Jennifer Lawrence is currently the lead actress Oscar front-runner for… (Handout )
"Who is that?"
It seemed an odd question. Watching "Silver Linings Playbook" at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September, the woman sitting next to me leaned in, whispering her inquiry. I wanted to ask if she ever saw a little movie called "The Hunger Games." Or the last "X-Men" movie. Or the Oscar-nominated "Winter's Bone."
Instead, I just mumbled, "Jennifer Lawrence," hoping that would be the end of it. And it was. But I wondered: How does a literate, festival moviegoer not recognize Lawrence? And as "Silver Linings Playbook" continued to unfold and Lawrence revealed herself as a superb comic actress, blessed with a perfect sense of timing and the ability to hilariously dress down the likes of Robert De Niro, it hit me:
This woman probably has never seen Jennifer Lawrence smile before. That's the thing throwing her.
GRAPHIC: Oscar contenders | PHOTOS: Jennifer Lawrence's fashion style
Audiences will have the opportunity to watch Lawrence's revelatory work in "Silver Linings Playbook" beginning Friday, when the film opens in limited release before a Thanksgiving weekend blowout expansion. The 22-year-old actress heads this year's lead actress Oscar race by a country mile. Here's an early snapshot of the category's contenders.
1. Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”
2. Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
3. Marion Cotillard, “Rust and Bone”
4. Helen Mirren, “Hitchcock”
5. Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"
Bubbling under: Keira Knightley, “Anna Karenina”; Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”; Judi Dench, “The Bext Exotic Marigold Hotel”; Meryl Streep, “Hope Springs”; Maggie Smith, “Quartet”; Laura Linney, “Hyde Park on Hudson”
Not yet seen: Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”
For your consideration: Leslie Mann, “This Is 40.” Remember how great she was in “Knocked Up”? Mann takes that same character in Judd Apatow's latest confessional comedy and just pulls the rip cord, playing a woman kicking and screaming and, yes, crying a few tears as she faces the Big 4-0 amid a life full of blessings and disappointments.
Analysis: Get ready for plenty of stories on the age range of the likely nominees, going from 9-year-old Wallis to the 85-year-old Riva. Two nods from foreign-language films might feel like a reach until you realize what a subpar year it was for American actress-driven movies. Including both Riva and Cotillard would greatly enhance the quality of the category.
Chastain, playing a CIA agent in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," is the wild card here and, quite possibly, the only candidate capable of dislodging Lawrence from the top spot. The bare-knuckles brutality in "Rust and Bone" will put off squeamish academy members, hurting Cotillard's chances for a second Oscar. Wallis makes for a wonderful story, but you have to be at least legal drinking age for the academy to award you a lead Oscar. Riva, showcased in the tough-minded, subtitled "Amour," will need a push just for the nomination.
Mirren, as Alfred Hitchcock's wife and unsung partner, Alma Reville, might pose the biggest threat to Lawrence. Older academy members will love the historical Hollywood seen in "Hitchcock," and Mirren's role as the unsung wind beneath Hitch's wings should find appreciation within creative circles. It's not "The Queen," but this year, it might be enough.