Newbies battle for lead actress love

Pedigree, experience make it hard for outsiders

As professional institutions go, the Oscar Best Actress Club is a bit like the U.S. Senate. There aren’t any official dues (although plenty get paid), the idea of new members makes old members nervous, and the incumbents always seem to have the inside track.

From era to era the lineup may change, but on a year-by-year basis it’s been pretty static. Meryl Streep. Cate Blanchett. Kate Winslet. Angelina Jolie. Nicole Kidman. Helen Mirren. If they’re in a movie, they’re in contention.

There are, of course, reasons for this.

“Streep has earned her longevity with variety, adaptability and a remarkably well-sustained level of craftswomanship,” says Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal. “I can’t speak objectively about Blanchett, because I can’t take my eyes off her, no matter what she does. Winslet can do wonders with the right role — ‘Eternal Sunshine’ was the rightest for me — and Helen Mirren is just one of those unquenchable Brits who delivers a polished performance every time.”

So what’s an outsider actress to do? How far does she have to go?

“I’d guess my answer to that would be Plattsburgh, N.Y.,” says Melissa Leo, a wild card in this year’s lead actress race for “Frozen River,” set among the hardscrabble denizens of the New York-Canadian border.

Leo has been through the process before — at least part of it.

“I had never experienced anything even close to the recognition that ’21 Grams’ got,” she says of a film for which she was discussed, but not nominated, for supporting actress. “People still say, ‘You were robbed,’ but I don’t know what I was robbed of. It was really lovely recognition for the work I had done.”

Custom has it than some outsider will inevitably break into the pack and perhaps even walk off with the statue — Marion Cotillard, last year’s lead actress winner for “La Vie en rose,” was arguably just that (this year’s import could be Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky”). At the same time, there’s already a category’s worth of talented big names: Streep (“Doubt”), Jolie (“Changeling”), Blanchett (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Winslet (“Revolutionary Road”) and Emma Thompson (“Last Chance Harvey”). They would provide a perfectly Oscar-acceptable lineup, and in some minds probably already have, even though some of the movies in question have barely been screened. Which only proves the point.

“Nobody’s seen it yet,” says supporting actress contender Taraji P. Henson of “Benjamin Button. “So I’m keeping my feet on the ground, taking it one day at a time.”

Which is the best policy. It’s not as if Oscar campaigns involve only maneuvering and manipulation.

Or is it?

“It is all maneuver and manipulation,” says Bingham Ray, president of creative affairs at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, whose 2008 film includes the ensemble “Synecdoche, New York.” “Very little is serendipity.”

Ray says the first ingredient is having a legitimate candidate.

“Delusion serves you not at all in this racket. There has to be a real foundation. If it’s a star with an Oscar history, that helps, but even if it’s an up-and-comer, you need to find a critical champion, a starmaker, to start the ball rolling and begin to get other influence peddlers in line. It usually starts with a critic or critics, or a feature writer, or influential bloggers, so the film world begins to take notice.”

This has been the case with Leo and “Frozen River” having entranced critics since Sundance ’08. It could also benefit Michelle Williams (a supporting nominee for “Brokeback Mountain”) who is in neally every frame of Kelly Reichardt’s un-Hollywoodish “Wendy and Lucy,” or Anne Hathaway for “Rachel Getting Married.” None of these actresses is unknown. They just haven’t been catapulted into the lead actress kudo competish — yet.

“One strategy I always liked and used well,” Ray says, “was to take trade ads very early in the process announcing the candidacy. We did that with (Patricia) Clarkson for supporting actress after Toronto with ‘Pieces of April.’ The first ‘For Your Consideration’ ad went out in late September. The buzz had started in Toronto, so it wasn’t without a foundation. It was immediately noticed, and her campaign began there, a month before we opened theatrically. Every review focused on her performance, and many said the magic words outright.”

Danny Rosett, chief operating officer of Overture Films, has a potential female doubleheader on his hands — Thompson in “Harvey” and Hiam Abbas as supporting actress in “The Visitor” (along with lead actor candidate Richard Jenkins). And they perfectly represent the two sides of the actress/Oscar coin.

“Like the movie itself,” Rosett says of “The Visitor,” “Hiam’s performance is about discovery. You don’t want to hit people over the head with it. You have to raise her profile, sure, but there’s a lot of interest in her, I think, because she’s a relative unknown, and I think actors like to recognize unknown actors and the craft of acting, and they like finding someone off the radar. There are always going to be the Cate Blanchetts and the Meryl Streeps.”

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