Oscar Week: Best Actress in a Leading Role

This Sunday the 80th Annual Academy Awards will award it’s 81st statue to a deserving nominee. If that number sounds strange that’s because Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Streisand shared the award back in 1968. The category for Best Actress dates back to the very first ceremony. Since then, 66 actresses have walked home with statues. Hepburn is the only actress to have received more than two awards and for at least two more years will be the only actress who can say they’ve won four. Eleven actresses have won two Oscars, most recently Hilary Swank. Hepburn has the most nominations for Best Actress with 12 (the last coming with On Golden Pond, 1981) with Meryl Streep right behind her with 11 (and even though she leads Hepburn in all-time nominations in both acting categories with 14, she only has one Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice). Kate Winslet is the youngest actress with five nominations and is one loss away for tying “most nominations without a win” status with Deborah Kerr. This year’s slate of actresses is a wide variety featuring a pregnant teenager and an Alzheimer’s-rattled lady in a nursing home. Few times has the race for Best Actress been this interesting with five terrific performances, all deserving of praise.

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Why she’s nominated: Blanchett is arguably the best actress working today and seems to be nominated every time she makes a film. This year she has the distinguished honor of being nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting (for I’m Not There). She’s also the first actress to be nominated twice for the same character (joining Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone). In Elizabeth, Blanchett shows a lot of what made the first performance so stellar by displaying a great amount of strength as well as intense vulnerability. Blanchett’s scenes with Clive Owen at first sizzle and then she does a great job of appearing desperate and jealous later on. Blanchett is dynamic and Elizabeth displays it all.

Why she might win: The Academy loves Cate Blanchett. She plays the queen with great vigor and tenacity and even manages to be playful at times. The Academy likes period performances (like Nicole Kidman in The Hours and Gwenyth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love) and Blanchett’s is the only one this year (unless you consider Marion Cotillard’s which takes place between the the early 1920s to the ’60s).

Why she might not win: She has a better chance of picking up her second Best Supporting Actress award. My instincts tell me that any Academy members that loved Elizabeth will most likely vote for her performance as Bob Dylan instead. Elizabeth was also panned by critics and I don’t think the studio has done a great job of marketing either the film or Blanchett’s performance.

Julie Christie, Away From Her

Why she’s nominated: Christie, a past winner in 1965 for Darling, plays Fiona Anderson, a woman struggling with Alzheimer’s who’s admitted to a nursing home and over time forgets her loving husband (Gordon Pinsent). Christie’s performance is heartbreaking. She’s a free-spirit who slowly begins to unravel and her scenes in the nursing home, especially when she becomes confused or frightened, will absolutely tug at your heartstrings.

Why she might win: Christie’s strength comes across very well. She’s a matter-of-fact kind of lady and manages to keep a movie about Alzheimer’s from slipping in to melodrama. You can absolutely see the terror and anguish in Gordon Pinsent’s eyes as she slips away from him and Christie shows us glimpses of the woman that captured his heart.

Why she might not win: I often wonder how powerful Christie’s performance would’ve been if it hadn’t been for Pinsent. It’s because of his character that we care about Fiona and it’s his story this film is telling. Not only is Pinsent’s snub at the Oscars a grievous mistake, but you take him out of the movie and I think we’d all of a sudden care less about Fiona. Her performance relies too heavily on his and for that the Academy may not award her.

Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose

Why she’s nominated: Cotillard plays French singer Edith Piaf as the film follows her rise to French icon and tumultuous collapse into drug addiction and alcoholism. Cotillard seamlessly portrays the troubled singer and embodies her for a few decades, and for such a young actor that is a noble feat. Unlike some biopics which come off as mere impersonations, Cotillard plays with the role and creates a version of Edith which many did not know: her private life.

Why she might win: The Academy has a recent obsession with biopics, especially when discussing real women (Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf). Cotillard actually gets to break away from some of that because she brings to light a personality that most Americans aren’t even familiar with and gets to play around with some of the specifics about the character while maintaining true to the film’s intent. Cotillard’s dedication to the performance is exemplary and undeniable as we see her body and personality go through a range of emotions and changes.

Why she might now win: Cotillard does not have a very strong body of work. Foreign films also very rarely win in the acting categories (I can only think of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful off the top of my head). She’s up against much more seasoned nominees in Christie, Blanchett, and Laura Linney and the beloved underdog Ellen Page.

Laura Linney, The Savages

Why she’s nominated: Perhaps the most surprising nominee, Linney deserves to be recognized because Wendy Savage is an emotional wreck and Linney makes it look effortless. Vulnerable and stubborn, empathetic and approval-seeking, whatever the emotion, Linney nails it. Her time with Phillip Seymour Hoffman (a nominee for Charlie Wilson’s War) on-screen is terrific and she brings out a different kind of femininity that is very rarely shown in movies.

Why she might win: She held her own with Philip Seymour Hoffman. She deals with death in a matter-of-fact way and the movie, and Linney’s performance, never skirts around how uncomfortable death makes us all. Linney is also deserving because she’s given several good performances in her career and has been nominated twice before (once for Best Actress).

Why she might now win: I would say Linney has the least chance of any actress to win. She doesn’t have the benefit of having been seriously considered for any other acting awards at various other ceremonies and some are saying that Linney being included is what knocked Angelina Jolie out of contention for A Mighty Heart. Though her performance here is very good, we’ve seen this territory from Linney done before and this wouldn’t even rank in her Top 3 performances of all-time (behind The Squid and the Whale, Kinsey, and Mystic River in that order).

Ellen Page, Juno – “FSR’s Little Darling”

Why she’s nominated: Ellen Page took what several actresses did this year–namely, act pregnant–and nailed a role that no one else could’ve done better. We see rough-around-the-edges Juno and her smartass ways and learn that underneath that gruff, pregnant exterior is a fragile girl who is inches away from breaking down. Page’s performance, though saddled with some “cool” dialogue, takes off as we get to know her and how she fits in to the world around her. Page, who turned 21 yesterday (the 21st), shows a great maturity as an actress even at her young age.

Why she might win: Page has been right there the entire way. Blanchett and Linney have not been included in some of the awards races from the Globes to the BAFTAs, but Page was nominated along with Cotillard and Christie for all the major awards. She’s been the little engine that could this entire time, and with Christie and Cotillard perhaps cancelling each other’s votes, Page could pull an Adrien Brody this year (Brody won in 2002 for The Pianist, upsetting heavily-favored Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt and Daniel Day Lewis for Gangs of New York). It’s also refreshing to see an actress give a wholly, genuinely original performance–a performance not bound by history or actual events. Juno is both the comedic and dramatic center of the film and Page pulls both off flawlessly.

Why she might now win: She would tie with Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) for being the youngest actress by winning at age 21 (however she would be the youngest if you counted years and days). I suspect we’ve only begun to see what Page can do and she could have a long line of Oscar nominations ahead of her, but this may not be the year. The Best Actress award is tight this year, tighter than any other year I can remember, and Page may be the sacrifice to such a close race.

Who will win?

Julie Christie, Away From Her

Who should win?

Ellen Page, Juno

Who got overlooked?

Say what you will about her personally but Angelina Jolie’s performance in A Might Heart was easily one of the best. It’s a shame that the Academy let her personal life get in the way of how they judged her professional one.

Josh is a multi-tasker. He's been a cubicle monkey for the last few years, a veteran stage actor of over 10 years, a sometimes commercial actor, occasional writer of articles, a once-legend in the realm of podcastery, purveyor of chuckles in his homecity of Chicago as he has trained with the world renown iO (Improv Olympic) and Second City Conservatory and performed with both theaters, and can be seen doing a thing that actor's do on the website of his online sitcom, Josh also likes to tackle the beef of his bio with one run-on sentence, because it befits his train-of-thought.

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