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It's always a risky thing to say this before most of the movies have been released, but let's be honest: the Best Actress race this year looks pretty...lacking. Particularly after last year when names like Dench, Streep, Blanchett, Thompson, and Bullock, five former winners, were at the top of almost everyone's list (it's worth noting, not necessarily on the top of AMPAS's-thank you Amy Adams)-this year we have a lot more newcomers in the field, and don't have the clear passion for the performers and performances in the same way cinephiles seemed to last year.
has not helped matters...it says something that up until now that's the only time I've used the Reese Witherspoon tag on this blog despite her once being a Box Office powerhouse and is a former Oscar winner). This means that she is clearly going to want Wild to succeed, and considering the biopic angle, the fact that she's in need of a comeback (and Hollywood adores her), and that this is a weaker than average year, I suspect she's going to get it. It'll help, of course, if she's able to carry a film that will be almost exclusively on her in a way that 127 Hours was on James Franco (which worked out well for him with AMPAS).
There's almost always a couple of names from last year in the mix again this year (Oscar tends to like their actors in streaks, though occasionally for quite a bit longer), and both Amy Adams and Meryl Streep are in the conversation again this year. Adams has the showier role as artist Margaret Keane, and there's a lot of buzz surrounding her perofrmance in Tim Burton's first film without Johnny Depp in eons (oddly and sadly for Johnny, it seems to be his best-looking live action film in eons, so maybe he should reconsider how he picks his scripts). It's worth noting that Adams is about to hit Glenn Close territory if she gets nominated again and doesn't win (Close, Thelma Ritter, and Deborah Kerr are all tied for most nominations without a win at six, which Big Eyes would be for Adams), a list which the Academy may want to avoid adding to, so this could be a serious contender for the win if she gets nominated.
Meryl is always a part of the conversation, though is the Academy ever going to get fatigued with her like they do every other performer (even Jack missed for The Departed)? August Osage seemed like the kind of role everyone gets nominated for, but playing the Witch in Into the Woods (which won Vanessa Williams her Tony nomination in the revival of the show) may be a similar sort of role. Meryl almost always gets in in a year where AMPAS is searching for nominations (1994 is the lone exception here, and I'm positive she was in sixth place then), so if this year doesn't pick up expect to see her name.
An actress considerably younger than those age ranges who has hit superstardom this year would be Shailene Woodley, who is in the hunt for her first Oscar nomination (it always seems like she was nominated for The Descendants, but she was the odd-woman out that year). In a year where she led the Box Office hit Divergent and then followed it with the Box Office hit The Fault in Our Stars, she's certainly going to be asked to present at the Oscars in hopes of attracting younger viewers. My gut says that she could well be in the conversation as a "welcome to the club" sort of invitation for Fault, though youth-oriented films are a hard sell with AMPAS and she's going to need the year to remain pretty skimpy in terms of potential nominees (lining up another prestige drama in the next few months would help her out, I think, in terms of a "we can't be the last to recognize her" sort of thought process).
The other thing to consider when it comes to weak years (again, I hope I'm wrong about this) is that they tend to rely on former winners and nominees in such circumstances to keep the prestige alive, even if the former winners are in less exciting or less tradtional performances. Maggie Smith in the My Old Lady trailers seems to be able to do this her sleep, but she's an AMPAS favorite who just missed a couple of years ago for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, so who knows? Hilary Swank could also be in the conversation again for The Homesman, which got underwhelming reviews at Cannes but could still stage a comeback. Julianne Moore's weird campaign for Maps to the Stars (where they're hoping that campaigning for SAG and the Globes and skipping an AMPAS campaign doesn't cost them-a risky move) may pay off for her because of her fame and level of love with AMPAS, but this is a question mark of lead versus supporting (Felicity Jones, for example, I currently have in supporting but may see a better shot in lead and go for it there). Even someone like Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey) or Marion Cotillard (The Two Faces of January) may become part of the conversation if some of the above women don't pay-off. And then there's Michelle Williams, whose Suite Francaise could put her back in the conversation for Best Actress (and a fourth nomination), but the Weinsteins haven't given her a release date and they may be reluctant to have too many competitors again after last year's debacle with The Butler (they've also got The Imitation Game and Big Eyes on their plates, and both seem more promising).
Finally there is Jessica Chastain, who is proving pretty greedy this year with three contenders for a nomination. Each of those roles, however, have a major question mark. A Most Violent Year could end up going supporting with Oscar Isaac as the assured lead. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby may seem too out-there or independent to click with AMPAS voters. And Miss Julie doesn't have a stateside release date and isn't the sort of film that will fare well in a one-week qualifier (it needs an October release date to breathe a bit-see also Coriolanus). Any of these three could get Chastain, a major star at this point with Oscar, a citation, but at this point I'm not sure which one.
My Predictions: It would seem foolish to discount Adams, Pike, and Witherspoon at this juncture, as all three are on the top of everyone's list, and that matters in a weaker year. Meryl Streep nearly always gets nominated, but there is a serious question on whether Rob Marshall (who has not been strong since Chicago with his Oscar game) can actually make another well-received musical. I'm going to skip her for now and say that Maggie Smith gets the "we love her" nomination for now, in my riskiest of the five predictions (she hasn't been nominated in twelve years and has enjoyed oddly the most successful stage of her career financially in the past decade so this would be a great topper to that). For the final nod, with Chastain headed every which way and Swank (my dark horse contender) still under the Cannes-cloud with her film, I'm going to guess Woodley. It may seem silly or brilliant in hindsight, but occasionally they give out "welcome to the club" nominations for more mainstream actresses (think of someone like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids), and this could be an example of that.
Is there a winner?: When you don't know who the actual nominees are, predicting a winner is a fool's errand, but there are a couple of narratives that look promising. AMPAS loves a comeback, which could help Reese who clearly wants a second trophy to jump start a new phase in her career. Amy Adams has enjoyed an intense amount of success with AMPAS and seems about ready to hit that period of semi-retirement that many actresses (whether by choice or by sexism) hit in their forties (look at her IMDB page for evidence)-they may want to cap that streak off with a win ala Susan Sarandon or Susan Hayward. And if the film is a major hit, Rosamund Pike could win on her first try (which is a lot less en vogue than it used to be, but is still a possibility in Best Actress). Right now there doesn't seem to be another actress that could make a run for the trophy, though I do still feel that Hilary Swank may be being underestimated by pundits.
Those are my thoughts-how about yours? Which of these women will factor into the Oscar race? Does anyone feel like a winner this far out? What names are missing? And most importantly, which performance looks the best from this distance? Share in the comments!