In the best-actress derby right now there seem to be two good bets for nominations: Meryl Streep ("Doubt") and Kate Winslet ("Revolutionary Road" or "The Reader"), but one of them is actually vulnerable. (More on that later.) Anne Hathaway looks likely, but — ummm — she's not quite a slam dunk. She just got a nice boost this past week, though, when Sony Pictures Classic shipped DVDs of "Rachel Getting Married" to Oscar voters before the Thanksgiving rush.
Other rivals with the best hope of snagging a nom probably come from this batch of five contenders: Cate Blanchett ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky"), Angelina Jolie ("Changeling"), Nicole Kidman ("Australia") and Kristin Scott Thomas ("I've Loved You So Long"). Outside shots: Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"), Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy"), Kate Beckinsale ("Nothing but the Truth"), Emma Thompson ("Last Chance Harvey") and Penelope Cruz ("Elegy").
Cate Blanchett has two things going for her. First, she stars in what many Oscar gurus consider to be the best-picture front-runner, which is always a plus. Secondly, academy members adore her so much personally that they seem to nominate Cate Blanchett for anything, even two films they didn't like last year ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age," "I'm Not There"). However, the "Benjamin Button" roles played by Blanchett and costar Brad Pitt are rather emotionally passive. They don't showcase the kind of theatrical grandstanding that voters often like to see.
What about Angelina Jolie? Last year she seemed like a shoo-in for a bid after scoring strong critical reviews for "A Mighty Heart." She got nominated by virtually every other award (Golden Globe, SAG, Critics Choice, Indie Spirit), but, alas, got snubbed by Oscar. Part of that was probably the fault of the film's subject matter, which was shrugged off widely by academy members. Other movies about the Mideast war fell short of Oscar expectations too ("In the Valley of Elah," "Charlie Wilson's War"). Also, it was a summer release that bombed in theaters. It helps that "Changeling" is a late-year release, closer to Oscar voting, but it also was a financial disappointment. Produced for $55 million, "Changeling" reaped only $34 million worldwide ($29.7 million U.S., $4.4 million global).
Jolie hasn't been nominated since she won in the supporting race in 1999 ("Girl, Interrupted"). It's possible that Hollywood is punishing her for her tabloid life, but she continues to gain respect in the public's eyes. According to the New York Times, "Jolie's Q score, a measurement of a star's likability, has continued to increase. Around the time she won her Oscar, 13% of people surveyed viewed her positively, according to Marketing Evaluations. The average rating for female stars is 18%. Today, about 24% of respondents view Jolie positively."
Nicole Kidman gives a truly winning performance in "Australia," looming luminously over virtually every scene in the 2-hour, 35-minute epic. She got nominated the last time she starred in a Baz Luhrmann pic ("Moulin Rouge!"). Both films are unapologetically campy and, ahem, overly theatrical, but "Moulin Rouge!" didn't pretend to be serious. "Australia" plays it straight, with occasional winks to the audience. Its lighthearted touches may detract from its seriousness in the eyes of notoriously pretentious voters. Nicole doesn't need to win over the whole acting branch, though. She just needs a goodly chunk of No. 1 votes from a faithful minority in order to be nominated and, based upon the fanatically enthusiastic response of some viewers like Oprah Winfrey, Nicole may get those.
Film critics are all gushing over Kristin Scott Thomas ("I've Loved You So Long"), who was nominated for best actress for "The English Patient" (1996). That means she'll have a strong rooting contingent too. It helps that her performance is in French, just like that of last year's winner, Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") — that gives it snob appeal. But I think Kristin Scott Thomas has the same problem that Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") faces in the best-actor race. Both performances are extremely reserved. We observe the anguish that their characters suffer, but it's deeply internalized. Not until late in their movies do we see any emotional fireworks, each expressed in one sole scene. Is that enough?
I think that a lot of Oscar pundits are mistakenly downplaying the chances of Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky"). Curiously, she has the same problem as Kristin Scott Thomas, but in a different way. She also has only one big, flashy eruption late in her movie, but before then, instead of being emotionally reserved all the time, she's unflaggingly perky. Almost annoyingly so. But that also makes her enormously appealing and lovable to many viewers, which boosts her rooting factor. Voters who might be tempted to dismiss her constant chirpiness as fluffy thesping may shrug that off because her flick has snooty art-house credentials. It's directed by Mike Leigh, whose past films paid off with best-actress nominations for Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") and Brenda Blethyn ("Secrets and Lies").
Lucky for Melissa Leo, "Frozen River" was the first DVD screener sent to voters this derby season back in late September. Her performance is dynamic and worthy of an Oscar nom, yes, but frankly, the character is haggard — not sexy to many of those older dudes in the academy who usually prefer babes. That's cruel to say — sorry — but it's true. Still, there have been many exceptions to that voter trend in the past, of course — like Staunton and Blethyn — but Leo probably needs the same boost that those gals got: a top award from one of the early, prestigious film critics' groups.
Michelle Williams' critically praised performance will get serious attention this derby season thanks to sympathy in the aftermath of Heath Ledger's tragic death, but many Oscar pundits believe the plot of "Wendy and Lucy" is too lightweight. They just don't care if Wendy (Williams) gets reunited with her dog Lucy after it's tossed in the pound.
There are other serious contenders too, but the software of our Envelope poll only permits 10 entries, so I had to curtail the list.
Penelope Cruz is aces in "Elegy," which was sent via DVD to the academy's acting branch in October, but most Oscar gurus think that she's such a stand-out as a gun-toting crazed ex-lover in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" that she'll be considered chiefly for that role in the supporting slot.
Kate Beckinsale gives the performance of her career as a journo who goes to jail to keep her sources secret in "Nothing but the Truth," and she got lots of praise from film critics who first saw the film at the Toronto fest in September, but early Oscar buzz isn't strong. That's probably because the film doesn't open in theaters till late next month, which is a mistake. Little, struggling indie flicks like this need to get out early in the derby in order to build traction. That didn't used to be the case, but it's been true ever since the Oscars moved up from March to February in 2003. Now it seems that only the big, high-profile pics can debut so late.
Art-house flick "Wendy and Lucy," which debuts in theaters on Dec. 10, may also pay a terrible price for lateness, but Michelle Williams gets special notice now because of her personal back story.
Even though Emma Thompson is a past Oscar fave, I think she may be penalized for the late release of "Last Chance Harvey" (Dec. 25) too. She gives a soulful performance as a lonely middle-aged gal aching for love, but the best-actress category is crowded this year and the film may not stand out as being special enough to merit the attention of voters scrambling to see dozens of other films before they get nomination ballots about the time "Harvey" hits theaters.
Yes, voters get the chance to see all of these films early at industry screenings and on DVDs shipped to their homes before the pics open in theaters, but there are a lot of late flicks competing for voters' time and attention now. It helps if the flicks have already opened and established themselves as beloved by regular moviegoers, who help to build buzz.
You don't believe me? Consider the release dates of the films that won Oscars for acting over the past two years. Only two winners starred in films released in December and their pics were both high-profile contenders: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood") and Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls"). The others:
Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose" -- June
Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men" — November
Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton" — October
Forest Whitaker, "Last King of Scotland" — October
Helen Mirren, "The Queen" — October
Alan Arkin, "Little Miss Sunshine" — August
Being out front early didn't help one contender this year, though: Keira Knightley. Back in early autumn she scored great reviews for "The Duchess" and had serious Oscars buzz, but then, suddenly, kaput. What happened? I'm not sure I know the answer.
That's how fickle the derby is this year. Other crazy things could happen ahead. If there's too much support for Kate Winslet's turn in "The Reader," Oscar voters could ignore her campaign in the supporting race and place her in lead, thus forcing her to compete against her role in "Revolutionary Road." That could end up splitting her vote, resulting in her being totally snubbed. At this point, frankly, the only sure thing is a nomination for Meryl Streep.
Photo credits: Miramax, Paramount Vantage, Sony Pictures Classics, Yari Films, Oscilloscope, Overture