Jessica Chastain is the uncontestable breakthrough performer of the year, but she must quickly decide which of her several brilliant performances to tout for awards consideration. She could easily manage an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter," or "The Help." Unfortunately, Academy rules dictate that performers may only receive one nomination per category each year.
Arthouse success "The Tree of Life," directed by Terrence Malick, presently seems like her best bet. As the kind-hearted Mrs. O'Brien, Chastain gives a graceful, inspired performance for the ages. While she and her co-star Brad Pitt have palpable awards buzz, it is worth noting that Malick has yet to direct any actor to an Oscar nominations though his last three films -- "The New World" (2005), "The Thin Red Line" (1998), and "Days of Heaven" (1978) -- received nods in other categories.
Pitt's Mr. O'Brien is a domineering, abusive husband and father. That boosts Chastain's odds since troubled wife and mother roles often makes a showing in Best Supporting Actress. Uneasy, emotional parent roles worked for Viola Davis ("Doubt," 2008), Michelle Williams ("Brokeback Mountain," 2005), and Holly Hunter ("Thirteen," 2003) in recent years.
Chastain's sublime performance in "Take Shelter" may be even friendlier to Oscar voters. She once again plays a neglected wife and mother, but this time her husband (Michael Shannon) is plagued by apocalyptic visions. His terrifying premonitions drive a wedge into their marriage.
She has numerous outstanding scenes opposite Shannon, like when she tearfully confronts him about taking out an exorbitant bank loan without consulting her. Later, she must convince him to open their storm shelter after he's convinced the outside world has been swept away. Almost all of their work together is such potent, powerful stuff and Chastain and Shannon's remarkable chemistry make them both more than worthy of awards consideration.
Finally, Chastain may consider her more lightweight performance in box office success and Best Picture contender "The Help." As social outcast Celia Foote, Chastain is both a sympathetic presence and comic relief. She will likely share the Screen Actors Guild Award with the rest of the film's ensemble, but that suggests why "The Help" is not her best bet. Co-star Octavia Spencer, with whom she shares most of her screentime, is a frontrunner in the supporting category.
It is pivotal that Chastain picks which performance to push now. Many performers have fallen prey to vote-splitting. Scarlett Johnansson, for instance, was nominated for two 2003 Golden Globes -- in Best Actress in a Drama she contended for "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and on the comedy side she was up for "Lost in Translation." She also got two BAFTA Award nominations for Best Actress that year, winning for "Lost in Translation." Both of Johnansson's features got Oscar nods, but vote-splitting prevented her from being nominated for either.
The hard-hitting dramatic work in "The Tree of Life" and "Take Shelter" will make Oscar voters sit up and take notice of what an incredible screen presence Chastain is. In addition to these supporting performances, Chastain also was the lead in the thriller "The Debt" and will make appearances in the upcoming "Coriolanus" and "The Wettest County in the World." There is no reason why she should not pick up her first Academy Award nomination this year, but if for some reason she does not, the hard-working rising star will no doubt have many more chances.