Best Actress, 2003
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of the corresponding films.)

Keisha Castle-Hughes
Whale Rider


Possibly the most sympathetic character in the bunch, and the movie has been a hit with viewers of all ages and denominations since it started on the festival circuit over a year ago. A nicely intuitive performance.

Oscar occasionally doles out acting awards to young tykes, but he's never shown the same impulse in the leading categories. It might feel risky giving an Oscar to Theron, who may never be this good again...but isn't it even more frivolous to give one to a teenager who may never reappear onscreen?
Diane Keaton
Something's Gotta Give

A fabulously well-liked celebrity who has parlayed a well-known persona into a sparklingly reviewed performance in a major comedy hit. Her best hope is that Theron and Watts split the Tragic Muse vote so her squeaky-clean act can sally forth.
Then again, the role of Erica is pretty close to Keaton's persona, and since she already has an Oscar, unlike anyone else in this race, there's no real incentive for rewarding another round of la-di-da'ing.
Samantha Morton
In America

No pluses big enough to count.
Now that the smoke has cleared, this nomination seems even more surprising than the City of God juggernaut. A smallish role by this category's standards, and a subtle, self-effacing performance by the same standards. Will voters still remember her in the morning?
Charlize Theron

Detonated her own typecasting as the vacuous blonde with a menacing, swaggering, larger-than-life performance that humanized a familiar demon. Theron lived up to early (and surprising) buzz and was genuinely appreciative upon winning the Golden Globe. Add a producing credit to the mix, and voters will feel fondly to her mix of moxie and miraculous mid-career makeover..
But are some parts of the makeover, specifically the makeup, too distracting? Audiences have been fiercely split over whether Monster is a revelation or a fluke for its star, and some voters will act defensively against a growing trend of latexed performances getting a free pass to the awards dais.
Naomi Watts
21 Grams

Hit the bottom of human misery without any fancy freckles and cosmetics. Copped lots of critics awards, many of them the same ones she scored for 2001's Mulholland Drive, for which Oscar overlooked her. With sizable roles in five 2004 releases, she is clearly an actress the industry supports: imagine all those trailers that would love to sell her as an Oscar winner! Watts missed a Globe nod, which doesn't say anything in particular about affection for her performance, but it does suggest that the film as a whole hasn't made everbody happy. That's true for Monster, too, but with Theron being touted as the front-runner everywhere, Watts has an even bigger PR mission on her hands.

WHO WILL WIN: Charlize Theron, Monster
This is the one acting race where the SAG outcome could make a big difference. If Watts or Keaton takes it, as well they might, Theron's lead will prove to be tinier than people imagine. I'm worried that people have had time to second-guess this performance, whose power is probably greatest on first impression.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Charlize Theron, Monster
Then again, I've gone back for a second viewing of Monster, and she was just as towering as I remembered. Her performance isn't just better and richer than those of her competitors, it's acting on a whole different level, expertly combining a complex psychology with Brechtian gestus and cunning impersonation. It seems like yesterday that she was among my very least favorite actresses; now I can't wait to see her next move.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I think Morton is wonderful in In America, but Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play her precocious daughters, were even better, sweeping away every Scrooge-like preconception we might have against pint-sized performers. And Jamie Lee Curtis was so frisky and pouty and incandescent in Freaky Friday, she made the whole movie feel like something special.

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