Pete Hammond

OSCARS: Best Actor Race Pits Veterans Vs. “Sexiest Men Alive”

The Best Actress race is hot this year.

That isn’t always the case as the paucity of realistic contenders in this category often reflects the lack of good roles for women in Hollywood. But the gods were smiling in 2011, providing killer parts for a nice mix of veterans, past nominees and winners and young stars looking for their first major recognition from Oscar. But as usual, Meryl Streep leads the pack. Here’s the rundown.

FRONTRUNNERS
MERYL STREEP, THE IRON LADY
You know you are in a different league when people start saying it is high time you had another Oscar when you already have two at home. But Streep is indeed in another league and in fact only keeps breaking her own records. With 16 nominations — far more than any actor in film history — it has still been 29 years since she last won (for 1982′s Sophie’s Choice), and many feel that with her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher her time has come again. The New York Critics agreed, but she’s been in this position before and there’s stiff competition.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
The stiffest competition for Streep  may well be coming from two-time nominee Williams whose multi-layered portrayal of screen icon Marilyn Monroe as she attemps to make a film opposite Laurence Olivier is a wonder, capturing three distinct sides of perhaps the most famous movie star of them all. Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing both this and The Iron Lady, has a real Solomon’s choice to make this year — which is why he is probably hoping for a tie.

VIOLA DAVIS, THE HELP
As a maid in the civil rights era of the 1960s, Davis stood out in a remarkable ensemble cast, bringing dignity, humanity and pathos in nearly every scene. Is there anything this Oscar-nominated (Doubt) and Tony-winning (Fences) star can’t play? Adding further fuel to her cause; She would be only the second black actress to win in the category (after Halle Berry), and this film offers the perfect opportunity to do just that.

GLENN CLOSE, ALBERT NOBBS
Close played the same role of a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive 30 years ago off-Broadway and won an Obie Award. After spending the past 15 years trying to bring it to the screen, she finally pulled it off. That is the kind of perseverance actors love, and it seems likely they will reward Close with her sixth Oscar nomination — her first in 23 years.

CHARLIZE THERON, YOUNG ADULT
Theron won an Oscar for playing one Monster, and now she’s angling for a second as another. This time she gets to be her gorgeous self but in a risky, edgy role as an emotionally manipulative and immature woman nearing 40 who is looking to resuscitate a life that peaked in high school. She pulls out all the stops and socks home a three-dimensional portrait of a person who is clearly lost and looking to be found.

TILDA SWINTON, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Swinton won an Oscar for Michael Clayton and famously gave it to her agent, Brian Swardstrom. Well, he is in the running for another one in this tough-as-nails drama about a haunted mother of a monstrous kid. Swinton produced the film and delivers one of her most complex and troubling roles. She lost Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival to Kirsten Dunst, but with numerous nominations including SAG, Globes and a National Board of Review prize, she’s making up for that quickly. But her small distributor only has so much money to spend on a campaign against bigger guns.

CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITIES

ROONEY MARA, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Stepping into a role initially made famous by another actor is never an easy task, but stepping into one made famous just a year earlier by Noomi Rapace is nearly impossible. Mara pulls it off about as well as anyone possibly could in David Fincher’s brooding English-language remake of the Swedish phenomenon that became a bestselling book trilogy and spawned three movies. Now can Mara do what even eluded Rapace and earn an Oscar nod for Lisbeth Salander?

ELIZABETH OLSEN, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
She became a Sundance sensation as a former cult member trying to re-adjust to a new life and quickly overcame any negative connection to her more famous sisters the Olsen twins. A Critics Choice Movie Award nomination for the film over the non-nominated Close gives her some hope here, but the film may be too indie to compete in this year’s deep field of contenders.

MICHELLE YEOH, THE LADY
As the Nobel Peace Prize winner who returned to bring democracy to Burma only to find herself under house arrest for 15 years, Yeoh brings class and a quiet power to a great woman and leader. The small profile for the late-year release means it is an uphill climb for the star, but just bringing attention to the plight of  Aung San Suu Kyi should be reward enough.

KIRSTEN DUNST, MELANCHOLIA
After winning the Best Actress prize at Cannes despite the controversy caused by her director Lars von Trier, Dunst would seem to be a frontrunner for awards this year but hasn’t gained traction — missing hoped-for critics awards and key nominations down the line including even the Indie Spirits.  An Oscar nod would seem at best a long shot at this point, but she can take solace in earning the best reviews of her career and that special Cannes “moment.”

MIA WASIKOWSKA, JANE EYRE
Trying to overcome the stigma of an early spring release and remaining a player in the race isn’t easy, but Wasikowska’s take on the famous Jane Eyre has its strong admirers and even earned her a standing ovation at a recent screening for the SAG nominating committee — but alas no nomination. A long, long shot at best, but her supporting role in Albert Nobbs gives her additional exposure to voters.

ADEPERO ODUYE, PARIAH
In real life she looks like a supermodel, but Oduye made a remarkable transformation as a young, tomboyish student on a journey of self-discovery in this compelling drama some may compare to Precious, but which really has its own style and rhythms thanks to writer-director Dee Rees. The problem for Focus will be to convince voters to put this post-Christmas release at the top of the pile of screeners.

FELICITY JONES, LIKE CRAZY
Jones and the film won big in Sundance, but the tender romantic drama has barely registered a blip so far this awards season, although Jones has won “breakthough” awards from Gotham and the National Board of Review. She’s extremely talented but, despite Paramount’s best efforts, she’ll need more than those to break through at the Oscars.

ELLEN BARKIN, ANOTHER HAPPY DAY
Barkin is another actor’s favorite and star who has never been nominated for an Oscar. She took matters into her own hands and produced this riveting dysfunctional family drama and delivered some of her best work, but no one seems to be talking it up seriously in the Oscar race. It came and went theatrically pre-VOD, making this the most uphill of climbs for the deserving Barkin.

KRISTEN WIIG, BRIDESMAIDS
In terms of acting awards talk for Bridesmaids, it has been supporting player Melissa McCarthy and the overall ensemble (both in competition for a SAG Award) rather than its leading lady and co-screenwriter. But with a Best Actress-Comedy or Musical Golden Globe nomination and increased Oscar heat of late for her film, could this Saturday Night Live veteran pull off the biggest upset of all on nomination day and land in the top five? Wiig could have the last laugh.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.