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A look at who could take home the best actor and best actress prizes at the Oscars

posted 20 Feb 2012, 06:03 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 20 Feb 2012, 06:05 ]

Which lucky thespians will take home the lead acting and actress Academy Awards? A look ahead at next week's Oscar telecast.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (REUTERS - This year's races for the best actor and best actress Oscars have turned into two of the more difficult categories to pin down.

In the lead actress category, early favorite Meryl Streep, who scored her record-setting 17th nomination

this year for "The Iron Lady," has been edged out slowly but surely by Viola Davis, of "The Help," according to movie expert Scott Mantz.

"Of all the major categories, for me, best actress is the most exciting, and here's why: Viola Davis, she's the front-runner to win best actress, even though seventeen-time nominee Meryl Streep, she's the most nominated actor in Oscar history," says Scott Mantz, film critic for U.S. entertainment television program "Access Hollywood. "She's been nominated so many times I feel like people get the impression she's actually won more than she has, that could work against her favor."

In biopic film "The Iron Lady," Streep portrays controversial British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the first ever woman to hold the post. Considered one of the best actresses to ever grace the screen, Streep, 62, has displayed a famously chameleon-like ability to transform into any character, perfecting her speech and mannerisms for whichever role she takes. It has been 30 years since Streep last took home an Academy Award, for her lead role in the 1982 film "Sophie's Choice," about a Holocaust survivor.

On the other hand, Viola Davis received her second Oscar nod for her role as Abileen, a wise black maid who takes a risk by helping an aspiring white writer (Emma Stone) pen a tell-all book about the experience of working for white families in civil rights-era Mississippi, in "The Help." Davis, 46, has only recently become known by the filmgoing public, with her breakout role in 2008's "Doubt," for which she received her first nomination for supporting actress, though she has been working steadily in films and on stage since the mid 1990s, and won two Tony awards during her illustrious Broadway career.

This year, for her role as Thatcher, Streep has won both the Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic film, and the BAFTA Award, but has lost out to friend Viola Davis for two major awards, the Critics Choice, and the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) Award. Because the SAG awards are decided by actors, who make up the largest voting bloc of the 5800-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the winner of that prize is generally considered the best positioned to take home the acting awards at the Oscars.

"Now, she (Streep) did win the Golden Globe playing Margaret Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady,' she also won the BAFTA award, no shock there, it's a British prime minister you're talking about and those are the British Oscars, but I still think the odds are in favor of Viola Davis, because as much as 'The Help' sort of got criticized for being a bit soft in terms of a message movie, the performances were extremely fantastic, they were great, and they were the best thing about the movie," says Mantz.

But don't discount other nominees, like Michelle Williams, who stars as fallen screen siren Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn."

"The weight of playing someone like Marilyn Monroe, who has been a legend since her death, and even in her life, never was even nominated for an Oscar, Michelle Williams deserves to win. Now, she's got a lot of competition, of course, but given the fact that there is a tie between both Meryl and Viola, there's a very strong chance -- and I believe that it should happen -- that Michelle Williams should win for Marilyn Monroe, for 'My Week With Marilyn'," says Scott Mantz.

The other two nominees for best actress this year are Glenn Close, who plays a woman disguised as a man in order to find work in 19th century Ireland, and newcomer Rooney Mara, who portrays the brilliant computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in the American film version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," based on the popular Swedish novel and film of the same name.

The best actor category has also proved to be uncertain.

"Best actor is a horse-race between George Clooney, for 'The Descendants,' and Jean Dujardin, for 'The Artist.' It wasn't always looking that way, for a long time, it looked like George Clooney was the front-runner, and deservedly so because George Clooney is like a fine wine, he keeps getting better with age," says Mantz.

George Clooney stars in "The Descendants" as a well-meaning and well-off Hawaiian land owner navigating his fragile family through a period of turbulence after a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. Early indicators steered the speculation that Clooney would stride easily to picking up the best actor prize; he has won the Golden Globe Award and the Critics Choice for his role in "The Descendants." But recently the scales have tipped in favor of French actor Jean Dujardin, who plays a down-on-his-luck silent film star whose career slips away with the advent of the talkies in "The Artist." Clooney has lost out to Dujardin for the BAFTA and SAG Awards, which is, as in the case of the best actress category, considered the most accurate indicator of who will win best actor.

"What could tip the scales in favor of Jean Dujardin is this, there are over a hundred-thousand SAG members. The Academy has 5800 voting members in it, the largest branch of the Academy is the acting branch, it has about 1200 people just there. If the majority of that percentage is made up of SAG voters who voted for Jean Dujardin, then it's no question that Jean Dujardin will win the Oscar for best actor, but it's still going to be a horse-race up until the very end, between Clooney and Dujardin," says Mantz.

The other three nominees in the best actor category are Brad Pitt, who plays a major league baseball manager who pioneers a new method of scouting players in "Moneyball," Gary Oldman, who transforms into George Smiley, the popular character of the John le Carre spy thriller novel "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," in the film of the same name, and Demian Bichir, a Mexican actor whose nomination for little-seen film "A Better Life" surprised the entertainment industry.

Tune into the 84th Annual Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, February 26, to find out who will take home the Oscars for best actress and best actor.