Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Oscar 2012: Best Actress

In our continuing coverage of the Oscars, we break down the nominees for Best Actress. Here are the candidates, and the reasons why and why they may not win the Oscar. Fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis once said: this just might be the most competitive category of the night.

Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs

For her: Unbelievably, this is Close’s sixth career nomination and she has never won an Oscar, despite landmark performances in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons. She’s already won just about every major acting accolade over her career, including three Emmy Awards and three Tony Awards. Albert Nobbs is a passion project, as she played the role on the stage in the early 80s and took nearly thirty years, due to unforeseen stops and starts in production, to bring her pet project to the screen. Close also co-wrote the film’s script and theme song, showing her dedication to the project. Oscar loves a gender-bending performance, as evidenced by wins in the past for Gwyneth Paltrow, Hillary Swank and Linda Hunt.

Against her: The film performed poorly at the box office and received tepid reviews, some of them for Close herself. Even the excellent notices she received were overshadowed by higher praise for her nominated co-star Janet McTeer, who is also performing in a gender-bending role. While there is considerable love and respect for Close, there’s no groundswell of critical or public consensus to bring her the big win. With Viola Davis and Meryl Streep running neck-and-neck with Michelle Williams a close third, Close just doesn’t have enough momentum to overcome her competition. And while short-listed for various prizes including the Globe and SAG, Close herself hasn’t won any for this particular performance.

Viola Davis in The Help

For her: A previous nominee, Davis is also the front-and-center star of one of the year’s Best Picture nominees, and a popular one at that. It’s the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee this year, likely seen by just about the entire voting body. She’s won SAG, Critics Choice and National Board of Review prizes for individual and / or cast performances. She’s the only nominee here to star in not one, but two Best Picture nominees (the other being Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), speaking to the quality of the films in which she chooses to appear. While the film caused some controversy over its depiction of race relations in the Deep South, even the film’s detractors conceded that Davis’s work transcended the material. There’s also a political dimension at play, as the only African-American to ever win this category did so ten years ago – Halle Berry – and the Academy might want to correct that imbalance.

Against her: Fierce competition from her good friend and former co-star Streep, who once said in a speech that “someone should write this woman a movie!” There are some critics who don’t like how the role was written, as it may have (inadvertently or otherwise) tapped into some racial stereotypes. The Academy may wish to steer clear of racial politics, but that hasn’t stopped them from awarding a controversial film with its top prize before (cf. Crash).

Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For her: The year’s big breakout role and surprise nominee, Mara is the youngest nominee this year and one of the youngest ever. It’s the first of three films in which she’ll embody the character Lisbeth Salander, considered one of the most iconic figures in contemporary literature and film, and the Academy loves to honour ingénues. The performance is also considered physically demanding: she bares her body and has a graphic rape scene that is arguably the most challenging since Hillary Swank’s winning turn in Boys Don’t Cry.

Against her: The memory of the original TGWTDT is still fresh for a lot of viewers, many of whom preferred the performance of its original star, the un-nominated Noomi Rapace. Given that she’s got two more films to make in the trilogy, Mara will have another opportunity to perform the role and potentially be nominated for an Oscar. She has a bright future and with so much competition by veterans and more distinguished actors, she is the one rank outsider in a tight field. There are also those who believe that she took a spot meant for Tilda Swinton, unrecognized for her work in the acclaimed We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

For her: Another year, another parade of prizes for Streep for a great performance. This year, her count includes a BAFTA (her first since the 80s), a Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics, amongst many others. Oscar likes to reward actors in biopics who age and die and / or go insane, and this role has it all (except for the death part). Streep also affects a British accent for the first time in a long while, and her impersonation is considered spot-on. There’s been a campaign reminding voters that it’s been 29 years since she last won, for her legendary performance in Sophie’s Choice, which may remind voters that it’s finally time to honour the current consensus as the greatest living actress.

Against her: The film received some terrible reviews and, despite initially promising box office, did not perform well, at least not in North America. While most critics have raved about her work, those who hated the film also dismissed her performance. Streep already has yet another award-worthy work lined up, the leading part in the forthcoming August: Osage County, in the role that won its original star a Tony Award and is considered another opportunity for her to showboat and do what she does best. It might be perceived by voters that there will always be another chance to reward Streep, even without actually giving her the award.

Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

For her: A career-transforming role, Oscar happens to like biopics and that’s why both she and Streep are in the race. Williams, at age 32, is the youngest American actor to receive three Oscar nominations at that age, beaten only by Brit Kate Winslet, who accomplished the same feat by age 26. Williams has successfully graduated from being a Dawson’s Creek alumnus into an accomplished and adventurous actress. Add to this several prizes this season for her role, including the Golden Globe, and she’s been short-listed for every other major prize out there.

Against her: There are still some, believe it or not, who might consider her a “TV actress” who made good. While her reviews for Marilyn were excellent, the film’s notices overall were not as enthusiastic. Many have considered her performance an “interpretation” rather than a total mimicry, and that has led less kind critics to say that the role is not “on the nose”. In a year when she’s going toe-to-toe with Davis and Streep, she might be overlooked if she doesn’t benefit from a split vote. She’s a strong third-place, but may not have overall support for her film to make it to the winner’s circle. Plus, with such an impressive resume at such a young age, it’s more than likely that she’ll get nominated again, and like win.

The lowdown: It’s Davis vs. Streep in a photo finish, with Williams being the tiebreaker. I’m calling it for Davis, but wouldn’t be surprised to see Streep take Oscar home for the third time.

The Oscar will go to: Viola Davis for The Help.