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Here are the nominees this year for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
The lowdown: There’s history to be made for sure here. At the age of nine, Wallis is this category’s youngest ever competitor. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, art house actress Riva, who turns 86 on Sunday, is Oscar’s oldest Best Actress nominee. The performer, nominated for her outstanding turn in Amour, actually has historical precedent on her side. In their respective years, both Katharine Hepburn and Jessica Tandy were the oldest nominees, and each nabbed the award.
But while Riva stands an outside chance, this race comes down to a couple of newbies. Lawrence has improbably burst to the forefront for a role that, to me, doesn’t typify the size or weight of an Oscar-worthy role, though she’s probably the best thing about the antic, artificial Silver, that’s faint praise. The other frontrunner would seem to be Oscar-hungry Chastain, although her Zero role is ultimately the least consequential of the 7400 roles this magnificent talent has played in the last two years on-screen. (Also, a word to the wise, Ms. Chastain: your recent interviews bemoaning your “overnight success” after having been acting for years are eroding your charm. At 35, you’re rich, famous, well-regarded and a double-Oscar nominee. Dial it down. Quick.)
Both of these are two of the better young actresses working in film (Lawrence deserved to win already for Winter’s Bone), but neither of these performances cries out “superlative.” And just look back on past winners in this category: Fifty years ago Anne Bancroft won for her Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. Forty years ago Liza Minnelli astonished in Cabaret. Three decades prior Meryl Streep forever raised the bar in Sophie’s Choice. Twenty years ago Emma Thompson danced with perfection in Howards End. These are extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime performances that should forever cement themselves in our collective film memory. And the only one that comes close to doing that here, ironically, is Riva’s role as a woman losing her memory. The rest are performances that are good enough, but not quite great.
Snubs: Melissa Leo Francine, Rachel Weisz The Deep Blue Sea, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
Should win: Riva
Will win: Lawrence over Chastain and Riva