2018 Oscars Best Actress race led by Sally Hawkins (‘The Shape of Water’) but watch out for Frances McDormand (‘Three Billboards’)

In the Oscar race for Best Actress, Sally Hawkins has a big lead for her heartbreaking performance in Guillermo Del Toro‘s “The Shape of Water.” Hawkins, who contended in supporting for “Blue Jasmine” in 2013, has the backing of 14 of our 21 Oscar experts who cover these kudos for major media outlets like Variety and Entertainment Weekly. That support translates into leading odds of 11/5.

In this fantasy film, which won the top prize at the Venice film festival, Hawkins plays a mute woman who communicates through sign language who gets a job cleaning a government laboratory. There she encounters a humanoid aquatic creature (Doug Jones, who played multiple creatures in Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”) who is the subject of scientific research and testing.

However, she faces a strong challenge from Frances McDormand, who took home this award back in 1996 for “Fargo.” She headlines another dark comedy, Martin McDonagh‘s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which won the audience award at the Toronto film festival. She plays a grieving mother who tries to shame the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) into investigating the murder of her daughter. McDonagh, a Tony-nominated playwright, won the Best Live Action Short Oscar in 2004 for “Six Shooter.”

While McDormand has reaped two supporting bids in the years since her win (“Almost Famous,” 2000; “North Country,” 2005), she has never contended in lead again. Although the actress has not been given as meaty role in a movie as this one for two decades, she has parlayed such parts into awards on both Broadway (“Good People,” 2011 Tony) and TV (“Olive Kitteredge,” 2014 Emmy). With that latter win, McDormand became just the 21st performer to claim the triple crown of acting awards. She has the votes of four experts and odds of 4/1 to become the 14th double Best Actress champ.

Poised to play spoiler is Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird,” an acclaimed character study by first-time solo director Greta Gerwig. Ronan, who lost her Oscar bids for “Atonement” (2007) and “Brooklyn” (2015), embodies the title character:  Christine “Lady Bird” Macpherson, a teenager looking to spread her wings. She has one expert in her corner and odds of 13/2. Ronan could have the edge as the Best Actress Oscar is usually awarded to an ingenue, unlike the Best Actor prize which is typically taken by a veteran. Indeed, a whopping 32 of the 89 Best Actress winners were in their 20s when they picked up their prizes, including last year’s winner Emma Stone (“La La Land”).

Meryl Streep defied this youth bias when, at age 62, she picked up her third Oscar in 2012 for “The Iron Lady.” She had the overdue factor in her favor as it had been almost three decades since her second win for “Sophie’s Choice.” She is tipped to reap her 21st Oscar nomination for portraying society doyenne turned newspaper publisher Katharine Graham in Steven Spielberg‘s upcoming historical drama “The Post.” The film is set against the backdrop of the Washington Post’s pursuit of the truth behind the escalation of the Vietnam War during the first years of the Nixon administration. Two-time Oscar champ Tom Hanks portrays the Post’s cantankerous editor Ben Bradlee. Streep has odds of 12/1 to win Oscar #4.

Twenty years ago, Judi Dench earned her first Oscar nomination for her heartfelt portrayal of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown.” Despite winning the Golden Globe and BAFTA, she lost at the Academy Awards to Helen Hunt for the comedy-drama “As Good As It Gets.” Dame Judi returns to the role in “Victoria and Abdul.” Backed by rave reviews for her performance, this British national treasure has odds of 14/1 to finally win that elusive Best Actress Oscar.

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