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Moviestars, maids and iron ladies vie for Best Actress

Tuesday - 2/21/2012, 5:25am  ET

Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic

WASHINGTON - Our "Countdown to the Oscars" rages on. WTOP listeners have already voted that Jean Dujardin will win Best Actor. Now we turn to the Best Actress category, where a determined housemaid could survive iron-clad competition and extinguish a candle in the wind.

Who Should Win: Michelle Williams ("My Week with Marilyn")

Who Will Win: Viola Davis ("The Help")

Viola Davis - "The Help"

A few weeks ago, my Best Actress money was on Michelle Williams for "My Week with Marilyn." Now, the Oscar love affair seems to have shifted to Viola Davis for "The Help," after her recent win at the SAG Awards. Davis earns her second Oscar nomination in three years ("Doubt") as a strong-willed house servant haunted by a "separate by equal" existence in 1960s Jackson, Miss. The film sets out to be the anti-"Gone with the Wind," saying, "Margaret Mitchell glorified the mammy figure, who dedicates her whole life to a white family, but nobody ever asked mammy how she felt about it."

The performance is reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple" (1985), and if Davis wins, she'll become just the second African American in history to win Best Actress, joining Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"). "The Help" has one true Oscar lock, Octavia Spencer for Supporting Actress, so if the Academy decides not to double up on the same film, it could very well bypass Davis. Either way, the Oscar landscape is now a far cry from Hattie McDaniel winning Supporting Actress for "Gone with the Wind," having to trek to the stage from the segregated table in the rear of the auditorium.

Michelle Williams - "My Week with Marilyn"

Dead-on portrayals of famous figures have been recent Oscar favorites, from Jamie Foxx in "Ray" (2004) to Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" (2005). Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe is no exception. Williams nails Norma Jean in a story about a week-long fling with a young director's assistant while shooting a film in England with Sir Laurence Olivier. Williams successfully transforms herself from her own meek, Mia Farrow look to the breathless, voluptuous, rump-shaking Monroe. Williams captures both her on-screen insecurity and her off-screen torment, allowing us to see her character as "something more than sexual, more than just our Marilyn Monroe."

Williams has great momentum after two previous nominations for "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) and "Blue Valentine" (2010), as well as mainstream hits like "Shutter Island" (2010). She's already won the Golden Globe for "Best Actress - Comedy/Musical" and the top actress prize by the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA). Still, I fear her performance is lost in the film's ridiculously fast pace in the opening act. When first-time director Simon Curtis finally allows the film to settle down in Act Two, we finally get a chance to relish in Williams' performance.

Meryl Streep - "The Iron Lady"

Don't be surprised if the Academy also goes with the prolific Meryl Streep, who earns her 17th career nomination for "The Iron Lady," 33 years after her first for "The Deer Hunter" (1978). Streep masterfully plays Margaret Thatcher in the true story of Britain's first female prime minister.

She is an iron-clad contender, having won the Golden Globe for "Best Actress - Drama." Still, the Academy has already given her two Oscars -- "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979) and "Sophie's Choice" (1982) -- and will likely spread the love here to Davis or Williams. At this point, Streep is turning in performances that could all be Oscar winners. It's just almost unfair to keep giving her statues.

Glenn Close - "Albert Nobbs"

Joining Streep is another stellar veteran of the screen. Glenn Close will make you do a double take in "Albert Nobbs," playing a woman who must pose as a man to find butler work in 19th century Ireland. The trailer alone will make you drop your jaw and say, "That's Glenn Close?"

Close has come close to winning multiple times, but has never pulled it off. In fact, this is her first Oscar nomination in 23 years, after five nominations in the 1980s for "The World According to Garp" (1982), "The Big Chill" (1983), "The Natural" (1984), "Fatal Attraction" (1987) and "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988). If Oscar is feeling a "make-up Oscar," Close could steal one. Still, she hasn't won any of the key predictors, with arguably the most obscure of all the films nominated in this category.

Rooney Mara - "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

Last but not least is Rooney Mara, the titular "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Her role is unforgettable, enduring a brutal rape scene and overshadowing Daniel Craig as an enigmatic code-cracker. She is as tough as they come, the descendant of two NFL football dynasties -- the Rooneys of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Maras of the New York Giants. Unlike the G-Men at this year's Super Bowl, expect Mara to lose, if only because her role is a remake of an arguably better portrayal by Noomi Rapace in the original 2009 Swedish version. Remakes are usually no-no's for the Academy.

Click here for our Best Actor predictions. Join WTOP for an in-depth look at all nine Best Picture nominees every Wednesday and Friday until the Academy Awards on Feb. 26.

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, and check out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)