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Oscar Predictions Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Viola Davis

Meryl Streep Margaret Thatcher The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady

Three actresses are shoo-ins for the 2012 Academy Awards' Best Actress shortlist: Meryl Streep for her portrayal of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis' My Week with Marilyn, and Viola Davis for her portrayal of a Southern housemaid in Tate Taylor's The Help.

All three actresses have been shortlisted for both the SAG Awards and the BAFTAs. Additionally, Streep and Williams won Golden Globes in the Best Actress in a Motion Picture categories (respectively, Drama and Comedy/Musical). Streep was also the New York Film Critics' choice, while Williams has been the pick of most North American critics' groups. Viola Davis, for her part, has received several citations as well, and was the Best Actress winner at the (televised and widely publicized) Critics' Choice Awards.

This year, Meryl Streep will be receiving her 17th Oscar nomination – 14th as Best Actress. Her previous nods were for the following:

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), with Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken
  • Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), with Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry
  • Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002), with Chris Cooper and Nicolas Cage

Best Actress:

  • Karel Reisz's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), with Jeremy Irons;
  • Alan J. Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982), with Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol
  • Mike Nichols' Silkwood (1983), with Kurt Russell and Cher
  • Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (1985), with Robert Redford and Klaus Maria Brandauer
  • Hector Babenco's Ironweed (1987), with Jack Nicholson
  • Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark (1988), with Sam Neill
  • Mike Nichols' Postcards from the Edge (1990), with Shirley MacLaine and Gene Hackman
  • Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County (1995), co-starring Eastwood
  • Carl Franklin's One True Thing (1998), with Renée Zellweger and William Hurt
  • Wes Craven's Music of the Heart (1999), with Angela Bassett and Gloria Estefan
  • David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada (2006), with Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci
  • John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (2008), with Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and The Help's Viola Davis
  • Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia (2009), with Amy Adams

Streep won for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice. She has been nominated 12 times since.

Michelle Williams was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005), co-starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and as Best Actress for Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), opposite Ryan Gosling. Viola Davis was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for Doubt.

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

The other two Oscar 2012 Best Actress slots are more or less up for grabs. Having said that, both Tilda Swinton and Glenn Close have an edge over their competitors. For her performance as the mother of a young mass murderer in Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Swinton has been shortlisted by both SAG and BAFTA. Though ignored by North American critics this awards season, Close is up for no less than two SAG Awards: for her Irishwoman passing for an Irishman in Rodrigo García's Albert Nobbs and for her ruthless attorney in the popular television series Damages. Actors clearly like her. Thus, Swinton and Close are our two selections to round out the top five.

Swinton, whose film career spans more than two decades, was a surprise Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Tony Gilroy's George Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton four years ago. Glenn Close was nominated five times in the 1980s, then all but disappeared from Oscar view. Close's nominations were for the following: as Best Supporting Actress for George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp (1982), Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill, and Barry Levinson's The Natural, starring Robert Redford; as Best Actress for Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction, out to get Michael Douglas, and Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, out to get everybody, including John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But bear in mind that there could be one or two upsets when the 2012 Best Actress Oscar nominations are announced. In fact, as in the last few years, the 2012 Best Actress contenders form a much stronger group than their male counterparts.

The possible upsets are Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,National Society of Film Critics and Cannes Film Festival winner Kirsten Dunst for Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Elizabeth Olsen for Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Charlize Theron for Jason Reitman's Young Adult. Less likely, but not to be fully discarded are Emma Stone for The Help and Kristen Wiig for Paul Feig's Bridesmaids. With the exception of Theron, who won as Best Actress for Patty Jenkins' Monster (2003) and was nominated for Niki Caro's North Country (2005), all of the aforementioned actresses would be first-time Oscar nominees.

Further down the list are Keira Knightley for David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, Olivia Colman for Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur (Colman even failed to make the cut at the BAFTAs, as British Academy voters clearly much prefer big American stars), Michelle Yeoh for Luc Besson's The Lady, Brit Marling for Mike Cahill's Another Earth, and Felicity Jones for Drake Doremus' Like Crazy.

Theoretically, The Artist's Bérénice Bejo could pull a Kate Winslet: pushed for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008), but eventually shortlisted as Best Actress. (Winslet took home that year's Best Actress Oscar.) That probably won't happen, however, because unlike Winslet, Bejo isn't a big name in the United States, where most Academy members reside.

Come to think of it, theoretically Winslet could herself pull a Kate Winslet. Both Winslet and Jodie Foster have been listed as supporting actresses in Roman Polanski's Carnage. The problem is that Polanski's film hasn't been widely seen, nor has it received much critical love this awards season.

In a perfect world, Catherine Deneuve would be a Best Actress shoo-in for François Ozon's Potiche, but as anyone with at least half a brain would know, this is hardly a perfect world. As for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's pick, Poetry's Yun Jung-hee, she has no chance at all.

Glenn Close/Albert Nobbs photo: Patrick Redmond / Roadside Attractions.

Meryl Streep/The Iron Lady pic: The Weinstein Company.

Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist

There'll be anywhere between five and ten Best Picture nominees this year, depending on how many movies manage to get at least 5 percent of first-place votes*. That variable must be taken into consideration, whether you find that it increases the suspense (and therefore is a good thing) or decreases the chances of truly small movies getting a nomination (and therefore is a really, really bad thing).

This late in the game, only five movies are shoo-ins for a Best Picture nod: Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist (The Weinstein Company), Martin Scorsese's Hugo (Paramount), Alexander Payne's The Descendants (20th Century Fox), Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics), and Tate Taylor's The Help (Walt Disney Studios).

Curiously, only three of the above have a strong chance of landing acting nominations: The Artist (Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo), The Descendants (George Clooney and possibly Shailene Woodley), and The Help (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, likely Jessica Chastain, and possibly Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, and/or Bryce Dallas Howard).

Even more curious is that – despite a SAG Award nomination for Best Cast – there's a Woody Allen movie in the running without a single likely Oscar nomination in the acting categories. (Midnight in Paris' Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are longshots.) To date, Allen has directed no less than 16 Oscar-nominated performances, including six winners (Diane Keaton for Annie Hall, Dianne Wiest for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, Michael Caine for Hannah and Her Sisters, Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite, and Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Bennett Miller's Moneyball and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are two very likely additions to the 2012 Best Picture list, though they have a problem: both are Scott Rudin co-productions/Columbia releases, which means vote-splitting could mean the difference between 5 percent (the movie is in) or, say, 4.8 percent (the movie is out). In the acting categories, Moneyball's Brad Pitt and possibly Jonah Hill should be respectively shortlisted in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara is a possible Best Actress nominee.

Beyond the aforementioned seven films, things get really tricky. Strong front-runners before they opened (we're fully aware of the irony in that statement), Steven Spielberg's War Horse and Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are now also-rans. Of the two, War Horse has by far the strongest chance of landing a nomination, especially if Disney, Amblin, and DreamWorks' executives and publicists (those who also happen to be Academy members, of course) have voted en masse for the Spielberg film as their no. 1 movie of 2011. Disney execs will probably have figured that The Help doesn't need their – bad pun intended – help at the Oscars, whereas War Horse needs all the assistance it can get.

* After some spreading around of “surplus” votes and “orphan” votes. The surplus is triggered after a movie is the top choice in more than 1/11th + 1 of the ballots (the minimum number of topmost votes required for a maximum of ten nominees). The surplus votes (now worth less than one full vote) are then redistributed to the second or third or fourth choice on each surplus ballot, depending on which movies haven't already been shortlisted as official nominees. Additionally, ballots topped by films that received less than 1 percent of the votes will also be redistributed.

Bérénice Bejo/The Artist pic: The Weinstein Company.

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, The Descendants2012 Oscar Predictions Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, Glenn Close. [Photo: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.]

Like in the Best Actress 2012 Academy Award race, there are three shoo-ins for the Best Actor shortlist: George Clooney, Jean Dujardin, and Brad Pitt. Clooney will be in the running for Alexander Payne's The Descendants, Dujardin for Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, and Pitt for Bennett Miller's Moneyball.

Clooney has already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his sleazy U.S. spy/weapons dealer in Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (2005). In the acting categories, he was also nominated as Best Actor for Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007) and Jason Reitman's Up in the Air (2009). This year, Clooney's own Golden Globe-nominated political drama The Ides of March serves as further evidence of the actor-director's “worthiness.” (Clooney was a Best Director Oscar nominee for the 2005 black-and-white drama Good Night, and Good Luck, which also earned David Strathairn a Best Actor nod.)

Dujardin will be a first-time Oscar nominee and – if our quick research is accurate – only the fourth Frenchman to be shortlisted for an Academy Award in the acting categories. His predecessors were Maurice Chevalier for the Ernst Lubitsch musicals The Big Pond and The Love Parade (1929-30*); Charles Boyer for Clarence Brown's Conquest (1937), John Cromwell's Algiers (1938), George Cukor's Gaslight (1944), and Joshua Logan's Fanny (1961); and Gérard Depardieu for Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac (1990).

Brad Pitt has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Best Actor for David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). Also this year, he's a possibility in the Best Supporting Actor category for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

* In the first three years of the Academy Awards, nominees could be shortlisted for more than one film. Janet Gaynor, for instance, was voted Best Actress for the period 1927-28 for three movies, Sunrise, 7th Heaven, and Street Angel; Emil Jannings won for two: The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. Also, the Oscars' eligibility period initially went from early August to late July of the following year. That was changed in the early 1930s.

The Descendants photo: Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight

Demian Bichir, A Better Life, Chris Weitz
Demián Bichir, A Better Life

The fourth Best Actor slot should go to Michael Fassbender, who is a strong possibility for Steve McQueen's Shame. Having said that, we should add that Fassbender, though a BAFTA nominee, was bypassed by SAG voters, and rumor has it that numerous Academy members hated Shame. Yet, all Fassbender needs is to get about 20 percent first/second place votes to land a nomination. That shouldn't be too hard, considering that the Best Actor competition this year isn't all that stiff.

Also, Academy members who enjoyed watching Fassbender in Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, or Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre may choose to vote for him in Shame, as – barring an upset of Dennis Hopper-ish proportions† – that's Fassbender's only viable Oscar ticket.

But what about the NC-17 “stigma”? Even if you choose to ignore Marlon Brando's Best Actor nomination for Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris back in the early '70s, Michelle Williams was a Best Actress nominee last year despite the initial NC-17 (later toned down to an “R”) rating given to Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine. True, Blue Valentine was plugged by the Oscar-savvy The Weinstein Company, but Shame's Fox Searchlight is no slouch when it comes to pushing potential Oscar nominees, e.g., Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan.

The fifth Best Actor slot is truly up for grabs. BAFTA chose Gary Oldman for Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; SAG went for Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar and Demián Bichir for Chris Weitz's A Better Life. North American critics have cited Michael Shannon a number of times for Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter. And then there's Ryan Gosling for Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.

Though DiCaprio would be the more obvious choice, we'll go out on a limb and select Bichir. The inclusion of his performance as an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles was a major SAG Award surprise, and Bichir may well repeat that feat at the Oscars (reportedly thanks to early screeners sent to voters).

Also, bear in mind that most Oscar voters live (or spend a long time in) Los Angeles, and they usually appreciate stories about their hometown. Oscar-nominated examples abound, such as Curtis Hanson's Best Picture nominee L.A. Confidential, Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (Best Supporting Actor nod for Robert Forster), Michael Mann's Collateral (Best Supporting Actor nod for Jamie Foxx), Paul Haggis' Best Picture winner Crash, Clint Eastwood's Changeling (Best Actress nod for Angelina Jolie).

Apart from DiCaprio, Shannon, Gosling, and Oldman, there are also a couple of considerably less likely Best Actor possibilities: Woody Harrelson for Oren Moverman's Rampart and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Jonathan Levine's 50/50.

† In early 1987, Dennis Hopper was shocked to learn he was nominated for David Anspaugh's Hoosiers instead of David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

Demián Bichir/A Better Life photo: Summit Entertainment

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