Best Actress, 2004
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of the corresponding films.)

Annette Bening
Being Julia


Bening won a Globe and a National Board of Review prize for gripping this showboaty, center-stage part with both hands, and for wringing some laughs and some startlingly intimate moments out of an uneven and pretty forgettable script. The perception that she's owed after an admirable career (and after putting up with being second fiddle to her husband) will count for something, as asinine as that may be. Even more asinine, the Bening/Swank factor will probably figure and probably in her favor.

I know lots of people are much more optimistic about her chances here than I am, but I just don't see Being Julia being embraced by a sizable enough part of the Academy. First, it's highly theatrical, and if you think that doesn't turn off Academy members by itself, call up the Closer crew and ask how they feel. It's old-fashioned, lacking the creative innovations of Eternal Sunshine or the contemporary relevance of Maria Full of Grace, and nor is it old-fashioned in a way that's easy to cozy up to, like Million Dollar Baby is. Plus, the performance itself is divisive. The best Bening could hope for is a Blue Sky-style career recompensation thing, where the quality of the movie barely figures, but that only worked for Lange (a much more revered figure) because her competition was much weaker than the current field is.
Catalina Sandino Moreno
Maria Full of Grace

Hugely sympathetic role, bravely played in a halfway-unsympathetic style. Match that with a great story of an actress' discovery. Plus, wouldn't it be great if this were the start of a noteworthy career? I'm reading a novel right now for which she'd be an ideal choice in a film adaptation...
...and there'll be plenty of time for those future projects, if she's worth her salt. Enormous sympathy for Maria as a character will help, but the anonymity thing will be hard to beat. The best she can hope for is an out-of-nowhere Anna Paquin thing, but those are much more easily achieved in the Supporting races.
Imelda Staunton
Vera Drake

Anchoring a serious, highly admired movie all by herself, scoring critics' prizes by the wagon-load, and having graduated from that vast school of half-recognizable character actors—a purgatory where many Oscar voters have inhabited or do inhabit—Imelda Staunton is an unambiguous lead in an important, pedigreed movie that tackles an important issue in a non-simplistic way. The two additional nods for Vera Drake indicate that people have been watching their screeners, maybe too late to sway the Globe or SAG results, but just in time to push her over the top here.
Still, Vera Drake's disappointing box office implies that people are easily scared off by the movie, and Staunton doesn't have the kind of name value that will draw voters to the film. Hers won't be the first DVD that Academy members who are only now catching up on a year's worth of movies will be hustling to watch. The best she can hope for is a Shirley Booth-style endorsement: when the work is this good, who cares that we don't know who she is? But she's till got some hurdles to clear.
Hilary Swank
Million Dollar Baby

Certainly on the surface, she's got all her ducks in a row: she's a past winner as well as a beautiful up-and-comer, meaning she has Oscar's two favorite qualities for this category all rolled into one. She won the Golden Globe, she won the Screen Actors Guild award, she won prizes from critics' groups, and she's in the highest-grossing film (and the only Best Picture nominee) in this lot. What could go wrong?
Incalculables are what could go wrong. Okay, everything with Oscar is incalculable. But this kind of stuff: does Hilary Swank really need two Oscars? Granted, Luise Rainer and Glenda Jackson probably didn't need two right out of the gate, either. But up against a tour-de-force by a British thesp, and a fourth nomination for Kate Winslet, and a comic plum by Annette Bening? There's no compelling reason for people to feel bad voting against her; sentiment is stronger on every other side.
Kate Winslet
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Fine, I probably am applying my personal prejudices. But Oscar clearly loves Kate—you don't nominate someone four times in ten years if you're kidding around, much less an actor in her twenties. Eternal Sunshine could turn out like The Usual Suspects, a film that reaps few nominations, but reaps their loyal support when it comes down to winning. Don't you get the sense that the Academy wants her to win? Okay, I probably am applying my personal prejudices. She hasn't won anything that really augurs well for her, and older voters will be turned off by the spiraling out of the plot and the punkiness of the character.

WHO WILL WIN: I've had a hunch about Imelda Staunton all along, and even with Hilary Swank picking up all the momentum, I'm not going to let go of my intuition. And only in the last few days have I gotten kinda preoccupied by the idea of a Winslet upset. I still say Bening's out.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Kate Winslet pulls off what no one has pulled off since 1977: she manages a kooky/neurotic/dyspeptic female lead in a romantic comedy that is the equal of Annie Hall without in the slightest bit mimicking Annie Hall. Now, who else could do that? Even Julianne Moore, Her Eminence Who Walks Among Us, has trouble in this kind of genre. Winslet is 100% at home, everywhere, always.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Julie Delpy was fetching and feather-light in a performance that is nonetheless perfectly controlled and calibrated. (If it weren't for Winslet's, hers would easily be the romantic comedy performance of the year.) Then there's Nicole Kidman, who lapped the competition twice in Birth and in Dogville, but after a win she didn't quite deserve, she misses out on two nominations she did. See, everything balances out. The universe resolves.

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