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(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy's 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)
After last year's banner field of nominees, which included five peak-form performances from actresses in a range of risky, stimulating projects, this year's Best Actress category wasn't ever likely to live up to those standards. True enough, it hasn't, though the problem lies less with the ladies nominated than the vehicles surrounding them: "Good performance, shame about the movie," has been the recurring critical chorus around this race.
That's not to say it was a year short of challenging, substantial vehicles for women. But with many of them falling in the less illuminated corners of the arthouse, the Academy inevitably favored the softer, more middlebrow prestige vehicles, few of which had any worthwhile cinematic ambitions beyond showcasing their established stars for maximum vote-grabbiness. (It may or may not mean something to you that this is the category's first all-American lineup in 20 years.) The exception, a relatively untested ingenue in a hard-edged genre piece, is both the only first-time nominee in the field and the only one unapproved by the Screen Actors' Guild.
The nominees are...
Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"
The name most conspicuously missing from the list is also the one, for my money, would handily outclass the field if nominated: Tilda Swinton may have received nominations from SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes and the BFCA, not to mention wins from the National Board of Review and the European Film Awards, but all that wasn't enough to overcome the fact that "We Need to Talk About Kevin" was too chilly, abrasive and, well, interesting for this crowd. Still, at least she got close: Olivia Colman ("Tyrannosaur"), Anna Paquin ("Margaret") and Juliette Binoche ("Certified Copy") gave performances of staggering reach and complexity in films worthy of such work, but never had so much as a prayer.
That the aforementioned performances were frozen out becomes more galling, I'm afraid to say, when you consider the work of our first nominee. Glenn Close labored for 30 years to get the Irish-set cross-dressing drama "Albert Nobbs" made after initially heading a stage production, taking producing, writing and even songwriting credits on the film. The Academy clearly responded to the encouraging narrative of a veteran actress developing her own headline vehicle long after Hollywood had resigned her to television -- but sadly, "Albert Nobbs" is a bust and Close's performance as a sexually naïve butler hiding her true gender from the world, underplayed to the point of catatonia, isn't much better. Touted as a frontrunner on paper, Close's chances nosedived once critics laid into the film at Telluride, but peer respect was enough to earn the actress her first nomination in 23 years, and her sixth overall -- a stat that will see her join Thelma Ritter and Deborah Kerr as the most-nominated actresses never to have won.
If Close went from contender to also-ran once people saw her movie, Viola Davis has enjoyed the reverse trajectory. Not many people had her pegged as a threat before "The Help" was released in August, but once it screened, the hard-working character actress immediately ascended to frontrunner status, assisted by phenomenal box office for her film -- the only Best Picture nominee in this race. Not even the film's detractors (of which there are many) have a word against Davis's measured, compassionate, quietly stirring performance as a put-upon servant belatedly asserting her personal worth, which carries the film thematically and emotionally despite comparatively limited screen time. The actress has been the very model of gracious intelligence on the campaign circuit -- so much so that even her chief opponent and former co-star, Meryl Streep, has practically been campaigning for her. The promise of becoming only the second black actress to win this award helps her cause, as does her strong presence in a second Best Picture nominee, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."
The least typically Oscar-friendly performance in this lineup comes from the youngest of the nominees in the nastiest of the nominated films. That's not to say the Academy was going way out on a limb in nominating Rooney Mara for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," even if SAG didn't -- thanks to the zillions of copies sold of Stieg Larsson's pulpy Millennium thrillers and Noomi Rapace's BAFTA-nominated turn in 2010's Swedish-language screen adaptation, the character of antisocial punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander was firmly stitched into the mainstream cultural fabric before the relatively little-known American offered her stamp on it. Happily, Mara opted for reinterpretation, rather than idle appropriation, of a character treasured by many as a neo-feminist icon of sorts: both more vulnerable and sexually self-possessed than Rapace's creation, and possessed of a dry wit, she shoulders David Fincher's slightly self-admiring film with disarming swagger. It's too coolly muted a performance to challenge for the win, but it's a nifty calling card.
The possibility of a third Oscar for Meryl Streep has become a semi-annual sticking point in recent years. One the one hand it's ludicrous to complain, as her more excitable fans do, that an actress with a record 17 nominations is "taken for granted" by the Academy; on the other, zero wins from 12 straight nods over 29 years is a run that demands to be broken at some point. And God knows "The Iron Lady" must have looked like the one to break it: a technically impressive, elaborately accented, decades-spanning inhabitation of a famous (or infamous) political figure in a December-scheduled prestige biopic shepherded by the Weinsteins. BAFTA and Golden Globe voters were wowed, as were the New York critics, so why does everyone's default choice for The Greatest Living Actress once again find herself in the runner-up position? Most of the blame can be directed at the movie itself, which, however baity, is almost universally unloved. Whether an element of Streep fatigue is at play, however, is something we won't know until she's nominated for a movie even half as worthy as she is.
The second actress in this year's lineup nominated for playing an iconic real-life figure, Michelle Williams seemed perfectly poised, at the start of the season, to run the table. Playing Marilyn Monroe, against type and rather well at that, is a grabby enough stunt as it is, even before you factor in that Williams is coming straight off her second nomination last year, and once more has the Weinsteins in her corner. The actress, the role and the timing seemed so neatly aligned that it didn't much seem to matter that neither critics nor audiences cared all that much about "My Week With Marilyn" -- but after a healthy showing in the December critics' awards and a Golden Globe win (in the comedy category, dubiously enough), Williams' campaign promptly eased off the gas and settled for also-ran status. Did the publicity-shy actress simply not have the stamina? Did the Weinsteins make a tactical decision to go full-tilt for Streep instead? Williams will be one to watch on her fourth go-round, at any rate.
Will win: Viola Davis, "The Help"
Could win: Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Should win: Viola Davis, "The Help"
Should have been here: Juliette Binoche, "Certified Copy"
Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Actress category via its Contenders page here.
What do you think should be taking home this gold in this category? Who got robbed? Speak up in the comments section below!
(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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