As usual, winnowing the Oscars' Best Actress race to five nominees will be agonizing. Just the way we like it.
With the holidays fast approaching, awards season is entering overdrive. Most of the year's campaign-defining film festivals are behind us, clarifying the narratives that can make or break the top-tier contenders. Between now and the announcement of the nominations on Jan. 23, I'll lay odds on the Oscars' six major categories, ranking the contenders according to their stature at time of publication. Of course, anything can change once more precursor prizes are announced. (For example, will German actress Vicky Kriepsbreak through after Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" screens for press? TBD.)
Consider this your first HuffPost cheat sheet for the 2018 Oscar contest. The awards air March 4.
16Salma Hayek, "Beatriz at Dinner"
Hollywood has never known quite what to do with Salma Hayek, a nimble genre hopper without a distinct wheelhouse. "Frida," which netted her only Oscar nomination to date, feels like an anomaly on Hayek's résumé, if only because most of her arty movies haven't found much of a shelf life. Had the Sundance drama "Beatriz at Dinner" made an incision at the box office, it could have been her next Oscar bid. Playing an immigrant working as a holistic healer in California, her every expression bears the weight of a weary life spent serving those who hold society's power.
15Nicole Kidman, "The Beguiled"
Nicole Kidman won an Emmy for "Big Little Lies" in September, and she has two movies ready for Oscar fodder: "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" and "The Beguiled." The former, an edgy art-house downer, will be a tough sit for the Academy's steak-and-potatoes bloc; the latter, on the other hand, bears the insignia of the admired Sofia Coppola. As the matriarch of an all-girls boarding school during the Civil War, Kidman is the movie's highlight. She's a four-time nominee, but this gig may not be showy enough to make voters' ballots, especially since "The Beguiled" opened in June, already a fleeting memory.
14Gal Gadot, "Wonder Woman"
Warner Bros. is plotting a campaign in hopes of anointing "Wonder Woman" the first superhero spectacle nominated for Best Picture. It's a losing battle, even for a box-office behemoth whose feminist values registered loudly amid a year of tumultuous political temperaments. But a Best Picture crack also gives Gal Gadot a portal into the Best Actress derby. Hosting "Saturday Night Live" wasn't the worst way to re-up her credentials.
13Jennifer Lawrence, "mother!"
Paramount should have had a towering genre hit on its hands with "mother!," but audiences didn't flock as expected, despite Jennifer Lawrence's grade-A stature. Maybe it was the polarizing critical reception or the misleading marketing campaign that deterred moviegoers from experiencing this home-invasion thriller slash ecological parable on the big screen. That's no help to Lawrence, a four-time nominee who turned in her best performance since "Winter's Bone."
12Michelle Williams, "All the Money in the World"
The assault allegations against Kevin Spacey seemed like a death knell for "All the Money in the World," in which Spacey had a supporting role. Sony withdrew the movie's closing-night premiere at the AFI Fest, where the year's final Oscar contenders are sometimes christened. But this week Ridley Scott made a move so bold it could vault his film back into the game: Over the next few weeks, he will reshoot Spacey's scenes, replacing the actor with Christopher Plummer, in hopes of maintaining the targeted Dec. 22 theatrical release. That unprecedented strategy could work in favor of Michelle Williams, who plays the mother of kidnapped aristocrat John Paul Getty III.
11Daniela Vega, "A Fantastic Woman"
Sony Pictures Classics
If Daniela Vega is nominated, she will be the first openly transgender performer recognized in the Oscars' 90-year history. The buzz out of fall's film festivals indicated it's not impossible: She is simply stunning in "A Fantastic Woman," playing an opera singer grieving the death of her romantic partner. Will enough stodgy Academy voters see this Chilean movie, though? Doubtful.
10Annette Bening, "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"
Sony Pictures Classics
Narratives about who is "overdue" for awards are often convoluted, but if there's anyone the Academy owes, it's Annette Bening. She's lost all four of her nominations to date, and that doesn't even begin to tally the movies she should have been nominated for, including last year's "20th Century Women." Can "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," in which Bening plays mid-century actress Gloria Grahame, help to right Oscar's wrong?
9Emma Stone, "Battle of the Sexes"
The last person to score consecutive Best Actress trophies was Katharine Hepburn, way back in 1968 and '69. Emma Stone won earlier this year for "La La Land," which dampens her odds for "Battle of the Sexes," in which she gracefully portrays tennis champ Billie Jean King. The movie hasn't seen the runaway box-office success needed to galvanize it beyond its pleasant-at-best reviews. At the Toronto Film Festival, where the movie screened in September, a publicist told me Stone isn't itching to mount another grueling awards crusade. It's possible she'll wrest support on name alone, though, given her incredible charm.
8Kate Winslet, "Wonder Wheel"
Another year, another trivial Woody Allen movie. The prolific, scandal-ridden director has overseen Oscar-winning performances here and there -- most recently, Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" -- but most of his films drift by unnoticed. Academy favorite Kate Winslet is the bright spot in the dreary "Wonder Wheel," breathing life into Allen's overly theatrical script. But in the midst of the many sexual assault revelations rippling through the Hollywood seams, will voters want to sit through a Woody Allen joint? If not, Winslet's potential nomination could become his latest casualty.
7Judi Dench, "Victoria & Abdul"
Never underestimate the Judi Dench Effect. At 82, Dench has found unlikely box-office prosperity and ample Oscar nominations to show for it (seven in a short 19 years). "Victoria & Abdul," in which she portrays Queen Victoria in the years before her death, has collected $20 million domestically and counting. In today's Hollywood economy, that's a decent sum for a stately period piece. It could easily translate to Dench's eighth nod. Everyone loves a dame.
6Margot Robbie, "I, Tonya"
Margot Robbie couldn't muster enough buzz to become a first-rate candidate for her breakthrough turn in "The Wolf of Wall Street." The intervening years haven't inched her closer to that prestige, even as her star rises. And then along came "I, Tonya." Robbie plays Tonya Harding with a gusto so fiery you'll hardly recognize her. The role has already earned her a shout-out from the Gotham Awards, always the first nominations out the gate. Two hiccups: The darkly comedic biopic proved somewhat divisive at its Toronto Film Festival premiere, and it's the first movie that the new indie distributor Neon has framed for awards esteem. But playing someone as fascinating as Harding should aid Robbie's odds, especially if the film finds a wide audience when it hits theaters next month.
5Saoirse Ronan, "Lady Bird"
A nice coming-of-age story that doesn't strive to reinvent the wheel may not seem like the most obvious Oscar play, but the praise surrounding "Lady Bird" has been so unanimously fawning that A24 would be wise to thrust most of its awards zest in this movie's corner. At 13, Saoirse Ronan earned an Oscar nod for her first significant role ("Atonement"); at 21, she collected another for her swoony starring vehicle, "Brooklyn." If "Lady Bird" nets her third, she'll be one of the youngest women ever nominated for three Oscars. That delightful Irish lilt has a magical effect.
4Meryl Streep, "The Post"
One of the only contenders that hasn't yet screened for press, "The Post" features Hollywood's holy trinity: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The latter plays Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, faced with the tough decision of whether to publish the classified documents that exposed the American government's deceptive Vietnam War strategies. Streep's year of advocacy, starting with her anti-Trump speech at January's Golden Globes and lingering through her anti-Weinstein statement, could help her slip ahead in the race. Not that she needs it. This would mark her 21st nomination.
3Jessica Chastain, "Molly's Game"
After consecutive nods for "The Help" and "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain's Oscar-worthy performances have been repeatedly sidelined. "Molly's Game" bears some resemblance to her most recent awards contender, "Miss Sloane," except this time she has Aaron Sorkin's speedy dialogue for elevated liftoff. It's her meatiest role since "A Most Violent Year."
2Sally Hawkins, "The Shape of Water"
Sally Hawkins has long been one of those venerated indie actresses awaiting her proper due. "The Shape of Water" could be her bargaining chip. Playing a mute 1960s janitor, Hawkins wears a lifetime of heartbreak on her face. Guillermo del Toro's movie has an old-fashioned sweep that will appeal to young and old Academy voters alike. They've always had a penchant for performances with physical afflictions: Patty Duke, John Mills and Holly Hunter all won for playing mute.
Don't expect to see Frances McDormand all over the typical press blitz as awards season continues; she famously resists most interviews. Do, however, expect her to remain the category's front-runner, proving she needs no added momentum to clinch industry favor. Her bravura turn as a fierce Midwesterner protesting the police's negligible investigation into her daughter's rape and murder assumes a timely layer amid Hollywood's ongoing sexual assault fallout. Most critics agree "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is some McDormand's finest work. No one hurls expletives like Fran.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Cliff Robertson had won an Oscar for playing a mute character.
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