It is all too easy at this late point in the Oscar season to only focus on the shifting standings in the 24 categories and to ignore the big picture of what this collection of contenders actually says about the state of moviemaking.
But with the big night looming on March 2, now is the perfect time to pause and simply appreciate the 10 amazing women who are competing for the lead and supporting actress prizes, as well as to applaud them for representing such a diverse lineup -- one that would surely have been considered among the best of the best in any Hollywood era.
Who better to reflect on the depth of their greatness than Jeanine Basinger, esteemed film historian, author and the head of film studies at Wesleyan University, who has always made it a priority to study the treatment and depiction of women in cinema? (Incidentally, she has a must-read review in the current New York Review of Books of two new biographies -- about Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck, respectively -- that includes fascinating details about how their lives and careers intertwined.)
"One of the things I find so interesting is the variety here," says Basinger, as she ponders the field. "There are some wonderful things, like having a star like Julia Roberts compete in a supporting role and an 80-something actress like June Squibb being treated like a newcomer. There is the inevitable Meryl Streep. They have to have her, I guess, or it would not count -- too bad it wasn't Emma Thompson (for Saving Mr. Banks) instead. But there is a very wide age range. Women of color, British, Australian and American."
Ultimately, this group representing the top female performances of 2013 is primarily being celebrated for the talent they bring to the table, not any of the usual extraneous reasons. As Basinger says, "It's not about stardom, not about beauty, not about goodness, not about persona, not about discovering radium," like Greer Garson in Madame Curie. "Their femaleness is what matters."
Not that the roles in the mostly year-end films recognized by the Academy Awards make up for the sorry dearth of demanding parts and compelling stories for and about women the rest of the year.
"We have gotten our hopes up before," warns Basinger. "Especially when you see a film like Philomena, the kind of rich female role that would have been produced in the thirties, forties, and fiftiess. They aren't made much anymore."
Still, it is worthwhile to step back and assess each of the actresses who did their part last year to show what movies can achieve when they do allow women to be front and center.
Adds Basinger, "No one is playing a simple female here. No one is playing a standard woman." Here is what she thinks about each of the 10 nominees:
Amy Adams, 39, as con artist Sydney Prossner/Lady Edith Greensley in American Hustle. Five nominations total, including previous supporting nods for Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), The Fighter (2010) and The Master (2012).
Basinger: "This is the role that makes us aware that Adams is a leading actress. It gives us the Amy Adams we have not seen before, one who can carry a big performance throughout a film. It is surprising to realize how regularly she gets a nomination. She is like the junior Meryl Streep. What is lying ahead is one nomination after another. She is a solid dark horse this year."
Cate Blanchett, 44, as Jasmine, a Manhattan socialite in the midst of psychological meltdown in Blue Jasmine. Six nominations total, including a supporting win for 2004's The Aviator.
Basinger: "She is at the top of her game and the only good thing in the movie, as far as I am concerned. She is discerning in the roles she takes. She tries for variety and doesn't get the credit she deserves for the roles she chooses. She is the Paul Muni of women, the Laurence Olivier, creating characters from the ground up. She doesn't let them become Cate Blanchett characters. She blurs in our minds for a good reason. She doesn't present herself. She presents her characters."
Sandra Bullock, 49, as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut stranded in outer space in Gravity. Two nominations total, including a lead win for 2009's The Blind Side.
Basinger: "Sandra is a triumph of hard work and talent over the limitations that people would impose on her. She has proven she can do everything from A to Z. How can you say what a Sandra Bullock role is when she does The Heat and Gravity in the same year? Audiences like her and are willing to accept her in a variety of guises. It makes you believe she is a real star now."
Judi Dench, 79, as Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who searches for the out-of-wedlock child she gave up for adoption as a teen in Philomena. Seven nominations total, including a supporting win for 1998's Shakespeare in Love.
Basinger: "She is a phenomenal actress. She has that mysterious thing that the British have. No matter what she does, she is fantastic. She is never going to let you down. She is the complete actor."
Meryl Streep, 64, as Violet Weston, an ailing pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan in August: Osage County. Eighteen nominations total, including a supporting win for 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, and lead wins for 1981's Sophie's Choice and 2011's The Iron Lady.
Basinger: "Sigh. Can we move on? It's kind of like, if Meryl is in a role, then we must nominate her. If we don't, it must be wrong. I think this was more of a caricature than a performance. Fine, fine... whatever."
Sally Hawkins, 37, as Ginger, a working-class single mother who opens her home to her unstable high-maintenance sister in Blue Jasmine. First nomination.
Basinger: "She is solid. Some saw her in Happy-Go-Lucky, but we don't know enough about her. What we do know is that she is really good, but she is not going to win. It is the one name on this list that we can't remember. She is good, though, and has plenty more to show us in the future. But she is overshadowed by the film's other female performance."
Jennifer Lawrence, 23, as Rosalyn, a temperamental homemaker and unpredictable wife of an unfaithful con artist husband in American Hustle. Three nominations total, including a lead win for 2012's Silver Linings Playbook.
Basinger: "She is a spectacularly good actress off to an amazing start. She could give Meryl Streep a run, coming out of the box with all these nominations. There is way more variety in her. It is exciting to see her give a showy performance and pull it off."
Lupita Nyong'o, 33, as Patsey, a slave besieged by physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of her sadistic owner and his cruel, jealous wife in 12 Years a Slave. First nomination.
Basinger: "For me, she was the best thing in the movie. Here is a newcomer we have never seen before. We are dealing only with her character and she, more than anyone, becomes her character. She had an advantage. Did she rise to it and fulfill her character? Yes, she did a beautiful performance as a newcomer -- much like seeing Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. She is so unique. I hope she wins -- although she has already won the red carpet. And that is important, given how these awards shows are presented."
Julia Roberts, 46, as Barbara, who is trying to cope with a cheating husband, a precocious adolescent daughter and a sickly addict mother whose hobby is verbally lashing out at her loved ones in August: Osage County. Four nominations total, including one lead win for 2000's Erin Brockovich.
Basinger: "The interesting thing is, her career seemed to be over. And this huge star no one wants to see comes back in this. You almost have to take her anew, take her all over again. She is not Julia Roberts anymore. There is more to her than we thought. If she is going to continue in movies, this is the way to go. Her days of being that other kind of Julia are past."
June Squibb, 84, as Kate Grant, a heartland wife and mother who offers tough love to her flawed husband and sons while indulging in some rather salty language now and then in Nebraska.
Basinger: "I know that woman. I grew up in the Midwest and she is it. She is amazing. She understands that character. When you look at her, she is an authentic example of the flora and fauna of the American Midwestern prairie. It is a flawless performance. To have this 84-year-old woman come out of nowhere is fantastic. It makes you realize how much talent there is. She is giving you truth in that role."