Academy Awards Category Preview: Best Actress

There is only one acting category this year that is guaranteed to crown a first-time winner, and that category is Best Actress. All the momentum up until the last week has favored Jennifer Lawrence, but all of a sudden she's facing some serious firepower on the French front. Might we actually have a race? With just 9 days until the big show, here’s how things look at the moment.

Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings"

Oscar History: She's on her second nomination, having previously been nominated in 2010 for "Winter's Bone," when she lost to Natalie Portman... who was on her second nomination, having previously lost the 2004 Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Cate Blanchett... who was on her second nomination. So there’s a fun fact to impress/bore your friends.

What's the Story if She Wins? She's the girl with everything: Industry respect, a massive blockbuster franchise, and an Oscar before the age of 23. Expect a swift and merciless backlash.

Predicted Order of People She'll Thank: David O. Russell, Harvey Weinstein, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. She’ll forget to thank Jacki Weaver and it'll be a BIG effing deal. She’ll thank her brothers who bullied her, her parents, people who suffer from vague might-be-sex-addiction-but-probably-just-working-her-s**t-out like her character in the movie.

What Are the Odds? She's certainly been showing all indications that she's a frontrunner. Winning the Golden Globe, winning the SAG award, hitting all the talk shows and being rather charming about everything despite a certain ungenerous attitude being afforded to her by the peanut gallery. The smart money is on her.

Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour

Oscar History: At age 85 (soon to be 86), this is Ms. Riva's first-ever Oscar nomination.

What's the Story if She Wins? Triumph of the underdog. After a season full of debates over which beautiful young actress would be the next to ascend to the top of the Hollywood heap, Oscar voters decided to reject the dominance of youth and award maturity and depth of feeling.

Predicted Order of People She'll Thank: The Academy, Michael Haneke, Jean-Louis Trintignant, her family, the end. Short and sweet.

What Are the Odds? Riva hasn't seen much head-to-head competition with Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, or anyone, really. She was left off the SAG and Golden Globes ballots entirely. But at the BAFTA Awards, Riva scored the upset win. Sure, it's just the Brits, but they've awarded the eventual Oscar winner in Best Actress six times out of the last seven years.

Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"


Oscar History: She's nominated for the second straight year, having been bumped up from Best Supporting Actress. Speaking of which, you couldn't find two characters more temperamentally opposite than Celia in "The Help" and Maya in "Zero Dark Thirty." You'd think she would be getting more credit for that.

What's the Story if She Wins? Looks like "Zero Dark Thirty" isn't the pariah some seem to think it's become. Looks like Chastain's reputation as The Actress beat out Lawrence's rep as The Movie Star.

Predicted Order of People She'll Thank: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Columbia Pictures, all her billion co-stars, hopefully with a special mention for Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, real-life CIA agents and military men and women, probably.

What Are the Odds? It doesn't seem so long ago that Lawrence-or-Chastain was going to be the Best Actress question right up to the finish line. Chastain has been fading fast since her Golden Globes triumph, though, and now it looks like she's not even the most likely upset candidate.

Quvenzhane Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"


Oscar History: First-time nomination for the youngest Best Actress nominee of all time.

What's the Story if She Wins? History-making in all sorts of ways. I can't imagine where you go with your career if you win an Oscar before you're 10, so maybe it's best she remains merely a nominee for now.

Predicted Order of People She'll Thank: The Academy, Benh Zeitlin, Dwight Henry, her parents and family, that girl in fourth grade who thinks she's sooooo cool and who can now suck it, One Direction.

What Are the Odds? Pretty long. Certainly longer than the odds of getting nominated. Still, the Academy has loved "Beasts of the Southern Wild" better than any other awards-giving organization this year, and it would make for a hell of a TV moment.

Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"


Oscar History: This is her second career nomination, as Watts was previously recognized for "21 Grams" in 2003 (it should be her third nomination, but someone somewhere screwed up her campaign for "Mulholland Dr.," and no, I haven't gotten over it).

What's the Story if She Wins? Oscar voters finally discovered those "Impossible" screeners.

Predicted Order of People She'll Thank: The Academy, J.A. Bayona, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, the victims and survivors of the Boxing Day tsunami, Liev Schrieber, Reese Witherspoon.

What Are the Odds? Really not very good at all. But the nomination itself is already recognition enough that she's gotten her career back on track after some "J. Edgar"-sized missteps.