Michel Spingler/AP
December 28, 2012 at 08:30 PM EST
Ann Dowd in 'Compliance'

I feel bad because I gave up on Ann Dowd.

Early in the Oscar season, when the field is so open and many films are still unseen, it’s easier to get behind an underdog. There’s more room to suggest a longshot for consideration’s sake, which to me feels a bit more interesting than just trying to “guess right” for … what exactly? A pat on the head for correctly predicting who might get a trophy?

That’s why I wish I’d had the nerve to give Dowd more of a push for her truly devastating performance in Compliance as a fast food manager who is manipulated into doing terrible things by a man who calls her restaurant and says he is a cop investigating one of her young employees.

As EW’s new Oscar writer, I’ve highlighted a number of wildcard “Consider This” suggestions, most of whom were far darker horses than Dowd. She’s one of those longtime working actors whose face you know even if her name isn’t a household one. She was Tom Hanks’ sister in Philadelphia, the veterinarian in Marley & Me, and Natalie Portman’s mom in Garden State – among dozens of others. Her performance in Compliance as the subservient manager who allows terrible things to happen to her teenage co-worker (Don’t Trust the B’s Dreama Walker) shows how a longtime character actress can also be a star — when given the chance.

I listed her work in Compliance (which was written and directed by Craig Zobel) among the supporting actress longshots in EW’s early November look at the race – but as I look back at my picks for MovieCityNews.com’s Gurus o’ Gold, I never ranked Dowd as one of my favorites. I suppose I was trying to “guess right,” and — for better or worse — prioritized that above advocacy.

There are arguments to be made for playing it safe: On one hand, it’s important to reflect what voters are saying, and this little indie thriller – with its shocking story that divides audiences — never had the money to make a strong campaign push, so it was never fully on Academy voters’ radars.

But there’s also a case to be made that doing that is part of the job of Oscar writers such as myself. We have a platform that can serve a purpose beyond just, “Look at me, I’m a good guesser!” There’s value in pushing for what you think is right – or at least worthwhile (which, ironically, is the central theme of Compliance, too.)

When Dowd won best supporting actress from the National Board of Review, all this nebulous goodwill toward her work seemed to coalesce. Though still a longshot, awards possibilities began to seem more legit. Eight film critics groups nominated her for the role, and she’s a supporting actress contender at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards.

Though the distributor wasn’t interested in spending the money, the mom of three and her husband put together $13,000 to have screeners of Compliance sent out to the Hollywood awards community – an admirable act of faith, first reported by Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?

Dowd is still only a remote possibility for that elusive supporting actress Oscar nomination, but I’ve started to believe in her, too. Why not push back against the pack, even if it’s late in the game?

Entertainment Weekly: Ann, I love the work you did in Compliance, and thought you had an early shot – but I feel terrible for abandoning ship. I’m back on board. I’m rooting for you.

I love that … When you make a movie you do the best you can, and then let go. Whenever I saw something that said Oscar worthy performance, I almost fainted. I thought, ‘This is just heaven! My life’s going to change, career-wise, and so on.’  Then everything went silent and I thought, ‘Oh … but I thought that was going to happen.’

There’s a lot of campaigning that goes into it. But the National Board of Review award really rejuvenated things.

And suddenly it rose up again! It was very exciting, I’ll tell you. Very exciting.

CONTINUE THE INTERVIEW: Dowd on the shocked responses from ‘Compliance’ audiences…

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