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Oscars: Trying to Unpack a Stacked Lead Actress Field

It was clear at least as early as Labor Day, when the Telluride Film Festival played host to a number of contenders, that this year’s lead actress Oscar race was going to be overloaded. By now it’s pretty much untenable; great work is sure to be left on the sidelines when the film Academy zeroes in on five names in January.

Fox Searchlight has two of the season’s top performances to work with. In “The Shape of Water,” Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor who falls in love with a captive sea creature, dazzling viewers with the kind of expressive portrayal that’s catnip to voters. Meanwhile, in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Oscar winner Frances McDormand tackles the role of a world-weary, vengeance-seeking mother, which could particularly resonate in the current sociopolitical climate.

Margot Robbie, meanwhile, takes advantage of a ripe opportunity in “I, Tonya” to offer a deglamorized portrayal of disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding. Also excelling in a decidedly less-glamorous role: Kate Winslet in “Wonder Wheel,” as an aging former actress who becomes infatuated with a young lifeguard in 1950s Coney Island.

In “Victoria & Abdul,” Judi Dench stars as a somewhat spiritless Queen Victoria, whose world is brightened by Indian royal servant-turned-best friend Abdul Karim. Sony Classics, meanwhile, will strive to bring the somehow Oscarless Annette Bening her first Academy Award, for “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”

At the youthful end of the spectrum is 7-year-old “The Florida Project” star Brooklynn Prince, who is heartbreaking in the movie and a consistent bright spot on the circuit. (Most recently she could be seen at the Academy’s Governors Awards fawning over “Wonder Woman” star and fellow Oscar contender Gal Gadot.)

In “Molly’s Game,” Jessica Chastain is as fierce as audiences have ever seen her, as real-life “poker princess” Molly Bloom. For “In the Fade,” Diane Kruger won the Cannes Film Festival’s actress prize as a woman who loses her family to a terrorist attack. In “Battle of the Sexes” as Billie Jean King, Emma Stone might frankly be even better and more dialed in than she was in her Oscar-winning “La La Land” portrayal last year.

Yet the Oscar net could be — and indeed, ought to be — cast wider. Salma Hayek and Cynthia Nixon seem sadly destined to be overlooked for their powerful work in indies “Beatriz at Dinner” and “A Quiet Passion,” respectively. Ditto Margaret Qualley in “Novitiate.” Daniela Vega would make history as the first trans actress to receive an Oscar nomination, for her outstanding performance in “A Fantastic Woman.” Thirteen-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun is a personal favorite in summer’s “Okja,” and Jennifer Lawrence goes to some dark, committed places in “Mother!”

Great work is sure to be left on the sidelines when the film Academy zeroes in on five names.

Of course, there always seems to be a spot reserved at the table for the latest contender on the scene: Twenty-time nominee Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” She stars as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, seizing her destiny in a business lorded over by men amid the Pentagon Papers affair of 1971. It’s a movie, and a role, that will no doubt grab the zeitgeist by the lapels, and with the right campaign she could even be a serious threat to win her fourth Oscar, a feat only matched in the acting races by another Katharine: Hepburn.

Squeeze a couple more potential contenders onto the list, too, as films coming from two of the biggest directors in the business have yet to be seen: In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” Vicky Krieps is said to more than hold her own opposite a cinema giant as the magnetic muse to Daniel Day-Lewis’ libertine fashion designer. Meanwhile, in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” Michelle Williams stars as Gail Harris, distressed mother to kidnap victim John Paul Getty III. (Williams’ viability is contingent on whether Scott can indeed make the film’s Dec. 22 release date after recasting Kevin Spacey, and whether or not that whole episode has somehow tainted the project in voters’ minds.)

Try to sift through all that and settle on five if you can. But let’s be even more adventurous. Who could actually walk away with the gold? That’s a dangerous game to play in November, but one film currently in theaters features one of the most complex, lived-in performances in any category. It’s a beautiful piece of work from a 23-year-old wunderkind who has already picked up two Oscar nominations in her time: Saoirse Ronan is an absolute treasure in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” and yes, this could finally be her year.

But don’t hold us to that just yet.

LEAD ACTRESS FRONTRUNNERS
Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
Meryl Streep, “The Post”

ON THE BUBBLE
Annette Bening, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”
Jessica Chastain, “Molly’s Game”
Judi Dench, “Victoria & Abdul”
Vicky Krieps, “Phantom Thread”
Kate Winslet, “Wonder Wheel”

DARK HORSES
Diane Kruger, “In the Fade”
Jennifer Lawrence, “Mother!”
Brooklynn Prince, “The Florida Project”
Emma Stone, “Battle of the Sexes”
Daniela Vega, “A Fantastic Woman”

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