The Road to Oscar: Best Actress

     February 21, 2013

Continuing on with our “Road to Oscar” feature, today we’re going to take a look at how the race for Best Actress played out over the past 12 months.  With the 85th Academy Awards taking place this coming Sunday, we figured this week would be a nice opportunity to reflect on how a number of Oscar categories got to where they are today.  Join us after the jump as we break down the race for Best Actress.

Quvenzhane-Wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildUnlike Best Actor, the Best Actress race has seen some dramatic ebbs and flows over the past few months.  Our first candidate of the Oscar season actually came in January with six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in the Sundance hit Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The young actress was utterly captivating as Hushpuppy, and her performance is all the more impressive when you realize that she essentially carries the entire film.

Audiences sparked to young Wallis at Sundance and again in the summer when the film hit theaters, and while the actress’ talent was undeniable, some questioned whether the Academy would take notice or if they’d chalk her work up to good direction, given her age.  Nevertheless, Wallis remained a part of the conversation in the coming months.

Early 2012 also gave way to a couple of buzzworthy performances in foreign films.  The Cannes Film Festival in May saw the premiere of the French film Rust and Bone, and critics were quick to praise previous Best Actress winner Marion Cotillard for her work as a double-amputee whale trainer (if that doesn’t qualify as “Oscar bait,” I’m not sure what does).

amour-emanuelle-rivaAnother hit at Cannes was director Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking French drama Amour, and 86-year-old star Emmanuelle Riva enjoyed widespread acclaim for her gut-punch of a performance as an elderly woman whose stroke takes its toll on her relationship with her husband.  Though plenty of films would hit theaters in the coming months, Wallis, Cotillard, and Riva managed to remain part of the Awards conversation up through September, when the festival films began to premiere.

Speaking of which, the Toronto Film Festival turned up a whole mess of Best Actress candidates, including a clear frontrunner.  Within hours of its premiere at TIFF, Silver Linings Playbook became the new Best Picture frontrunner and its cast became a major part of the awards conversation.  The best shot at Oscar glory, most surmised, was the film’s female lead Jennifer Lawrence.  The young actress was nominated for her first Oscar just two years prior with Winter’s Bone, but her charismatic and touching performance in Silver Linings Playbook was the crux of the film’s overall appeal, and the film continued to be an audience favorite as it played like gangbusters throughout the coming months.

naomi-watts-the-impossibleThough Lawrence was the new Best Actress frontrunner coming out of TIFF, the festival also saw the rise of a couple of other viable candidates for Oscar.  Naomi Watts drew praise for her tearjerking performance in the emotional true story The Impossible, and the veteran actress also had a long history of strong work in her favor.  Also drawing notice was Keira Knightley for Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, in which the actress arguably gives the best performance of her career.  Like Watts, Knightley has been doing solid work for years, and her performance was a standout in Wright’s bold vision for Anna Karenina. Watts and Knightley found plenty of cheerleaders following the festival debut of their films, but the Best Actress game-changer was still yet to come.

Fox Searchlight attempted to throw a curveball into the awards race by moving up the release date of its biopic Hitchcock, but when the film finally screened it was met with a rather lukewarm response overall.  Though Anthony Hopkins earned sufficient marks for his turn as the titular filmmaker, it was Helen Mirren’s performance as Hitch’s wife and trusted collaborator Alma Reville that had everyone talking.  Many noted that the story would have been better if it focused on Reville rather than Hitchcock, and previous Oscar winner Mirren became a serious possibility as a Best Actress nominee.

zero-dark-thirty-jessica-chastainTo say the production of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was shrouded in secrecy would be an understatement.  In fact, we didn’t even know that Jessica Chastain was the film’s lead until a couple of months before its release.  When the film finally did start screening, though, Jennifer Lawrence found some incredibly tough competition for the trophy by way of Chastain’s performance.  The actress’ visceral, layered, and powerful work as CIA agent Maya was deservedly hailed as one of the best performances of the year.  It was an impossible role to take on as the character is given absolutely zero backstory and is solely, obsessively focused on the film’s central mission for the entirety of its runtime, but Chastain knocked it out of the park.

With the Oscar nominations looming closer, the question now became: Chastain or Lawrence?  It looked as though it would be a photo finish with Chastain taking the early lead in the critics’ awards, but then the awards season nuttiness set in and Zero Dark Thirty became mired in controversy.  Conversations ceased to be about the film or the work itself and soon turned into a question of whether Bigelow was actively advocating the use of torture with ZDT.  Sadly, this carried over to Chastain’s frontrunner status, as the film simply became too divisive for there to be unanimous support around the actress’ performance.  Alas, she wasn’t put out of the race completely, but the tide did indeed turn heavily in Lawrence’s favor.

hitchcock-helen-mirrenAs we moved closer towards the Oscar nominations, the category of Best Actress became quite tough to predict.  The Screen Actors Guild Awards slotted Marion Cotillard, Helen Mirren, and Naomi Watts alongside Chastain and Lawrence, but two actresses from early 2012 films started to pick up steam.  Support for Beasts of the Southern Wild as a whole was strong, and talk of Quvenzhané Wallis landing a Best Actress nomination became more serious every day.  Additionally, Michael Haneke’s Amour became the favorite “artsy” film of the season a la 2010’s The Tree of Life, and star Emmanuelle Riva found herself a major part of the Oscar conversation.

When the nominations were finally revealed, Cotillard and Mirren missed the cut in favor of Wallis and Riva, as our Best Actress Oscar nominees consisted of Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Emmanuelle Riva.  This is one of the tougher categories to predict even as we’re just days away from the ceremony, as Lawrence and Riva look to be battling it out for the win.

Check back on Collider tomorrow as we look at the craziness that was the race for Best Director, and catch up on our previous Road to Oscar articles below.


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