"The Artist" received glowing reviews at the Cannes Film Festival this year, as did its stars Jean Dujardin, who plays a silent film star whose career is on the wane, and Bejo as his love interest, whose star is on the rise. Dujardin has received the lion's share of attention -- and a Cannes Film Festival win for Best Actor -- but the Academy admires young women in their breakthrough performances, and support for the film overall could be significant if distributor and Oscar svengali Harvey Weinstein gets his way. While Bejo has contended in the supporting race in the precursor prizes, BAFTA just nominated her in lead.
Barkin is a veteran actress, and though she has won Emmy and Tony Awards, she has never contended for an Academy Award. In "Another Happy Day," she plays the mother of a man whose upcoming wedding reunites her estranged family. The film won the screenwriting prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, which has previously been awarded to Oscar contenders like "You Can Count On Me," "Memento," "The Squid and the Whale," and "Winter's Bone."
This 2009 Supporting Actress nominee ("Up in the Air") makes her directorial debut with this film in which she stars as a woman who begins to question her religious faith following the end of her marriage.
Despite four Golden Globe bids, Johansson has yet to contend at the Oscars. In 2010, she won a Tony Award for her featured performance in a revival of Arthur Miller's play "A View From the Bridge." Perhaps this newfound pedigree can put her in contention for her performance in Cameron Crowe's comedy drama.
Colman is an accomplished comic actress in her native England, with a string of TV successes. Working with actor turned director Paddy Considine, Colman delivers a subdued performance that won her the Breakout prize at Sundance.
Davis has had more success as a stage actress, winning a pair of Tony Awards for her performances in the plays "King Hedley II" and "Fences," and she has developed a career as a characters actress in film ("Far from Heaven," "Antwone Fisher," "World Trade Center," etc.), but it wasn't until her one-scene performance in "Doubt" -- which itself was adapted from the stage -- that she received widespread attention. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and if she is nominated this year for the surprise blockbuster hit "The Help" she will be only the second black actress to receive a second Oscar nomination (after Whoopi Goldberg).
Olsen is the younger sister of famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and she gives a breakthrough performance in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," and independent film that premiered earlier in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival. In recent years, fresh-faced actresses in acclaimed indies have fared well in this category. Carey Mulligan was nominated for "An Education" at age 24. Gabourey Sidibe was nominated for "Precious" at 26, and Jennifer Lawrence was only 20 when she was nominated for "Winter's Bone." "Martha Marcy" was generally embraced by critics, receiving a 76 score on MetaCritic.
Swinton has not been nominated since winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2007's "Michael Clayton," despite acclaimed performances in "Julia" and "I Am Love." She could be nominated for her work in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," a dark film about school violence in which she plays the mother of a troubled teenager. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to strong reviews and is directed by Lynne Ramsay, whose last film, "Morvern Callar" (2002), earned European Film Award and British Independent Film Award nominations for its star, Samantha Morton.
Mara had a small but pivotal role in David Fincher's "The Social Network," and was then hand-picked by the filmmaker to star in his adaptation of the popular novel "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." She makes a dramatic physical transformation to play pierced and tattooed hacker Lisbeth Salander, and physical transformations are often well-received by Oscar voters (Nicole Kidman in "The Hours," Charlize Theron in "Monster"). Fincher has recently become an Academy darling, earning Best Picture nominations for "Social Network" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" as well as acting bids for Brad Pitt, Taraji P. Henson, and Jesse Eisenberg. "Dragon Tattoo" was previously made into a film in its native Sweden, and its star, Noomi Rapace, was received a BAFTA nomination.
Since winning the 2005 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "The Constant Gardener," Weisz has earned plaudits for her stage work (most notably an Olivier for her performance as Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire") but has yet to find a film vehicle to match her talent till now. Based on a true story, this film is a gritty look at the horror that is human trafficking with Weisz riveting as a policewoman who risks her life to expose this in post-war Bosnia.
"My Week with Marilyn" premiered at the New York Film Festival to strong reviews for Williams, though not as strong for the film as a whole. Though much of the attention in this year's race has gone to veteran actresses (Streep, Close, Davis), Williams has one important factor working in her favor: she's an attractive younger actress. Only two of the last fifteen Best Actress winners have been older than forty (Helen Mirren and Sandra Bullock), which gives Williams an advantage, and she also portrays a real-life artist (Marilyn Monroe), a factor that helped propel Reese Witherspoon (June Carter in "Walk the Line") and Marion Cotillard (Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose") to victories in close races against older competitors Felicity Huffman ("Transamerica") and Julie Christie ("Away from Her"), respectively.
After a featured role in last year's Best Picture contender "The Kids Are All Right" and the title role in the blockbuster "Alice in Wonderland," Wasikowska starred in three very different films this year. In the acclaimed adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte novel, she earned rave reviews for her portrayal of the title character, a governess who falls in love with her employer. She also stars in Gus Van Sant's indie drama "Restless" and features in the Glenn Close vehicle "Albert Nobbs."
No one yet has seen Meryl Streep's performance as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," but already she has a number of factors working in her favor. Oscar loves actors playing real people; six of the last ten Best Actress winners have played biographical roles. Oscar loves actors doing accents: American Gwyneth Paltrow played British in "Shakespeare in Love," and recently the English Kate Winslet won for her German-accented role in "The Reader." Finally, Oscar loves Meryl Streep; she has been nominated sixteen times, more than any actor in history, and there is growing sentiment that the two-time winner is overdue a third trophy.
Dunst won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival for her work as a woman battling depression in this film by Danish director Lars von Trier. Recognition by this premier film festival used to be one way to reap an Oscar bid but as of late the cachet of a win on the Croisette has lost its luster on the other side of the Atlantic. The last woman to win in Cannes and contend at the Oscars was Penelope Cruz for "Volver" in 2006; before that it was Brenda Blethyn for "Secrets and Lies" a decade earlier.
Knightley contended in this category in 2005 for "Pride and Prejudice" losing to Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line"). She could return to this race with her performance as the real-life Sabina Spielrin, the one-time patient of Carl Jung who became her lover despite it costing him his friendship with Sigmund Freud. Knightley's performance in David Cronenberg's film version of Christopher Hampton's play has proven to be divisive with some critics hailing her efforts while others dismiss them.
Close is a five-time Oscar nominee, whose last bid was for 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons." She has never won, and in "Albert Nobbs" she not only adopts an Irish accent but masquerades as a man. Gender-bending roles often do well at the Oscars: Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry") and Linda Hunt ("The Year of Living Dangerously") won for playing against gender and recently Felicity Huffman ("Transamerica") and Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There") have been nominated. Since the 1980s, Close's profile in the film industry has diminished, but her recent Emmy-winning success on the TV drama "Damages" has put her back on Hollywood's radar. This would be her sixth Oscar nomination. Only one other woman has been nominated that many times without a win: Deborah Kerr.
Jones plays a British girl who falls in love with an American boy during college only to be deported back to England. "Like Crazy" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in 2011, where Jones received a Special Jury Prize for her performance. Two years ago, Mo'Nique also won a Special Jury Prize for acting before going on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in "Precious." In recent years, Oscar voters have nominated other ingenues in indie films (Ellen Page, Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Lawrence), though Jones this year will have to contend against other such young actresses like Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") and Rooney Mara ("The Girl eith the Dragon Tattoo").
While there are instance of two women from the same film both contending for this prize, Stone faces an uphill battle to reap a nomination as much of the focus has shifted to frontrunner Viola Davis.
A former model, Theron proved her acting chops by playing serial killer Aileen Wuournos in "Monster," winning Best Actress. She was later nominated for playing a sexually harrassed miner in "North Country." This year, she stars in the comedy "Young Adult," which reunited director Jason Reitman with his "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody. That film earned a Best Actress nomination for Ellen Page. Reitman also directed "Up in the Air," which earned a lead-acting nomination for George Clooney and supporting bids for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.
Mulligan gives performances in two films this year: "Shame," in which she plays the sister of a sex addict, and "Drive," in which she plays a single mother in danger from the criminals extorting her ex-convict husband (Oscar Isaac). Most of the attention for "Drive's" actors has gone to Ryan Gosling for his taciturn lead performance and Albert Brooks for his against-type work as a violent mobster.