A strong set of previous Oscar winners could annihilate the chances for a promising group of newcomers who are hoping for their first nomination in the supporting actress category. Sally Field, Helen Hunt, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Nicole Kidman, Frances McDormand, Shirley MacLaine, and Susan Sarandon — not to mention three-time nominee Amy Adams — all shine brightly in their respective films. So will the veterans, who have successfully played this game before, dominate the field (as they are threatening to do in the corresponding male supporting category) or can a new class break through? And then there is the case of Les Misérables: Universal started screening the film Thanksgiving weekend and will continue through its Christmas Day release. It offers strong female roles to at least four actresses who could fill a category all by themselves. Can Les Mis be the first movie since Tom Jones in 1963 to nab three supporting actress nominations? It’s the kind of stuff that makes the Oscars so damned interesting. Here are the contenders.
Sally Field | Lincoln
The two-time best actress winner (Norma Rae, Places in the Heart) and three-time Emmy winner is now 66 and actually insisted on being tested for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, which she says she knew would be hers even though Steven Spielberg said it wasn’t to be. She proved him wrong, and voters might really respond to Field’s pluck in landing the role and bringing it on in a series of emotional scenes opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Will Oscar like her, really like her, a third time?
Anne Hathaway | Les Misérables
As Fantine, Hathaway has been out front ever since Universal began releasing snippets of her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of the signature songs in the Les Mis score. The role just has the smell of Oscar all over it, plus she’s got that deglammed down-and-dirty look, but will competition from three other women in the cast lessen her chances or can she rise to the top?
Related: Oscars: The Supporting Actor Race
Helen Hunt | The Sessions
Hunt reveals all physically and emotionally as the sex surrogate who offers her professional services to a man in an iron lung who longs to be deflowered at the age of 38. Hunt nails every aspect of this real-life surrogate and should easily earn a spot in her first Oscar race since winning the best actress statuette for 1997’s As Good as It Gets.
Amy Adams | The Master
With nominations in this category three previous times for Junebug, Doubt, and The Fighter, Adams seems to be primed to actually win one. Will playing the strong wife of a religious cult leader in The Master give her that opportunity? A fourth nomination seems like it is in the stars, but polarized response to the movie could dampen her chances for an actual win. Whether it is this year or not, her destiny is with Oscar.
Nicole Kidman | The Paperboy
Oscar voters love to see actors take risks, and no one does it better than Kidman playing a Southern tart and giving it her all in one edgy scene after another. The movie and her peeing scene were the talk of Cannes Twitter feeds, but it came and went quickly upon its release this fall. Still, actors might sit up and take notice anyway for this past winner’s impressive ability to take a shot and deliver the goods.
Shirley MacLaine | Bernie
As the meanest woman in a small Texas town who strikes up an unlikely relationship with funeral director Bernie (Jack Black), MacLaine creates another indelible character in a career that has provided more than a half-century of them. The question is, will enough voters see the indie hit or even remember it came out this year? A Golden Globe nomination could help her chances here.
Kelly Reilly | Flight
As a fellow addict who befriends Denzel Washington’s alcoholic pilot, the British-born Reilly makes a strong impression and holds her own in a few riveting scenes with the star. It seems the stuff of which Oscar nominations are made.
Frances McDormand | Promised Land
McDormand and Matt Damon are business associates who represent a big corporate entity trying to win oil-drilling rights from the economically challenged citizens of a small town, and as usual this reliable Oscar winner turns the role into a living, breathing human being. The late release date of the film, though, could prove a problem in getting the film widely seen by the time voting starts. She also gets bonus points for her turn in May’s specialty hit, Moonrise Kingdom.
Scarlett Johansson | Hitchcock
As Janet Leigh during the making of Psycho, she hits all the right notes, deftly capturing the warmth of the bright movie star and the insecurity of an actress taking on a daring role for Alfred Hitchcock. Leigh won her only Oscar nomination in this category for the 1960 film but lost, so wouldn’t it be ironic if Johansson managed to do the same thing playing Leigh playing Marion Crane?
Judi Dench | Skyfall
If it’s not going to be Javier Bardem, could Dench, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Shakespeare In Love, be the first actor in a James Bond film to be nominated for an acting Oscar? Dench’s role as M is larger in this 23rd Bond adventure, and it provides an emotional wallop. A nom would be especially sweet, considering no actor in Oscar history has ever been first-time nominated for a role they have already played in six previous films. Got all that?
Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actor Race
Also in the mix…
Samantha Barks | Les Misérables
As Éponine, this British relatively unknown actress has perhaps the meatiest of the supporting roles to play and could be the most likely to join Hathaway on the nomination list.
Helena Bonham Carter | Les Misérables
As the colorful Madame Thenardier, Bonham Carter gets a larger-than-life role and is working again
with director Tom Hooper, who directed her to a nomination in this category two years ago for
The King’s Speech.
Amanda Seyfreid | Les Misérables
As sweet Cosette, Seyfried might not have the killer scenes of the others in Les Mis and thus could be the odd supporting actress out in this competition.
Jacki Weaver | Silver Linings Playbook
As Bradley Cooper’s mother and Robert De Niro’s wife, Weaver—nominated in the category two years ago for her extraordinary role in Animal Kingdom—has the least showy part of all the main players, but could get swept in here with the Silver Linings tide.
Gloria Reuben | Lincoln
As the seamstress who becomes Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante, the former ER star is quietly touching, but Field’s showier role is far more likely to prevail here.
Maggie Smith | The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
As the bitter, racist one in the ensemble cast, Smith is terrific as usual, but voters might actually prefer her lead role in the similar Quartet and leave this increasingly crowded category to others.
Kerry Washington | Django Unchained
Tarantino’s western is a late-breaking entry, but Washington has a meaty role in it, so don’t discount her chances of finding her way into the race once voters get a look at the film.
Susan Sarandon | Arbitrage
Sarandon’s killer scene, in which she puts her cheating hubby Richard Gere right in his place, could be just enough to do the trick, but Roadside has to make sure voters see the movie.
Blythe Danner | Hello, I Must Be Going
Here’s a shoutout for the great never-nominated Danner, who shines as the mother of a divorced woman who moves back in with her parents. But did anyone actually see the movie?
Laura Linney | Hyde Park On Hudson & The Details
Sensing a lack of heat in the best actress race, Focus has made a last-minute switch and moved Linney from lead to supporting for her low-key work in Hyde Park. However, the role she really deserves recognition for in this category is her wildly amusing turn as the over-sexed, needy neighbor in The Details, but the Weinstein Co. isn’t even bothering to campaign the film and sent it almost directly to VOD. Too bad. Linney’s great in it.
Jennifer Ehle | Zero Dark Thirty
With Jessica Chastain in lead and Ehle in supporting, it could ironically be the women that really shine in Kathryn Bigelow’s testosterone-driven military film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Emily Blunt | Looper
Blunt is always good and again makes her mark as a mother living with her son on a farm in this scifi quasi hit, but it’s not a genre close to the hearts of Academy voters.
Kristen Stewart | On The Road
With this long-gestating film based on the Jack Kerouac book, Stewart breaks out of Bella hell and shows off some real grownup acting skills, but it likely won’t be enough to move her into real contention in this race.
Ann Dowd | Compliance
As the fast-food restaurant manager facing off against a man who says he is a police officer, character-actor Dowd earned raves, but the film was not widely seen. The real potential, though, of critics awards for her riveting performance could bring it back into the conversation and force voters to take notice.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.