It is an unhappy and semi-annual habit among Oscar-watchers to dismiss the Best Actress race as “weak,” a selection of performances that handily distils – either by conformity or exception – Hollywood’s routine neglect of its female performers. That narrative thankfully took a rest last year: with peak-form work by Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams and winner Natalie Portman, plus a genuine revelation in Jennifer Lawrence, all of them in variously meaty, artful films, 2010 will likely be seen as a banner year for the category for some time.

It almost certainly won’t be topped this year – the tone across the blogosphere suggests that accusations of weakness are back in full force with this year’s lead actress race. Which is not to say that the field is thin or even uncompetitive: a look at the fringes of the category reveals a wealth of fine actresses turning in remarkable work in exciting films. Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Olivia Colman in “Tyrannosaur.” Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Anna Paquin in “Margaret.” Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Melancholia.” Juliette Binoche in “Certified Copy.” Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids.” If this is the standard of the outsiders, how can this possibly be deemed a weak field?

Yet cross the invisible boundary into frontrunner territory and there’s a marked change in temperature. The strong actresses remain. So, to some extent, do the strong performances. The roles and films containing them, however, are harder to get excited about, in many cases falling into stock notions of middlebrow bait that, judging from the differing buzz levels, still hold true. Viola Davis in “The Help,” Michelle Williams in “My Week With Marilyn,” Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady,” Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” – all previously Academy-endorsed actress in vehicles widely termed “performance showcases,” a polite way of saying one would sooner see the performer rewarded than the film.

In principle, is there anything wrong with this? Well, no. A good performance is a good performance, however soft or mishandled the film around it. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the psychological urge to give an actor extra credit for powering through substandard material: it’s why I was one of those not wringing my hands when Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for breathing some sparky life into the dunderheaded slop of “The Blind Side,” or why I didn’t mind Russell Crowe winning for bringing texture and movie-star magnetism to a chipboard hero in “Gladiator.” They didn’t make the movies or write the characters; they can, however, elevate or complicate the characters with the decisions they make in playing them, and that’s as worthy a thespian achievement as knocking a dream role, in a dream film, out of the park.

It’s for that reason that I’ll be perfectly content – make that actively pleased – if Viola Davis wins Best Actress in three months’ time for “The Help,” as I strongly suspect she will. I have more than a few problems with her film’s construction and conception, not least in the way it treats Davis’s own character as a kind of symbolic vessel for the suffering of an entire culture, but the performance is remarkable in the way it fights that flat nobility, denting it with genuine hurt and tangy flashes of irony. The wonderful film writer Nick Davis described it best in a recent chat: in a two-tone film, Davis is playing three-card monte, finding ways to sneak us the movie “The Help” ought to be inside every scene, unobtrusively slipping reality into the viewer’s pocket.

It seems entirely just to reward Davis for making the best of, if hardly a bad situation, a pleasantly unremarkable film, not least because she presumably doesn’t have an abundance of choices. A lead role for a fortysomething black character actress in a high-profile studio picture is such a hen’s-tooth rarity that Davis could be wholly forgiven for seizing the opportunity with both hands even if the film had turned out to be appalling; as it stands, awards recognition for the performance is a gesture of encouragement to studios to take more such chances with their casting.

But is there a difference between the worthiness of this situation and that of an A-list star expertly coasting through vehicles that are well beneath them? In principle, one would say not: once again, the performance should be all that counts. But in commending a star’s work, you’re also indirectly commending their creative choices. There’s a fine line between rewarding an actor for rising above mediocrity and rewarding them for mismanaging their talents, and the difference, one might say, lies mostly in their pay grade. It’s a question that’s best asked of veteran Academy pets rather than those still on the rise: is there value in honoring such masters of the craft as Judi Dench and Meryl Streep for picking projects as feeble as, say, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and “One True Thing,” however well they acquit themselves?

A lot of people – including, evidently, many Academy members – wouldn’t hesitate to say yes, not least because many such projects inevitably look a lot more worthy at the pre-production stage. One wouldn’t necessarily penalize Glenn Close, for example, for lovingly nurturing an ambitious passion project like “Albert Nobbs” just because the film isn’t (according to many) a home run. I’m inclined to be less forgiving, however, of actors doing paycheck work in blatantly unprepossessing films: happily, there are few of those in the Oscar running this year, but just wait until Julia Roberts scores a Golden Globe nod for “Larry Crowne.”

It can’t be a coincidence that when I mentally round up the most satisfying acting wins in Oscar history, the vast majority of them are for complex landmark performances in equally rich and substantial films, from Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind” to Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” to Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood.” A great film inevitably sticks in the cultural consciousness for longer than an isolated great performance – which is why, as many positives could be drawn from an Oscar for Davis for raising the EQ of “The Help,” or even Michelle Williams for bringing her customary (and Oscar-due) dignity and melancholy to a gumball biopic, the Academy could do better.

Last week, for example, the National Board of Review sprang a delightful surprise by showing pundits just one such exciting alternative. By plumping for Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they weren’t just honouring a fearless performance in a challenging film – they were also, consciously or not, endorsing the career track of a consistently self-testing performer who rarely takes the soft option, choosing scripts no less interesting than what she can bring to them. If voters can’t stomach that extreme arthouse option, there’s still Charlize Theron, bravely and fascinatingly toxic in the spiky, tonally adventurous “Young Adult.” That these are the contenders fighting for the fifth spot perhaps prompts concern less about the range and depth of roles currently available to women than the industry’s willingness to promote them.

Updated Oscar predictions here. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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