Oscar Breakdown: Best Actress in a Leading Role

This article is part of our Oscar Week Series, where you will find breakdowns and predictions for all of the major categories.

Some of you might be confused as to what the Best Actress category is exactly. Don’t worry; it’s easy enough to explain. You see, Best Actress is just like the award for Best Actor, except it’s for people with lady parts only. Why there needs to be a gender distinction when it comes to giving out awards for acting performances is beyond me. Is there something inherent in one of the genders that would give them the edge when it comes to acting? Or maybe this is a relic of an older Hollywood where all of the really meaty roles were written for men and actresses didn’t have much more to do than be the object of affection? I think we’re past that point now. I would argue not just that female actors put out work equal to male actors in 2010, but also that they were on the whole given more interesting characters to play. I say that this is the year where we need to band together and call for the end of award discrimination. Who’s with me?

Maybe you should look over the nominees first. They are as follows, with my winner prediction in red.

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

Why She Was Nominated: In a film designed to showcase performances, and one full of amazing actors, Bening stood out and wowed. Her uptight mother was a difficult character to play. For much of the film she has to be the party-pooper. While everyone else is having a good time, bonding, and growing as people; she is feeling threatened. She is lashing out, she is being controlling, and sometimes she’s even being petty. A lesser actress wouldn’t have been able to overcome being written into that corner and would have made the character look like nothing other than a shrew.

Bening is able to overcome the odds and keep you with her until the very end of the film. She grounds her performance in her character’s motivations and she injects her with just the right amount of vulnerability so that you can sympathize with her and root for her. Without that element The Kids Are All Right wouldn’t have been nearly as nuanced, interesting, or successful. When Bening is feeling it she is really one of cinema’s treasures.

Why She Might Win: She’s Annette Bening. She’s not quite at Meryl Streep levels yet, but if she does something of weight she’s pretty much going to get a nomination. This is the fourth time she’s been nominated and I’m sure Oscar enthusiasts are starting to get pretty antsy about seeing her take home a statue. After four nominations it’s going to just be a matter of time before Bening is given one of those lifetime achievement “sorry about all those snubs” Oscars. This could be her year. If it’s not, then next time she’s nominated almost certainly will be.

Why She Might Not Win: She’s Annette Bening. She always gets nominated and doesn’t win. At this point her career has already been made and her legacy is already in place. There is no real statement to be made by giving her an Oscar other than the “Bening Finally Wins an Oscar” headlines. There’s no real rush for that though. Bening has plenty of work in front of her and her win can be saved for a year where there is less interesting competition.

Previous Nominations: 3

Previous Wins: 0

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Why She Was Nominated: When people talk about a performance as being a “tour de force”, they’re pretty much talking exactly about what Kidman does in Rabbit Hole. In playing the role of a grieving mother she gets to run through the entire gamut of human emotions. She cries, she yells, she laughs, she mourns – and Kidman is endlessly compelling doing it all. What’s maybe most impressive is the humor she is able to inject in what would usually be a very bleak, downer of a film.

The humor here is black, pitch black, but it’s there. By turning on the sardonic charm Kidman makes what could have been a rough watch an absolute pleasure. Sometimes people forget about what a good actress she can be, but when she’s given a role like this, one that allows for an actor to really show off, and one that she clearly cares about and takes seriously, she can put out some amazing work.

Why She Might Win: The family mourning a dead child movie is a type of film that the Academy has been very kind to in the past. This is the sort of heavy drama that voters absolutely lap up. Just imagine how many emotionally charged clips can be pulled from this movie to show during the run through of the nominees. Plus, Kidman has won before, so she clearly has her supporters out there.

Why She Might Not Win: Kidman often plays cold, unlikable women. This tends to get mentioned in the reviews of her performances, and it even sometimes bleeds through into gossip articles about her as a person. The character that she plays in Rabbit Hole isn’t all that much different from this archetype. She is self-centered in how she deals with her grief. She is unable to see where the other characters in the film are coming from, unable to understand the way that they cope, and unfeeling toward their kind gestures for much of the film. That could put off some Academy members. I don’t know if enough people have affection for Kidman as an actress for her to pick up a win unless she gets their attention by strapping on a fake nose or something.

Previous Nominations: 2

Previous Wins: 1

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

Why She Was Nominated: Her performance is so natural and lived in. There’s a realness and an authenticity that permeates everything that she does, even when the film is being borderline exploitative in its portrayal of the rural poor. Normally I would be taken out of the movie when a girl this attractive is cast to portray some sort of backwoods, meth country hillbilly, but with Lawrence in the driver’s seat I never questioned a thing that she did. She has a real authoritative presence that demands you sit back and go where she is taking you. Her character is a teenage girl who is mature beyond her years, and who delves into experiences that should probably be beyond her capabilities.

This is the sort of role that is easy for casting directors to mess up. Think Denise Richards in a lab coat. Whoever found Jennifer Lawrence is a casting genius. No matter how ridiculous Winter’s Bone tried to get, Lawrence would have been able to pull it off. She could have gotten into some Rambo shit here and I would have bought it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing a movie where she gets into some Rambo shit.

Why She Might Win: In addition to giving my favorite female performance of the year, Lawrence is a fresh face in Hollywood who could really benefit from winning Best Actress this early in her career. Regardless if she wins or loses here, it’s clear that Lawrence is an actress who is going places. It would be beneficial for the Academy if they were able to point at a win this year and claim that it was the award that launched her success. A golden statue is only as credible as the public perceives it to be and if it looks like an acting award is something that can pluck someone from obscurity and make them into a star, well then it has all the credibility in the world.

Why She Might Not Win: I don’t think that Winter’s Bone is a film that was as widely seen or widely praised as some on this list. While I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who were impressed with Lawrence’s performance, her nomination could come off as something of an afterthought. If casual viewers hear the name “Jennifer Lawrence” after hearing the words “and the winner is” there might just be a collective reaction of, “Who?” heard all across the world. Being obscure and talking over people’s heads is something the Academy Awards often gets accused of, wrongly or not, and ratings for the ceremony has always got to be a concern.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Why She Was Nominated: Portman’s dedication to this role is apparent every second that she is on screen. Not only does she span the full emotional spectrum over the film’s runtime, she had to go through a physical transformation to play the character, and she had to go through endless ballet lessons to pull off the dancing scenes. These are the sorts of things that are easily appreciated when it comes to judging acting and they’re the types of things that often get awarded by the Academy. But in addition to all of that talk of gimmickry and award cliché, she is just really good in this film.

Black Swan is a bit of a fairy tale; it dabbles in the fantastic. Much of what Portman has to do is out of the realm of realism and starts to creep towards melodrama. While there is nothing inherently wrong with melodrama, there is a danger of alienating a certain percentage of your audience when it’s present. Portman deals with those criticisms head on by completely ignoring them and throwing herself 100% into her portrayal of a fairy tale princess driven to madness and depravity.

Why She Might Win: Portman has been a high profile actress ever since her very first role, but this is the first time that she has really been given a meaty, awards worthy, starring performance. People are ready to talk about her in terms of being an Oscar winning actress. Plus, going along with her fairy tale performance, she has the fairy tale story of meeting and being impregnated by one of her co-stars on this film. Or at least the media has been presenting it as a fairy tale thing. We just call that getting knocked up where I’m from. Regardless, a glowing Natalie Portman pregnant with her first child and receiving her first Oscar is just the type of storyline that the Academy likes to watch play out in the media.

Why She Might Not Win: Ever since Black Swan was released all we’ve heard about is Portman’s road to winning Best Actress. She was anointed this award long before the nominations were announced. By the time people actually sent in their votes they may have been experiencing some Natalie Portman burnout and decided to go with someone else in quiet protest. I think that she has the win in the bag, but if she loses it’s going to be because the push for her victory was too hard and went on too long.

Previous Nominations: 1

Previous Wins: 0

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Why She Was Nominated: Michelle Williams is one of those actors that is able to act without looking like she’s acting. She is able to play things small and quiet, and yet somehow still keep your eyes glued to her every second that she’s on the screen. It would have been easy for the female lead to disappear in Blue Valentine standing next to the hammy, bombastic force of nature that is Ryan Gosling. Or perhaps the temptation to get noticed could have pushed things the other way and forced the female lead to overact and really stink up the movie. Not with Michelle Williams in the role.

She is able to take things in the exact opposite direction of Gosling, playing mundane next to his clown prince, but somehow still overshadow his performance with her own skill. What she did in this movie was an amazing feat and I’m thrilled that the Academy recognized her with a nomination.

Why She Might Win: She’s a young actress that has been building up quite a reputation with her body of work. Slowly but surely she has impressed more and more critics, to the point where she has very quietly started to be called one of the best young actresses working today. She got a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain, but other than that has gone largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences. It’s high time that the industry throws some accolades her way and tries to make her a franchise player.

Why She Might Not Win: Many of the people who saw Blue Valentine were turned off by how dark and uncomfortable to watch a lot of it was. The subject matter could hurt Williams when it comes to votes. Plus, it really does seem like this year is going to be all about crowning Princess Natalie the new Queen of Hollywood. If Williams keeps her work at the level that it is currently, then it is probably inevitable that she will eventually win this award. But I don’t think this is her year.

Previous Nominations: 1

Previous Wins: 0

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actress

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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