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Forget any scuttlebutt you may have heard about this year's best actress race looking sparse.

With just weeks to go before year-end eligibility deadlines for Academy Award nominations, the field is suddenly filled with contenders.

Viable candidates range from veterans overdue for huzzahs (Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica") to ingenues ready to be crowned as superstars (Ziyi Zhang in "Memoirs of a Geisha," Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice").

At this point, the advantage may rest with the ingenues, especially considering Oscar voters' reputation as geezers who lust after — and reward — younger babes.

A study published in 2000 by Pace University discovered that best actress winners of the previous 25 years were, on average, five years younger than victorious actors. And I must say, most of those champs were easy on the eyes.

While some seasoned actresses have claimed the top prize (Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking," Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment"), most tended to be attractive newcomers (Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love," Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall").

More recently, youthful beauty seems to be something all winners have in common, including Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), Nicole Kidman ("The Hours"), Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Hilary Swank ("Million Dollar Baby").

Among this year's comely contenders are actresses who star in films that are considered front-runners for best picture nominations. That kind of advantage has paid off in the past for Swank, Paltrow, MacLaine and Keaton.

Zhang looks like a virtual shoo-in for a nomination, and the early leader for the statuette. Buzz on "Geisha" says a best pic bid looks inevitable, and screening audiences are especially high on Zhang, a Chinese actress who makes her English-speaking debut after top-lining past hits such as "House of Flying Daggers."

That crossover ability matters to Oscar voters, who remember Zhang from past best picture nominee "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and recognize her as a superstar overseas.

Whether or not Zhang takes home the gold may depend on how she handles criticism of director Rob Marshall's decision to cast a Chinese actress in a Japanese role.

Oscar voters are likely to take Zhang's side in the spat, since so many of them are actors who favor nontraditional casting because it increases the number of roles they themselves could potentially play.

But if the storm turns into a tsunami, voters might opt for another ingenue, like Q'Orianka Kilcher. "The New World" star is only 15 years old, but insiders say she's bewitching as Pocahontas, a huge role in a movie with a strong shot at a best picture nomination. "The New World" is directed by Terrence Malick, whose last film, "The Thin Red Line," picked up a nomination in 1998.

Kilcher's age could be a drawback. Traditionally, the Academy has put actresses this young into the supporting category, even when they were obvious leads (witness Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon.")

"But Oscar voters have been much more welcoming to young lead stars in recent years," notes veteran Oscar watcher Pete Hammond. "Two years ago we saw the 13-year-old star of 'Whale Rider,' Keisha Castle-Hughes, get nominated for best actress. That may have been a signal that things are changing."

Kilcher has another strong plus in her favor: she plays a real person. That's something Reese Witherspoon has going for her in "Walk the Line," also a leading contender for best picture.

Witherspoon nails a good impersonation of June Carter, shows off impressive dramatic skills (a key aim for the star of the "Legally Blonde" comedies) and even sweetens the deal with her newfound singing chops.

That's makes Witherspoon a triple threat. Add in the fact she's portraying the long-suffering wife of an abusive genius — which worked well for recent supporting actress winners Jennifer Connelly and Marcia Gay Harden — and Witherspoon becomes tough to ignore.

Voters are also fond of pretty actresses who won't put up with any guff, especially when they do it with a sexy British accent. That could put Knightley within striking distance of a win, or at least a nomination, for "Pride & Prejudice."

That would be quite a turnaround, considering Knightley had been written off as a lightweight lovely starring in another dreary remake of a dusty British book about pouty aristocrats.

But when "Pride" reviews came in, journalists, including members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., fawned shamelessly over the former "Bend It Like Beckham" tomboy. Insiders say the 20-year-old Brit will definitely get a Golden Globe nomination for her role as a headstrong, class-defying young woman, and she might scale the same heights at the Oscars.

Another young actress, Claire Danes, has struggled to be taken seriously in the film world ever since becoming a breakout TV star at age 15 on "My So-Called Life." Despite critical raves for "Romeo + Juliet" and "Stage Beauty," she hasn't nabbed outright acclaim until this year's "Shopgirl."

Danes takes on the aching role of a young, forlorn department-store clerk who hopes to find emotional fulfillment in the arms of a rich man going through a midlife crisis. "Danes can fill a scene with one wounded glance," noted the Los Angeles Times in its review, "and her body language alone conveys a richness of character that makes an otherwise not very expressive character mesmerizing."

The 26-year-old Danes stars opposite 60-year-old Steve Martin in the film. So if it's true that many academy voters are older gents with a fondness for younger gals, "Shopgirl" could resonate with them in a slightly creepy way.

Similar sentiments could apply to Zhang's role in "Geisha," where she plays a teen coveting the attention of middle-aged the "Chairman" played by Ken Watanabe.

Of course, all of those young actresses may have to get past a red-hot 42-year-old desperate housewife before they can claim any awards.

Felicity Huffman's industry stock is at an all-time high right now. She recently pulled off a jaw-dropping upset at the Emmys, where she was considered an also-ran because the "Housewives" episode submitted to judges was considered so weak.

Huffman won because her performance was so good — and because voters were cheering on a longtime stage and screen stalwart who was overdue for a big bow.

That same feeling could prevail at the Oscars for Huffman's work in "Transamerica," in which Huffman portrays a homely guy desperately trying to become a gal via a surgeon's knife and hormone injections.

Oscar voters love gender-bending roles (think Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry"). And it doesn't hurt that Huffman's award campaign is being championed by Harvey Weinstein, who's out to prove his new shingle, the Weinstein Co., can be as formidable an Oscar warrior as his old Miramax.

Weinstein is also behind the Academy Award prospects of Judi Dench, who proved she could defy Oscar's age-old curse against age by winning best supporting actress for "Shakespeare in Love" in 1998. In the past 20 years, she's the only actress over age 50 to prevail in any acting category, lead or supporting.

Now Dench is angling for her first win in the lead race with her humorous role as a British theater owner fighting for the right to show nudity on stage as a way to perk up World War II soldiers in "Mrs. Henderson Presents." But Dench faces another Oscar curse — this one against comedy.

Still, if voters are open-minded to lighter fare this year, we could see a surprise nomination for Cameron Diaz portraying a floozy who must suddenly take life seriously in "In Her Shoes."

And if Jennifer Aniston gets good reviews in "Rumor Has It," she will probably get nominated at the Globes for portraying a woman who finds out that her parents may be the illicit real-life lovers who inspired "The Graduate."

That could give the former Mrs. Brad Pitt the same profile Nicole Kidman enjoyed with award voters when she won for "The Hours" soon after being dumped by Tom Cruise. Academy voters couldn't resist giving Kidman a hug in the form of a statuette in 2002.

Another overdue actress who would appreciate a hug from the film academy is Joan Allen. She has three Oscar nominations to her credit (for "The Contender," "The Crucible," "Nixon") but no wins.

Allen could be nommed again, this time for portraying a sassy suburban housewife jilted by her hubby in "The Upside of Anger." Unfortunately, the film was released so early in 2005 it may have trouble reconnecting with voters.

Allen's best hope is recognition by one of the film critics' groups, which has happened before. She's been honored twice by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and once by the National Society of Film Critics. A nod from one of those groups this year could revive her Oscar chances.

Another star who may have shined too early in the year is "Cinderella Man" star Renée Zellweger. She's unlikely to land kudos from critics' groups, which tend to prefer art-house fare over big commercial productions.

But Zellweger's role as a boxer's wife beaten down by financial hardship during the Great Depression packed such an emotional wallop that voters may still feel it at Globes and Oscar time when the DVD will be in wide release.

It doesn't matter that Zellweger previously won best supporting actress (for "Cold Mountain"). Voters may believe she's now worthy of lead honors.

Previous best actress winners probably won't have to worry about being penalized for earlier victories. Certainly Hilary Swank proved last year that a recent win is OK.

Charlize Theron, who bagged an Oscar for "Monster" two years ago, is back in the hunt with "North Country," in which she portrays a miner who fights back against sexual harassment on the job. (The Times review of the film says Theron "does more genuine acting than she's ever done before.")

Former winner Gwyneth Paltrow will have a tougher time nabbing another Oscar with "Proof." Initial buzz was strong for her role as the daughter of a famous mathematician who believes she may have inherited his insanity, but the film received a weak reception by critics and moviegoers. Still, it's possible Paltrow's popularity among voters could be strong enough to generate a nomination.

At least there's a formal Oscar campaign behind long shot Paltrow. That's more than can be said for poor Julianne Moore, whose "Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" got overlooked because her managers believed her best Oscar shot was for "Freedomland," a film recently bumped to 2006.

Variety called Moore's rendition of a jingle-writing housewife in the 1950s "a fascinating performance that again shows she's among the best American actresses onscreen," but it may be too late to play catch-up.

DreamWorks has begun screening "Prize Winner" for award audiences, but unless the studio backs that effort with "For Your Consideration" ads, a potential winner could turn out to be a tragic loser.

If that happens, perhaps the whole best actress derby should just be canceled. It just won't feel like a real Oscar year without Moore, a perennial contender for something.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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