 10:16 AMReply

    I think Olivia Coleman for her blistering performance in Tyrannousaur definitely deserves an Oscar nod - she was incredible. Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Kevin too!

  • fergusontx | November 23, 2011 8:04 AMReply

    Maybe this year we won't be subjected to pundit blathering in regards to the dearth of quality female roles in Hollywood. There are at least 10 Oscar worthy performances for a lead actress. I certainly can't come up with that number for the 2011 boys.

  • Simon | November 17, 2011 2:01 PMReply

    I cross my fingers for the best female performance of the year! I cross my fingers for the phenomenal Mrs. Kirsten Dunst in one of the years best movies in Melancholia! Please give her this golden guy! What a perfomance alongside with Charlotte Gainsbourg!

  • desmond palmer | November 16, 2011 11:01 PMReply

    Liana Liberato in the little seen Trust. Simply amazing for a first timer.

  • Meghann | November 16, 2011 9:24 PMReply

    Jessica Chastain!!!

  • JR | November 16, 2011 8:38 PMReply

    Oops, forgot about Olivia Colman for Tyrannosaur - what is the thought there? Supporting? Felt an awful lot like a lead performance, along the lines of Viola Davis in The Help...

  • JR | November 16, 2011 8:30 PMReply

    Gotta be Dunst...but I love Mia W. in Jane Eyre, just seems like forever ago...

  • Greg | November 16, 2011 8:25 PMReply

    Its a darn shame I'm not seeing Felicity Jones' name here for Like Crazy. I thought it was a star making performance. And if I know anything about the Academy is that they love a young, beautiful ingenue. If only her character had a dibilitating illness...

  • Cimone | November 19, 2011 1:45 PM

    Her name is there for "Like Crazy", though. Look in the third line of the second paragraph.

  • Kamil | November 16, 2011 8:08 PMReply

    It's going to be Kirsten Dunst, I just know it.

  • Pat | November 16, 2011 8:07 PMReply

    It's a shame that everybody-at least in the press-forgot about Vera Farmiga in "Higher Ground" arguably my pick for the Best Film I've seen this year. She not only directs the film, but she portrays a woman who is doing the best she can to maintain her place in her community and her church while struggling with some serious questions of faith. I've only seen her in 4 films ("The Departed", "Up In The Air", "Source Code" and "Higher Ground"). I would jump for joy if she got nominated for her direction, but especially for her performance.

  • M | November 16, 2011 7:55 PMReply

    I hope it will be Barkin . I haven`t seen the movie but she`s great actress and given her recent Tony winning it looks like people really like & respect her. And she still looks like herself and can move her face. One thing that i don`t understand is, why the hell is Meryl overdue for Oscar ? Really ?!! She has two! Glenn Close has none! All those oscar blogs are creating fake buzz which too many times end up like this - OSCAR WINNER SANDRA BULLOCK!

  • G Downs | November 16, 2011 7:33 PMReply

    having seen "young adult" Charlize didn't do a whole lot for me. it was a good movie, but I wouldn't say her performance was oscar worthy.

    I would hope Dunst picks up a nod for Meloncholia.

  • Ronnie d. | November 16, 2011 6:20 PMReply


    Please don't let Meryl Streep get nominated again, especially with the harsh critiques her performance has been getting from former British officials.

    Sincerely, Person who doesn't believe an actress should be nominated just because of her name.

  • Ronnie d. | November 16, 2011 6:16 PMReply

    In the picture, she looks like an old and ugly Cameron Diaz who's also had considerable plastic surgery (botox especially).

  • Angelina | November 16, 2011 5:53 PMReply

    Why do sooo many of us, including most film critics, have to buy into the meme/mythology that a woman shows "wear and tear" at age 57? What does that mean, anyway? That's she's no longer 25 and should apologize for daring to play a lead in a movie, indie or not? This would never happen in Europe. We buy into our own ageist oppression here, particularly the media.

  • Tiki | November 16, 2011 5:44 PMReply

    It will be Theron. No brainer. Have you seen Young Adult, Anne? She gives one of the most fierce, striking, powerful performances of the year. And that's being said having seen all of the above mentioned films, with an exception of 'The Iron Lady' of course. Theron is an Oscar winner with the A-list status, respect within the Academy factor, and knows how to navigate the campaign trail. She's done it twice before, and she will surely do it again.

    I do think it is unfair that you made no mention of Felicity Jones work in 'Like Crazy'. She belongs on the list of dark horses (I know you only mentioned some, but hello- move over, Michelle Yeoh). After all, she's one of the reigning "it" girls this year alongside the splendid Elizabeth Olsen (who I WISH and HOPE can overtake Glenn Close's spot... Albert Nobbs is such a snoozefest).

  • Anne Thompson | November 17, 2011 2:33 PM

    I added Felicity Jones because she is nominated for a Gotham, and if she wins that, maybe she has a shot, but honestly, it's a long one. I haven't seen Young Adult yet, looking forward.

  • Jack | November 16, 2011 5:16 PMReply

    I'd find it hard to believe that critics would go for any of those other actresses over Tilda Swinton. Kirsten Dunst has barely been getting main notices from even critics who praise the film (not that all of them do), and Elizabeth Olsen would be more likely to get breakthrough notices (though MMMM's reviews were surprisingly underwhelming as well). Even if Kevin proves to be critically divisive, which is still a question mark, I don't think many doubt Tilda's performance in it. And considering the raves in the UK and strong arthouse box office performance there (and her own stature among the voters) it seems likely that she'll have a BAFTA nomination on top of that. I'm not sure if Kevin's considered a British or American film by the Independent Spirit Awards' standards but the Golden Globes at least respect her as well, having nominated her for The Deep End (tortured mother role in a dark micro-indie helloooo) before mainstream Hollywood had taken notice of her.

    By the way, Kirsten Dunst did not win the Palme D'Or award. That's a different prize. ;)

  • Anne Thompson | November 17, 2011 2:34 PM

    Yes, Kirsten Dunst won the best actress Palme at Cannes. The Palme d'Or is of course the biggest prize.

  • Myles | November 17, 2011 11:24 AM

    You make the argument that even if critics are divided over Kevin, not many will doubt Tilda's performance. I think you can say the same thing about Olsen - I've yet to see her get a poor review, and I still stand by that MMMM is far from underwhelming. The 5th slot will be an interesting one indeed....!

  • Jack | November 17, 2011 10:24 AM

    I loved MMMM, but that 75 on metacritic is hardly good news for Olsen's fate on the critics' circuit. And the Julia/I Am Love snubs are SUCH red herrings, neither of those films had nearly the exposure or were as on the radar as Kevin is, nor was she frankly as good as them and this is a much better film.

  • Myles | November 17, 2011 9:59 AM

    What reviews for MMMM have you been reading? It's holding steady at an 88 with RT, 75 with MC, and 92 with BFCA.....
    And as much as I love Tilda and think she deserves it, she has had two very substantial snubs in past years, so sadly, I can find it very easy to believe that critics would go for other actresses.

  • Mike | November 16, 2011 8:07 PM

    Great analysis, Jack. I agree, Swinton's performance will stand out no matter how critics receive that film. I've never been a huge fan of hers, but I was captivated with her in that film from the very beginning. Dunst gave her personal best performance by a mile, but when you put it up against Swinton or Olsen's performances it doesn't quite match up.

    Either way, this is THE most competitive category this year by a mile. I can't even name 3 male performances that equaled some of the female talent this year.

  • Christine | November 16, 2011 4:50 PMReply

    hmm..interesting. I think Dunst deserves that last spot. She might not have ads and stuff from Magnolia but she's out there doing the press and interviews. she's got connections I'm sure she can use to help get publicity. I also agree that Glenn, Meryl, Michelle and Viola are locks from now until precursors.

  • Jay | November 23, 2011 11:23 PM

    I hope the P.S. in your last post is in reference to you being either pissed drunk or properly stupid.

  • Christine | November 16, 2011 4:51 PM

    P.S Glad you liked Barkin, she's in the race if only because she can play her Jew and overdue card ;)

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