Elizabeth Banks is on a roll. She made her feature directing debut with "Pitch Perfect 2," the year's highest grossing film by a female director. She earned her third Emmy nomination, this time for her guest role on "Modern Family." And she concluded her role as Effie Trinket with "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2." But it's her touching performance in "Love and Mercy" that could garner the attention of Oscar voters.
In "Love and Mercy" she plays Melinda Ledbetter, the real-life car dealer who fell in love with musician Brian Wilson (played by John Cusack in his scenes with Banks and by Paul Dano in flashbacks) and helped him escape the manipulative control of his corrupt psychiatrist. It's a dramatic role for an actress better known for comedies, but the academy often awards funny stars who get serious, such as Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side" (2009).
Having had a year as successful as Banks both in front of and behind the camera certainly helps her Oscar campaign. Robert Downey Jr. scored a rare nomination for a broad comedy performance as an absurd method actor in "Tropic Thunder" in 2008, the same year he ruled the box office as the star of "Iron Man." George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor for "Syriana" in 2005, the same year he was also nominated for writing and directing "Good Night, and Good Luck." And Jim Broadbent won the same category for "Iris" in 2001, but the academy may have been simultaneously awarding his turn in that year's "Moulin Rouge."
And of course there's also Jennifer Lawrence, who won her Oscar for "Silver Linings Playbook" in 2012, the same year she proved herself to be a bona fide box office star in the first "Hunger Games" film.
Banks's success as an actor, director and producer is especially meaningful at a time when the debate about women in Hollywood rages on. Last year there was dearth of strong roles for women in the eight Best Picture nominees. And the Sony online hack that revealed gender discrepancies in the salaries of its stars, including Lawrence, who penned an essay about her unequal treatment.
Banks is helped by the fact that there might suddenly be extra wiggle room in the Best Supporting Actress category. Presumed frontrunners Rooney Mara ("Carol") and Alicia Vikander ("The Danish Girl") were both ruled to be lead actresses by the Golden Globes, which opens up two slots at that important precursor event. Mara was also nominated as a lead actress by the Indie Spirit Awards (Vikander was absent there as "Danish Girl" was ineligible). If the academy agrees with those assessments, suddenly the Supporting Actress race becomes wide open and Banks could very well make the cut.
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Photo Credit: Moviestore/REX