Oscar Watch: The Actresses

There are no obvious front-runners and only the most tenuous of favorites in this year's Oscar actress races

This is the year when 10 actress nominees should be laying burnt offerings on the shrine of "Slumdog Millionaire" for not boasting heavyweight leading ladies. In a year when "Slumdog" is heading locomotive-like to the top of the Oscars (unless a recent controversy about its child performers derails it), the two actress categories remain wide open. So who will win and why?

Actress in a Leading Role

Click here for THR's at-a-glance breakdown of the actress contenders

If justice has anything to do with it, this should be Kate Winslet's year. After all, Winslet is among the most admired actresses on the planet and is currently running zero for five in her previous shots at the Oscar.

But justice and the Academy have a long history of going their separate ways, as Glenn Close, Alfred Hitchcock and Barbara Stanwyck could attest. Plus, would it be all that just to reward a career rather than an individual performance?

If that's the way the Academy thinks, it could go for any of the five nominees, who this year include Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married"), Angelina Jolie ("Changeling"), Melissa Leo ("Frozen River") and Meryl Streep ("Doubt"), along with Winslet herself ("The Reader").

Previous wins would indicate that Streep and Winslet are the front-runners.

Winslet has already scooped up a mantleful of baubles for both "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road," and her failure to get an Oscar nom for the latter -- almost certainly because the Academy doesn't allow an actress to receive two nominations within the same category in the same year -- means that she'll have a lot of sympathy on her side. But there's a snag: Winslet's previous wins for "Reader" came in the supporting category. For reasons known only to its acting branch, the Academy decided to give her more votes in the lead category. Winslet is untested here. While the odds still favor her, don't rule out the chance of a loss.

As for Streep, true, she won the leading-lady nod at the SAG Awards, but she lost at the Globes when Winslet edged her out for "Road." And Streep has lost before: She's only won two Oscars in 14 previous nominations.

Is there any chance Streep or Winslet will stumble? Unlikely, but there's an argument to be made that the other nominees might be in the running. Hathaway stunned audiences when she proved that she wasn't just the frothy star of popcorn fare like 2001's "The Princess Diaries" or 2006's "The Devil Wears Prada" -- and she did it without an accent, without make-up and without looking ugly, the usual ingredients that help an actress win a nomination.

Angelina Jolie is no mean actress -- she's already won an Oscar for 1999's "Girl, Interrupted," and many people thought she deserved another for 2007's "A Mighty Heart." Plus, the double whammy of Jolie and Eastwood working together on "Changeling" has Oscar written all over it. Or at least, had Oscar written all over it until Eastwood's "Gran Torino" stole all the fire.

That leaves Melissa Leo. She's a near-unknown who doesn't bring star wattage to the table. Which means if ever an underdog stood a chance, it's her. Problem is, there are too many other underdogs competing in the supporting category.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Click here for THR's at-a-glance breakdown of the supporting actress contenders

Five lucky thespians are breathing a collective sigh of relief that Winslet wasn't nominated in the supporting category; otherwise, they'd be betting against themselves.

Now that she's gone, there's little to indicate who the favorite is between Amy Adams ("Doubt"), Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Viola Davis ("Doubt"), Taraji P. Henson ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler").

What's odd is how easy it is to make a case against each one's chances. Adams and Davis have a strike against them in both being nominated for the same film. Davis and Henson have a strike against them in both being African American, which may split any support that might come their way in the Year of Obama. Cruz has a strike against her in being the only person to get nominated for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona": The fact that not even Woody Allen got a nom hints that the Academy is indifferent to the film. And Marisa Tomei could be hurt, given that many Academy members felt "The Wrestler" was second only in pain to being head-butted by Hulk Hogan.

But...

Here's why each one could win:

Adams was part of the most acclaimed ensemble cast of the year, the only picture that drew nominations for all four of its leads. And you can't get away from the fact that Hollywood simply adores her. After failing to win for 2005's "Junebug," she's earned the right to a shot at an Oscar now. Plus, what other star could play pure-as-the-driven-snow, and actually make you believe it?

Davis came out of the blue with a role that tugged at our emotions in a way that nothing else in "Doubt" did. We actually cared for her and her dilemma, dealing with a putative molester while needing to educate her son, more than we did for any other character. And she has all the weight of Miramax, which was pushing her right from the start of awards season, with genuine conviction.

Henson is simply one of the best actresses around. That was apparent to any Oscar voter who saw her sweet, sad Shug in 2005's "Hustle & Flow," and it was even more apparent to interviewers who saw how different Henson is from that character in real life. Even rival thesps and their agents were marveling at her talent before "Button" started screening.

Tomei is at that 40-ish point when Hollywood shuts the door on most actresses. The fact that she's had her best role in years at that age will draw resounding support from Academy members who also feel shut out by ageism.

As for Cruz, she's never been better. And not only good, she is also marvelously entertaining, playing the most flamboyant character of any actress nominated this year. Real-life chemistry added sparks to her onscreen interactions with Javier Bardem. And with dialogue like Woody's, the material justifies an Oscar.

Odds favor Cruz. She's been nominated before, may be helped rather than hurt by tabloid attacks for her past relationship with Tom Cruise, and voters will remember her stellar performances in Pedro Almodovar's movies, too.
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