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Oscar nominees 2012: Best Actress

Running down the race between Viola Davis, Michelle Williams, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Rooney Mara

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The Frontrunner
Viola Davis in The Help
Age 46
Role Aibileen Clark, a domestic in 1960s Mississippi.
Oscar History She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2008’s Doubt.
Seeking Help ”I read the book and said, ‘I need to get the rights,”’ says Davis of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, on which the movie is based. ”And frankly, I felt like if I could secure the rights, I could possibly produce it, and it could be a movie that would employ a lot of black actresses.” Soon after she learned that Stockett’s longtime friend, director Tate Taylor, had acquired film rights for the book, Taylor approached her with the script.
Beyond Stereotypes ”Even though people have seen ‘the maid’ in so many different stories, I think that they’ve never seen Aibileen,” says Davis, who was drawn to the tale’s three-dimensional depiction of characters who often recede into the background. ”Here are these women who have these lives — these losses, pain, this hurt, this joy — and they go to work and nobody ever asks or acknowledges who they are, yet they entrust them with the care of their children. Kathryn Stockett really explored the emotional lives of these women.”
Up Next Now appearing in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, she will play a crusading public school teacher opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter in Won’t Back Down (Sept. 28). —Karen Valby

Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
Age 31
Role Marilyn Monroe, as she shoots a movie in London in 1956.
Oscar History She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and Best Actress for last year’s Blue Valentine.
Power Player ”Our image of Marilyn Monroe was what she wanted us to see,” says Williams, who spent months prepping to play the 1950s screen icon. ”She’d be invisible in a crowd and then say, ‘Hey, watch this,’ and she could turn it on, a kind of internal mechanism that she lit and nobody could take their eyes off her. But it was something she studied.”
Fandom Across Generations Williams, who as a teen decorated her bedroom walls with pictures of the troubled star, has already introduced the legend’s work to Matilda, her 6-year-old daughter. ”As a teenager, I didn’t relate to Marilyn as an actress. I just related to her as a photograph. I didn’t see a single one of her movies growing up. But my daughter has now seen every movie that [Monroe] ever made because we had them on in our house so often.”
Up Next Williams costars with Seth Rogen in Sarah Polley’s second feature, Take This Waltz (June 29), then teams up with Mila Kunis and James Franco in Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, due in theaters March 2013. —Sara Vilkomerson

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Age 62
Role Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Oscar History You’re kidding, right? This is her 17th nomination, though she’s only won twice: Supporting Actress in 1980 for Kramer vs. Kramer and Best Actress in 1983 for Sophie’s Choice.
Acting Prime Minister Any director, surely, dreams of casting Meryl Streep. Or ”the beyond-compare Meryl Streep,” as Phyllida Lloyd, who previously directed her in 2008’s Mamma Mia!, describes the actress. That doesn’t mean that it was easy for her to portray such a recognizable public figure. ”The stakes were very high,” agrees Lloyd. ”It would be like an English actress coming to play Hillary Clinton. All eyes are on you.”
Lose Yourself Audiences and critics have long marveled over Streep’s ability to totally disappear into the subjects she plays. But when 60 Minutes recently asked just how real it feels from the inside, the characteristically down-to-earth star just laughed. ”I’m not insane, I do know that I’m acting,” she said. ”But you forget about it, yeah. When you’re doing it right, there’s a thrilling suspension of the day-to-day and you’re in someone else’s head.”
Up Next Streep reunites with her Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel for Great Hope Springs, costarring Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell, due Dec. 14. —Sara Vilkomerson

Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
Age 64
Role Albert Nobbs, a woman in 19th-century Ireland who passes as a man to work as a hotel waiter.
Oscar History Five previous nominations — The World According to Garp (1982), The Big Chill (1983), The Natural (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Dangerous Liaisons (1988) — but no wins.
Silence Is Golden As Nobbs, Close communicates with her quiet watchfulness as much as with her words. So it’s no surprise the actress turned to an icon of silent film for inspiration. ”I actually looked at Charlie Chaplin films,” says Close. ”Albert is someone who at 14 somehow got a suit of clothes and presented herself as a waiter. So [like Chaplin] her shoes are too big, her pants are too long. But that’s what she got used to.”
Close Calls The actress has a refreshing sense of humor about the fact that her Oscar scorecard is reaching Susan Lucci-level absurdity. ”I think people think I’ve already gotten an Oscar,” she laughs. ”I’d be really disingenuous if I said I didn’t want it. Having been in this profession for 30 years, it would be a nice thing. But I do feel that it’s very tricky to choose who’s the best each year. Everyone is so different.”
Up Next She stars in the final season of DirecTV’s Damages this summer, then appears opposite Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) in the indie drama Thérèse Raquin, based on the Émile Zola novel. —Adam Markovitz

Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Age 26
Role Enigmatic, leather-clad investigator Lisbeth Salander.
Oscar History First nomination.
Salander’s Psyche Surprisingly, Mara never envisioned Lisbeth as especially irate. ”A lot of people describe her as this very angry person. I never saw it that way. She has this ability to be incredibly violent and she has a lot of anger and rage, but it’s not something she puts out to the world all the time. She’s afraid of that part of her, so she struggles to keep it inside of her. Every once in a while someone does something and it comes out. She can’t control it. I think that’s much more interesting than someone who’s just sort of walking around angry all the time.”
On a Role Since buzz started building for her Dragon Tattoo performance, Mara has been getting a lot of scripts — some intriguing, some a little…familiar. ”They’re all across the board,” she says. ”I definitely got sent a script for a girl who was meant to be a hacker, but luckily there aren’t that many of those out there. I haven’t been offered a romantic comedy yet…” Would she like to be? ”Maybe a dark comedy,” she says with a laugh.
Up Next Mara will likely star alongside Ryan Gosling in Terrence Malick’s Lawless, which is set to start filming this fall. She’s also committed to return as Lisbeth in two sequels. —Rob Brunner