Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Whoever takes Best Actor will be receiving his first Academy Award — but in this year’s Best Actress selection, the finalists are accustomed to aisle seats on Oscar night. Five previous nominees, and all but Adams have won before: Blanchett for The Aviator (Supporting), Bullock for The Blind Side (lead), Dench for Shakespeare in Love (Supporting) and, in her own Oscar category, Magic Meryl. Going into this year, Streep had earned more nominations, 17, than her quartet of distinguished competitors — Dench had six, Adams and Blanchett four, Bullock two — and as many wins (Kramer vs. Kramer in support, Sophie’s Choice and The Iron Lady as the lead).
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Streep gives the biggest performance in August: Osage County — as the matriarch Violet, she spits hard truths at her troubled Oklahoma family — but not nearly the finest. Adams’ Sydney is the brains and crooked heart of American Hustle. This bold, sad, acute turn, by an actress whose artistry is always full of grand surprises, deserves an Oscar. So does Dench, the British Dame who softens her familiar steeliness as Philomena, the chipper little Irishwoman who won’t give up a 50-year prayer to locate the child stolen from her. Bullock, alone on screen for virtually the entire last hour of Gravity, carries the year’s best movie in a performance that’s both athletic and empathetic; the film is nearly as much her triumph as director Alfonso Cuarón’s.
Strictly between us, each member of this trio inhabits her character with more power and subtlety than the great Cate is allowed to bring to her Jasmine. A snooty one-percenter who lost her money and home (but not her sense of entitlement) when her philandering scam dog of a husband killed himself, Jasmine is an abrasion to her working-class sister (Sally Hawkins), to the city of San Francisco and to many of those in the audience. Perhaps Blanchett received poor, or no, guidance from her director, Woody Allen; but an actress with an uncanny ability to pour herself into roles ranging from Katherine Hepburn (in The Aviator) to Bob Dylan (in I’m Not There) seems oddly outside the blue shrew Jasmine.
(READ: Corliss’ review of Blue Jasmine)
File this away as a minority report, for Blanchett has been the front-runner since the movie opened last July. In the critics groups’ voting, she earned six times as many wins as her nearest rival (Bullock). She took the Golden Globe (dramatic actress) and the Screen Actors Guild prizes. If she’d been anywhere near MetLife Stadium early this month, she’d probably have won the Super Bowl. Blanchett’s main challenge through awards season has been to give a half-dozen variations on her acceptance speech; she aced those, too, with grace, generosity, humor and resplendent poise.
(READ: Corliss’ pick for Best Supporting Actor in the 2014 Oscars)
The only speed bump in the red-carpet parade might have been the recent accusations of long-ago sexual predation made against Allen by his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow. Not wanting to criticize either her director or a young woman with a poignant story, Blanchett tried to avoid taking sides. And when her friend Philip Seymour Hoffman (who costarred with her in the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley) died on Super Bowl Sunday, she shut down her promotional schedule to attend Hoffman’s funeral and handle her grief quietly.
(READ: Corliss’ pick for Best Supporting Actress in the 2014 Oscars)
Two weeks later, she emerged to accept the BAFTA (British Film Academy) award for Best Actress. Without naming Allen, she briefly expressed gratitude to the Blue Jasmine team — “To everyone who made that not only possible but so memorable and such a game-changer for me, I thank you” — then launched into a tender, eloquent tribute to Hoffman. She ended with “So, Phil, buddy, this is for you, ya bastard. I hope you’re proud.”
The only suspense that remains for Best Actress on Oscar night: Who will get Cate Blanchett’s thanks?