Oscars 2013: Richard Corliss’ Picks – Best Actress

TIME critic Richard Corliss reveals his pick for Best Actress. Share your pick!

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Nominees

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

The youngest and oldest Acting nominees in Oscar history —  Wallis, six when she made her movie debut, now nine, and Riva, who’ll be 86 on Oscar Night — both give indelible performances in films seen by relatively few people. Wallis was wondrous as the wise wild child of the storm-tossed Delta, but voters may wonder how much lightning director Benh Zeitlin caught in a bottle. The only suspense for the petite Ms. Wallis next Sunday evening should be whether the presenters pronounce her first name correctly: Qui-VEN-zha-NAY.

(Read: Oscars 2013: Great Performances)

More than a half-century after her defining role as the Frenchwoman having a guilty Japanese affair in Hiroshima, mon amour, Riva plays a woman incapacitated by strokes and tended by her husband (another French acting legend, Jean-Louis Trintignzant, who should have been nominated for Best Actor). It’s surely the single great performance in any of the Acting categories, and it should speak profoundly to the many elderly Oscar voters. Yet for that very reason — that it forces matters of decay and death on viewers who feel the cold breath of mortality in every pore — some Academy members of advanced age have reportedly been scared away from watching Amour. (Riva, who won the BAFTA prize for Best Actress, was not even nominated for a SAG award.) And if people refuse to see the film, they’re not likely to vote for its leading lady.

The Impossible, a more forthrightly inspirational story about a woman facing tragedy, also did not reach a wide audience. And if the WASPy Ben Affleck takes flack from Latino activists for playing the part-Mexican CIA spy Tony Mendez in Argo, why isn’t the WASPy (Anglo-Australian) Watts, 44, criticized for taking the true-life role of a Spanish woman whose family is sundered by the Indonesian tsunami? Answer: Because Watts has no chance of winning, and any protests against her would receive little publicity.

Chastain, 35, has lost traction since nosing out Lawrence for the most Best Actress citations from critics’ groups late last year. She also suffers from her Zero Dark Thirty character’s lack of backstory and personal emotional resonance. Nor has Chastain’s Broadway stint in The Heiress, playing the intelligent heroine Catherine as a dim hysteric, helped her Oscar cause.

Best Actress has long been seen as Lawrence’s to lose. The 22-year-old, nominated in 2011 for Winter’s Bone, has graduated from ingenue to star; she would be the second youngest winner in this category, after 21-year-old Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God in 1987. Lawrence’s sullen gravity gives her a womanliness beyond her years, and she plays it smartly in the territory between comedy and drama as the ornery widow in Silver Linings Playbook. Her performance isn’t up there with Riva’s, and the Academy voters will have plenty more chances to give her an Oscar. But it seems they can’t wait to give Lawrence an Oscar. We’ll be rooting for Riva but banking on Lawrence. If she wins, she can place her statuette in the trophy case next to all the prizes she’s earned for her other 2012 film, The Hunger Games: an MTV Movie Award for Best Fight, a People’s Choice laurel for Favorite Face of Heroism and a Teen Choice citation for Best Movie Liplock.

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