Best Supporting Actress 2006: Oscar’s likely contenders

This race has turned out to be one of the toughest to predict — so we’ll start out with the contenders we know won’t end up making the cut. For a while, it looked like two past Best Actress winners — Diane Keaton and Shirley MacLaine — were going to battle it out thanks to their rib-tickling, heart-tugging performances in The Family Stone and In Her Shoes, respectively. But tepid reaction to both films seems to have knocked them out. The National Board of Review selected Memoirs of a Geisha‘s Gong Li for her villainous work, but her shaky English on screen is likely to cause the Academy to view her portrayal of a rival geisha as a series of line readings as opposed to a true performance. And the never-nominated Scarlett Johansson, who surely came close for Lost in Translation, will attempt to become the ninth Supporting Actress nominee from a Woody Allen film, though given the wildly mixed response to her not-so-likable mistress character, she could be left out again.

Barring an out-of-nowhere nomination for Crash‘s sexual-assault victim, Thandie Newton, that leaves six contenders for five slots, and guessing who won’t make the cut is nothing short of maddening. Certainly Michelle Williams, so heartbreaking as Brokeback Mountain‘s jilted homemaker, will be recognized for making us forget she was ever on Dawson’s Creek. Catherine Keener delivered no fewer than four knockout performances this year (in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Interpreter, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Capote) and, despite her bewildering snub by the Golden Globes, should have no problem earning her second career nomination (after Being John Malkovich) for playing the soon-to-be-famous novelist Harper Lee in Capote. With The Constant Gardener quietly gaining momentum, Rachel Weisz is also a good bet as the thriller’s murdered activist, as is A History of Violence‘s Maria Bello, provided voters ignore her best actress Globe nod and include her gutsy performance in this category. The year’s most critically honored competitor is Junebug‘s Amy Adams, whose astonishing turn as a naive pregnant Southerner scored her acting trophies from six critics’ groups (including one from the National Society of Film Critics) in the last month. It’s hard to imagine anyone who watches Junebug not checking off her name; the question is whether a sufficient amount of voters will get that far down in their DVD pile. Still, we’re betting enough will, meaning the snub of this category could turn out to be past Best Actress winner Frances McDormand, so fiery in her first few scenes in North Country (even dusting off her Fargo accent!) and so devastating by the end. But the film’s lukewarm reception might end up letting her down.