Recent nominees Helen Hunt, Julia Roberts, and Hailee Steinfeld can all agree that getting a nomination is easier if you lie about your role in the film, and despite appearing in a vast majority of their most-recent Oscar-blessed movies, all three of these women scored dubious nominations for their "supporting" work onscreen (Roberts in particular still sticks in my craw since she's in more scenes than Streep who did go lead, gets the final scene, and is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and could well have gained a lead nomination if she wanted to, letting the likes of her costars Margo Martindale and Julianne Nicholson maybe have a huge career boost from such a citation). This year seems more than open season for potential category fraud, with the likes of Ellen Page (Freeheld), Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett (Carol), and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) all oddly positioned to go either lead or supporting, though critics say they should all be competing in the lead race. Blanchett has a bit of a history with going supporting when she shouldn't (she had nothing to say about such a thing when she did it for Notes on a Scandal), and no film has been nominated twice for Best Actress since Thelma & Louise in 1991 so Carol in particular seems susceptible to fraud. While I'd love for some campaign to say "screw it" and shoot for the stars (trust me, it would be far better for press for a film like Carol if both Mara and Blanchett were competing against each other in lead, and probably help them much more in gaining actual votes because of the "competition" angle), I'm doubtful. The question is which of these women decide to go supporting. In the case of Vikander in particular, this could be a make-or-break moment for women like Kate Winslet, Rachel McAdams, and Jennifer Jason Leigh who are going to be making a play to actually win the supporting trophy (Vikander would start out with a huge advantage considering her film's buzz and the year she's had). It's also worth noting that a confusing campaign could hurt these women (look at Scarlett Johansson's big miss in 2003) or the Academy could ignore it (Keisha Castle-Hughes and Kate Winslet in The Reader comes to mind).
2. Which Cate do we pick?
Assuming that Blanchett doesn't go supporting for Carol, the Academy is left with its biggest conundrum in this category since perhaps 2001, as Blanchett will have two films that are in contention, not just one. Both Carol and Truth are star vehicles for Blanchett, who is probably due for an afterglow nomination after her major triumph in Blue Jasmine, but she could end up missing for both because of vote-splitting. It's worth noting that in 2001 Nicole Kidman was skipped at the SAG Awards for her work in both Moulin Rouge! and The Others, and many people thought that Tilda Swinton or Nia Vardalos might earn a nomination by technicality as Kidman had active campaigns for both films potentially splitting her support. While Kidman ended up with her first nomination that year, Scarlett Johansson wasn't so lucky two years later. Blanchett could try the route employed by Kate Winslet in 2008 (pushing one to supporting), but that still only resulted in one nomination for The Reader as the Academy refused such nonsense. How Blanchett's campaign pans out could play a major role in whether she gets to the Final Five either in lead or supporting (or both).
I can't tell right now whether or not the public is sick of J. Law-it's hard to know, though it's been a while since we have had a movie star that demanded this kind of polarized reactions. Still, this could be a big moment for the Academy as Joy is clearly designed to continue Russell's amazing consecutive run of Best Picture nominees, and Lawrence could make history as the youngest actor to score four nominations, besting Jennifer Jones. The question is whether or not this will work for her-if the slight stench coming off the X-Men and Hunger Games franchises (diminishing returns, both commercially and critically) hurts her, she could be in for a surprise snub. However if she continues to be the star of the moment, it feels like Joy will be yet another chance to reward her (perhaps even with a second trophy).
4. Will the Buzz Translate?
Right now there are four actresses who are clearly critical favorites but who have not had their Oscar moment that could potentially change all that in a few months (again, remember that we don't really have a frontrunner quite yet). Brie Larson (Room), Emily Blunt (Sicario), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), and Carey Mulligan (Suffragette) have not won much in terms of hardware (and only the latter two have scored with the Oscars), but they're all in positions in their career where a nomination could happen, and all have strong reviews coming out of their respective film festivals. The question here is what happens as a result of that. People can go from festival buzz all the way to the Kodak (look at Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone or Gabourey Sidibe in Precious) or they can be completely forgotten like Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy Mae Marlene. The campaigns for these actresses, as well as public reaction to their relatively small films will be critical, but I would be stunned if 1-2 didn't end up in contention later this year.
Occasionally Oscar gets a little nostalgic or repetitive, and decides it must have a certain former winner back in the fold for whatever reason. In 2009, despite Emily Blunt making far more sense on paper (up-and-comer, real-life person, never honored, Globe nominee in Drama) for The Young Victoria, the Academy decided that it must have Helen Mirren randomly nominated for The Last Station, a nomination I am guessing even Mirren herself forgets happened. Marion Cotillard last year trumped Jennifer Aniston for a similar sort of situation, though here she at least had better reviews. The question becomes which "longshot" former winner might be invited back for another round in the fifth slot? I am not counting Blanchett and Lawrence here since they seem more-than-likely to be in the conversation regardless and fifth-slots never actually win the trophy (which both of these women seem like strong possibilities to do), but instead Sandra Bullock (Our Brand is Crisis), Julianne Moore (Freeheld), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and even Cotillard again for Macbeth. Bullock probably has the best shot considering the prestige behind her project (from the men who brought you Argo), but any of these women could theoretically make it if they get good enough reviews and Oscar's feeling it. And then of course it's always unwise to totally discount Meryl Streep, whose work in Ricki and the Flash was light, but then again so was her performance in Music of the Heart and that still got through.
6. Will Anyone Get an "It's Time" Nomination?
One of the sadder things about the Best Actress race is that, unlike the Best Actor field where the likes of Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, and Frank Langella all managed to score late-in-their-career "you should have been an Oscar nominee by now" sorts of nominations, the Best Actress field rarely does this, going instead for the tried-and-true former winners/nominees and the PYT's. This year, however, three women could be looking at their very first trophy, two of them their very first nomination. Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and Blythe Danner (I'll See You in My Dreams) all three have gotten plaudits from festivals and critics, and in the case of Danner she even got a bonafide hit. If they were men with the careers they had, we'd likely be pushing them hard for nominations, but this year is ultra competitive and this category isn't as kind to "career achievement" style first nominations. I suspect that all three will get pushes from their studios, but the question is will any of them catch fire? Tomlin in particular has been having a major career moment what with the Kennedy Center Honor and a recent TV series/Emmy nomination. Part of me wonders if she might actually be able to win the thing, if she can land the nomination.
And there you have it folks-the six biggest questions for this year's Best Actress race. What are your answers to these questions and what five women seem most likely to succeed? Share your thoughts below!