Oscar 2012 Predictions: Best Actress

In recent years, the Best Actress Oscar has been a far more compelling race than the Best Actor Oscar. Where Best Actor winners have been those whose time has come (like Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart or Colin Firth in The King’s Speech), the Best Actress Oscar has been a tighter and less predictable race.

The roles that have won Best Actress have been increasingly edgy over the past decade or so, as well as honoring relatively younger actresses (including Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, and Hilary Swank). This year offers an interesting mix of candidates who cover a range of ages and experiences. The actresses in Hollywood should be proud that their top roles are about such challenging subjects as sexual identity and female empowerment. This is a more radical turn from the Best Actor field, which has roles dealing with relationship drama, sports and spying. To quote an old cigarette campaign for Virginia Slims, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” It’s been a long way from the early days of Hollywood where more traditional damsel roles were far more prominent. The meatier roles and blockbuster heroes continue to go to male actors, but the real depth of character and challenging subject matter has been making its way to the women of Hollywood, if in a smaller degree at least a more noticeable degree.

Read on for the nominations and my predicted winner in red

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Why She Was Nominated

Albert Nobbs was a labor of love for Glenn Close, ever since she first played the title role on stage in the 80s. After spending 15 years trying to develop the play into a feature film, it finally came to be. Close plays a woman who has been dressing up as a man for most of her life in order to earn a decent living as a hotel waiter in 19th century Ireland. After living in this manner for so long, she is trying to reconnect with her identity, both sexual and societal.

With the exception of some awards for make-up, Albert Nobbs has been honored almost exclusively for its stars Close and Janet McTeer (who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination this year). And deservedly so. Both women do fine jobs becoming other people on screen, and of all the roles out there, they stand out as transformative performances. This is even more impressive considering how relatively small Albert Nobbs was in terms of release, box office and general awareness.

Why She Might Win

Glenn Close has two things going for her in this race. First, this is one of those performances that cries, “Oscar!” It’s a transformative role with prosthetics and acting out of traditional character. It’s also a role that features struggles with politically hot-button issues like sexual identity and how the world looks at people. These are always popular with Academy voters. The second thing Close has going for her is her career. She’s been nominated five times before but never won, and all of those nominations were from the 1980s. It just might be “her time.”

Why She Might Not Win

The unfortunate perception of a film like Albert Nobbs is that it appears to be the type of award season movie that has been made to get the leads some nominations. In reality, it’s more than that, but it’s track record offers an appearance otherwise. Additionally, having Close play a man is nothing new if you consider her brief cameo in Hook twenty years ago. The other obstacle she has to overcome is Meryl Streep, who has oodles more nominations but no wins in the past thirty years. Both actresses have meaty roles this year, and the Academy might be split as to whose “time” it is in her career to win.

Previous Nominations: 3 for Best Supporting Actress, 2 for Best Actress

Previous Wins: 0

Viola Davis, The Help

Why She Was Nominated

Like The Blind Side a few years back, The Help has been a juggernaut both at the box office and in the award season field. It’s wildly popular with audiences, and it focuses on some heavy social issues. It’s primed for some big wins, in particular in the acting categories. Viola Davis takes center stage as one of the African American maids who has been under the social oppression of the South as she raises a rich white family’s children. While not a huge diversion from other roles Davis has tackled (which seem to be a lot of stoic, emotionally burdened women), she handles the role like a champ.

Why She Might Win

Although not exactly a newcomer to movies, Davis is a relative newcomer to the award movies. However, she’s also got the angle of being a bit of a veteran. After being nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Doubt five years ago, she’s consistently shown up in roles as either a powerful woman or a character burdened with personal strife. This has allowed her to maintain a sense of gravitas, even for goofier films like Madea Goes to Jail and Knight and Day. So even though she’s relatively new on the scene, she’s got the career behind her that would deserve the Oscar.

Davis has also taken home quite a few awards already this award season, including a Critics Choice Award and a SAG Award. Coupled with the general love for The Help, Davis stands quite a chance.

Why She Might Not Win

Davis’s biggest obstacles come, appropriately enough, from her competition. Her dignified appearance as a veteran actress is overshadowed by that of both Glenn Close and Meryl Streep. For the most part, going head-to-head with Streep has been a losing battle for her this year in the bigger prizes, as Davis’s former Doubt co-star took home the Best Actress awards for BAFTA and the Golden Globe.

Previous Nominations: 1 for Best Supporting Actress

Previous Wins: 0

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Why She Was Nominated

From the moment the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was announced with David Fincher as director, award junkies were practically dancing around with joy in the hopes of a powerful appearance at the Oscars for the film. There still seems to be some residual guilt from fans and voters that Fincher did not take home the top prizes last year for The Social Network. And while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was largely snubbed by the Oscar nominations process, a few key individuals got on the ballot.

Like Glenn Close, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams, Rooney Mara underwent a transformation to play her Oscar-nominated character. Some might say that Mara’s transformation was most prominent because it went so far against her type (and if you don’t believe that, just do a Google Image search and wonder at the pre- versus the post-Dragon Tattoo pictures>. If any actor was going to be nominated for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo it was going to be Rooney Mara.

Why She Might Win

Rooney Mara’s portrayal of the iconic character of Lisbeth Salander is easily the edgiest performance in the Best Actress field. It’s also quite different from all the other contenders with two playing in biopics (Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn) and the other two playing put-upon servants (Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs and Viola Davis in The Help). All of Mara’s contenders play very traditional Oscar-worthy roles, so Mara is the wild card here. That can work, especially considering last year’s winner was Natalie Portman in an extremely unconventional role for Oscar. If the Academy can hand out a statuette for a high class horror film in which the actress has a sultry lesbian sex scene with Mila Kunis, why can’t they give the honor to a tatted-up, troubled computer hacker with a grisly backstory?

Why She Might Not Win

Even though the Academy often praises dramas over comedies and lighter films, it’s also full of a bunch of stuffy old farts. They don’t particularly like to see graphic rape in their Oscar-winning films (just ask Elisabeth Shue, who lost her Best Actress Oscar for the mildly rapey Leaving Las Vegas to Susan Sarandon playing a nun). Still, even if the Academy voters can get past the graphic “therapist” sessions of Lisbeth Salander, they might not get past the fact that Mara’s role was doomed from having to live up to the fantastic performance of Noomi Rapace from the original Swedish film. Also, add to the fact that with Mara’s role being the wild card, it’s also the odd man out, and the Academy if far more likely to give an award to this kind of diversion were it in the Supporting Actress category.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Why She Was Nominated

When the first teaser for The Iron Lady showed up, it seemed like an attempt to repeat the success of The King’s Speech. After all, it was a period piece from the Weinstein Company about a British ruler who must overcome something to realize full potential. However, unlike The King’s Speech, the nominations for The Iron Lady were almost exclusively for the acting category.

Meryl Streep becomes Margaret Thatcher in the film, which is not a small feat, considering she was one of the most imitated figures of the late 20th century. It’s a fiercely challenging role to not fall into caricature, and Streep managed to rise above this, much like she did with her portrayal of Julia Child in Julie and Julia. Were it not for the decades of strong performances, this would be Streep’s role of a lifetime, and it was nearly inconceivable that she wouldn’t receive a nomination.

Why She Might Win

The bottom line is that many voters believe that Meryl Streep deserves another Oscar, especially considering her last Oscar win was for Sophie’s Choice thirty years ago. I recently had a conversation with another film critic, and he said, “Oh, they just want to give Meryl that Oscar.” He’s totally right. And with such a spotlight role like this one, it’s the safe bet.

Why She Might Not Win

Were this a year with a lesser group of actresses in the mix, this would be a slam dunk for Streep. But like Davis, her biggest competition are the other nominees. She’s fighting legacy with Close. She’s fighting transformation roles with Mara. She’s fighting biopic darling with Williams. And she’s fighting “it’s her time” with Davis.

Previous Nominations: 3 for Best Supporting Actress, 13 for Best Actress

Previous Wins: 1 for Best Supporting Actress, 1 for Best Actress

Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Why She Was Nominated

Even though Michelle Williams is remembered by a limited few as playing the young Sil in the 1996 film Species, she really came into her own in the mid-2000s. Brokeback Mountain was the film where people first started to really take her seriously, and in recent years, she’s starred in a consistent slate of movies targeted at the award film crowd. Her highest profile piece was Blue Valentine last year, but other movies that gave her award movie street cred include Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. My Week with Marilyn is icing on that cake.

Plus, it never hurts to play a tragic sex symbol, and of all her recent award film attempts, this movie got the most attention and had the greatest crossover potential.

Why She Might Win

Some might say that Williams has been riding the widow train too long, but there’s still a lot of sympathy for her story after the death of Heath Ledger. This may be crass to say, but that’s the kind of thing that goes through the back of some voters’ minds. Add to this the general fascination that Hollywood has with itself, and you’ve got the only Best Actress nominee in a film about film history. That’s the kind of narcissism that kept The Artist and (to a lesser degree) Hugo alive during this award season.

Why She Might Not Win

While Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe was darling, it just doesn’t hold up to the depth of the other roles from the other nominees. And even though Williams has been nominated twice before, she doesn’t quite have the veteran status one needs to clinch the title. Of her award-worthy performances, this one might be one of the most popular, but it’s hardly her greatest one.

Previous Nominations: 1 for Best Supporting Actress, 1 for Best Actress

Previous Wins: 0

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