What millions of viewers will be seeing when they turn on the Oscars next Sunday will be the culmination of a best actress race that will say a lot about the voting preferences, biases and self-interest of the nearly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Among the several earthshaking developments that may occur that night will be a winner who defies one of the many vague predispositions of Oscar voters, set over the 85-year course of Academy Awards history.
Each of this year's nominees seems to be handicapped in some way, by virtue of birth, movie or her own mouth. In an ordinary Oscar season, one or two problem candidates would complicate the ballot. This year, it's a rose garden's worth of thorny choices, which fall into the following categories.
THE INCREDIBLY YOUNG ACTRESS
Quvenzhané Wallis, the now-9-year-old star of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and a force of nature in a movie about forces of nature, is already in the record books: She's the youngest-ever best actress nominee, having bumped then-13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes of "Whale Rider" (2003), and with a performance Quvenzhané delivered when she was only 6. Quvenzhané will, of course, become the youngest best actress if she wins, something that -- if you believe certain betting lines -- has only a 50-1 chance of happening.
But Oscar voters, who skew older, do like dramatic statements and occasionally those gestures even benefit the young. Shirley Temple got an honorary Oscar at age 6 in 1934; Tatum O'Neal won best supporting actress for "Paper Moon" (1973) at age 10; Anna Paquin ("The Piano," 1993) was 11. Usually, though, the young get stiffed: Justin Henry ("Kramer vs. Kramer," 1979) -- at 8, the youngest nominee in Academy history -- lost to Melvyn Douglas ("Being There"), then 79, and the third-oldest winner ever in the best supporting category.
THE FOREIGN ACTRESS... WHO'S ALSO THE OLDEST ACTRESS
There's good news and bad news for 85-year-old French film star Emmanuelle Riva. Good news: Oscar always likes bestowing honors that feel like lifetime achievement awards -- just last year Christopher Plummer became the oldest best supporting actor winner ever. The bad news: Riva's career, launched by Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" in 1959, has been spent almost exclusively in France.
But here's more good news: She's in one of this year's more extraordinary hits -- Michael Haneke's "Amour," about an elderly couple facing death. But again, it's a foreign film. Yes, her fellow Frenchwoman, Marion Cotillard, won in 2007, for "La Vie en Rose," but that portrayal, of the legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf, was one of those almost freakishly transformative performances Oscar voters seem to love (think Charlize Theron in "Monster," Helen Mirren in "The Queen," Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady" and Nicole Kidman with the hood ornament on her face in "The Hours").
Riva merely gives an emotionally transformative performance, sans prosthetics or Thatcherite love handles. She really hasn't got a chance: Before Cotillard, the last import to win best actress was Sophia Loren in 1961, for "Two Women," a film about war.
THE POLITICAL HOT POTATO
If this were an ordinary year, and we were talking about one of those ordinarily brilliant performances by Jessica Chastain (who was nominated for "The Help" in 2012), she might have been a slam dunk. But "Zero Dark Thirty" has not been an ordinary movie. Despite the surgical direction of Kathryn Bigelow and Chastain's spectacular-verging-on-obsessive-compulsive performance, the movie has generated too much controversy over torture, the CIA and the hunt for Osama bin Laden to be a good bet in the Oscars. Hollywood may lean to the political left on many things, but when it comes to its own image -- something with which Oscar is synonymous -- it's staunchly conservative. The town won't want to put its imprimatur on a movie that is seen to endorse "enhanced interrogation," or one that will somehow, in years to come, tarnish its self-image. (By giving "ZD30" an Oscar, the Academy would be seen as choosing a side in an ongoing controversy. Depending on how that controversy plays out, it could reflect badly on the Academy in the future.)
THE OFFBEAT GENIUS
There are precedents for Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"), who seems to let fly with wonderfully wacky things whenever she opens her mouth. Debra Winger was always a maverick and never won an Oscar (she still could, of course). Helena Bonham Carter clearly couldn't care less about the Academy, and the Academy has responded pretty much in kind.
After a year that included "The Hunger Games," Lawrence has to be considered the favorite in 2013, especially with those wins at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild. Yet, she's walking a very delicate line regarding Mr. Oscar. Her statements in interviews have been refreshingly eccentric; her dissing of the other best actress nominees during a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit, however tongue-in-cheek, was toying with fate. And one can only exhibit so much insouciance regarding Hollywood's biggest honor before the voters start backing away from you -- as pointed out, the aforementioned actresses have not actually won.
That Lawrence is nominated for a comedy might be considered a handicap, given Oscar's shameful history on comedies, but the fact it's a comedy about mental illness probably gives the film the gravity Oscar voters need to feel good about themselves.
THE ACTOR'S ACTOR WHO REALLY DOESN'T CARE
It has become a truism that one must campaign for the Oscar if one expects to win. Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") will be on "60 Minutes" the night of the Oscars, but that's a bit too little too late. One almost gets the sense that the actress took a look at the competition -- the kid, the old lady, the two redheads -- and took her blond self out of the race.
But it's a delicate balance an actor has to strike, between not seeming to want it too much and caring enough to make an effort. Meryl Streep never seems to wage a campaign -- and, in fact, her ratio of nominations to wins is very low. Cotillard and Bullock waged stealth campaigns that actually paid off. The balance one must strike is to land somewhere between Katharine Hepburn and Melissa Leo -- not too ethereal, not too hungry.
It's also true that people must have seen your film. Has anyone seen "The Impossible," a movie about the aftermath of the 2004 South Asian tsunami? It's not enough to have delivered a gripping, moving, lacerating performance as a mother separated from her son by the natural disaster. Audiences have to have seen the film, and it has to be imprinted on the public consciousness. At least in Los Angeles.
Q How many people can name the films, released over the past 15 years, for which Fernanda Montenegro (1998), Janet McTeer (1999), Catalina Sandino Moreno (2004) and Felicity Huffman (2005) were nominated for best actress? As those years have shown, it's best to be on the inside track. This year won't be any different.