All of the acting categories seem more or less set in stone at this point in the season, but none more so than Best Actress, which features a career-best performance from a previous Oscar winner who is all but assured of winning her second. It's somewhat a shame that this race is such a done deal, considering how exciting it could have been. Think about it: Four previous Oscar winners and a beloved five-time nominee hungry for her first win, among whom three Best Picture nominees are represented... sounds on paper like it should be a nail-biter, but instead it's one of the biggest locks in the top categories. But we can really bellyache so much when the winning performance is this good? I don't think so.
Obviously, I'm talking about Cate Blanchett for her blistering tour-de-force in Blue Jasmine. When the film first bowed in August, many critics already had her pegged as the one to beat for the Oscar, unless someone better came along. Well, here we are half a year later, and no other actress as risen to the high bar set by Blanchett. I suppose some Oscar statisticians could point to the fact that her film is not a Best Picture nominee as possible evidence that she might not be so safe, but if we assume that Blue Jasmine was probably #10 or #11, then we can't very well chalk up its absence in the Best Picture race as a sign of weakness.
But make no mistake; Being a popular Best Picture nominee can go a long way in this category. Just ask Sandra Bullock, who won in 2010 after her box office smashing family drama The Blind Side eked out a surprise Best Picture nomination. She stars in another high grossing Best Picture nominee in Gravity, and while her recent Blind Side win means she's unlikely to be crowned for this one, there's little doubt in my mind that this is by far her more impressive performance. The physical demands and emotional load of this character are so heavy and omnipresent in the film, it makes one wonder if she might be the frontrunner had she not won just four years ago. For a while before the critics prizes began falling Blanchett's way, many pundits speculated that Bullock was the foremost challenger.
Another Best Picture nominee represented here is Philomena, courtesy of Dame Judi Dench's lovely performance as a darling old Irish woman seeking answers about her long lost son. Dench's Oscar history is far from ideal. Presumed by all to be a slam dunk winner in 1998 for Mrs. Brown, she was shockingly upset be Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets, prompting the Academy to give her an "oops-we-screwed-up" Oscar the following year for her glorified cameo in Shakespeare in Love. Not only was this a feeble reparation at best for the previous season's egregious oversight, but it's also effectively disqualified Dench from being in a position to win on any of her five subsequent (often more deserving) nominations. I expect the same to hold true this time as well, but headlining her first Best Picture nominated film to date might have been her best opportunity to capitalize. She's far too classy to give a hoot anyway.
Will win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Runner-up: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Should win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Should've been nominated: Brie Larson, Short Term 12