Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
While none of this year’s fields come close to my personal picks, Best Actress is the only category this year where I feel every nominated performance deserves to be here. That fresh quality also makes this race amongst the less predictable, though not for lack of trying. For some time it felt like there was a predestined youth knock-out to take the prize, only for another emerging ingenue to take focus. Those two would duke it out for superiority until the season’s dark horse emerged as a powerhouse presence in the late game.
Jessica Chastain’s rise to fame has been swift and unanimous, enchanting audiences last year by way of either The Tree of Life, The Help, or Take Shelter. By the time Zero Dark Thirty landed, Chastain was a household name, which gave the film a star quality Bigelow perhaps wasn’t expecting. She’s often cast young performers on the edge of stardom, and like Jeremy Renner, Chastain has officially blown audiences away with her first true lead performance. Intensely collected throughout with forthright determination that blasts through when emotions run high, Chastain’s Maya is fierce portrayal of the unsung heroine of the Bin Laden hunt, but also a conduit for American obsession over the past decade. Should Zero Dark Thirty make its presence known in Adapted Screenplay and Sound Editing, the momentum may well follow Chastain here.
Her competition since day one has been another rising commodity in the industry, and one who has already used her Oscar talent to transition into a blockbuster movie star. Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Linings Playbook character couldn’t be further removed from the sulking stasis she displayed in The Hunger Games. Tiffany Maxwell is volatile, flirtatious, and charismatically resourceful, and all the fierce interior emotions bubble grossly on the surface. Some might shrug at her warts-and-all translation of the “manic pixie dream girl”, not to mention her being Harvey Weinstein’s strongest trophy player, but hers is the most explosive performance of the batch. She could very easily take the prize, and much of the energy is heading in her direction.
But a funny thing happened on Oscar morning. Amour proved to be a major Oscar player after all, snagging Emmanuelle Riva a nomination after being passed over by SAG and Golden Globes considerations. Normally such a commendation would end there, but the moment the film became a necessity for Academy voters to watch, the wind subtly changed in Riva’s favor. Her performance exists in tandem with Jean-Louis Trintignant’s, sadly not present, but there’s Riva’s intensely physical performance, all on its own conveying the mental and physical debilitation of her character, is of a caliber the Academy rarely nominates. Ever since the film’s nomination, more viewers have been catching on to Amour, and that swift conversion may make all the difference. If the Academy truly wishes to make an honest, dynamic statement, this is their opportunity, and I’m feeling unusually optimistic about Riva’s chances here.
A sweet accompaniment to 85-year-old Riva’s nomination is 6-year-old at the time Quvenzhane Wallis’ performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. One might wonder exactly how much prowess a girl can have at that age, but Wallis has none of the limitations that come with age. Hers is an incredible passion that carries the weight of the film’s existential themes, and it is indeed something that may tarnish with age. That’s perhaps all the more reason to honor this unfiltered work with the Academy’s recognition. As a gesture of optimism, though, her chances of winning are slim. After all, where do you go after winning an Oscar at the age of 6?
Most easily dispensed with in this category is Naomi Watts’ work on The Impossible, and I must admit there are more deserving performances that could be here in her place. She holds neither the breakout success of Lawrence and Chastain, nor the groundbreaking age distinctions of Riva and Wallis. After so many years of existing outside the awards stratosphere, though, Watts reminds us of her emotional versatility tackling a character who exists on the brink of death throughout. It’s largely aided by the makeup and visual effects surrounding her, neither of which was recognized by the technical branches. She’s not even the best performance in the film, young actor Tom Holland breaking onto the scene as the film’s moral protagonist. Nonetheless, Watts and co-star Ewan McGregor are more than simply harmless performances, garnering enough true sentiment from the audience to carry us all through to the end.
Predicted Winner: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour (though Jennifer Lawrence could easily take it for Silver Linings Playbook)
Preferred Winner: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Write-In Vote: Seriously? No need! Riva’s the one!
Be sure to check out our complete Oscar predictions, which will be updated throughout the week.