Is Jessica Chastain poised to steal Oscar from Best Actress frontrunner Jennifer Lawrence?

Posted by · 7:33 pm · November 20th, 2012

Remember last year when Jessica Chastain was everywhere? It wasn’t by design. After being discovered by Al Pacino some years ago during an audition, the actress made her way into the business. She was cast by Pacino (who she called her “acting godfather” at last year’s Palm Springs awards gala) in “Wilde Salome” and landed roles in a slew of other films that all just happened to drop at once. So 2011 became her big coming out…to the tune of an Oscar nomination for her work in “The Help” and various precursor wins for her performances in that film, “Take Shelter” and “The Tree of Life”

Well, she arguably deserved to win the Oscar over her “Help” co-star Octavia Spencer last year, but we all figured we’d see her again. A talent like this doesn’t just fade away. But who knew it would bubble up again so soon? While Sony has been busy keeping a lid on most of the details of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” right down to the specificity of the role Chastain would play in the film, the Best Actress race has been slowly congealing into a big bid for Chastain’s fellow young ingenue Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.” But I’m betting that’s all about to change.

It’s probably ill-advised to write something like this before seeing “Zero Dark Thirty,” so let’s get that out of the way first. This is pure sideline guessing (informed by this and that from those who have seen the film). But I’ve nevertheless been wondering for some time whether Chastain could spoil, and the way I hear it, she stands out enough in Bigelow’s film to do just that.

I have had an inkling about the role itself for a while, but it’s really started to out a bit this past week: Chastain is tackling a real-life CIA analyst who made it her mission in life to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. As noted by Brad Brevet at Rope of Silicon, a 60 Minutes interview with Seal Team Six member “Mark Owen” (he’s protecting his real identity) and author of “No Easy Day” — an account of the assault on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound — revealed that said analyst, called only “Jen,” was the spearhead of the entire thing. (Though Mark Boal is remaining coy about this note.)

“I can’t give her enough credit,” Owen says in the interview. “In my opinion she kind of tee’d up this whole thing. Just wicked smart, kind of feisty. And we’d always talk back and forth, ‘Hey, what do you think the odds of this are? What do you think the odds of that are? You think he’s there?’ She’s like, ‘100%. 100%. He’s there.’…Our intel folks come up with assessments all the time…but what was interesting was after the fact, when we got back, everything she had said — her whole assessment — was accurate. Not one thing that she had told us was out of play…Very impressive.”

A press friend who’s seen the film called Chastain’s performance all-consuming, pointing to intense training the actress went through and chalking it up as the kind of thing that makes other actors jealous. And this person noted a complaint many have expressed: that there aren’t enough roles like this in Hollywood these days, with a kind of toughness and intellect. I keep saying someone needs to write an “Aliens” for Viola Davis.

Guild and further press screenings of the film begin Sunday afternoon. They will be held at the same time in New York and Los Angeles. And I have to say, after watching that interview, hearing the nuts and bolts, that “whisper” story — I am jacked to see this thing. More than I have been, anyway. I’m also very excited at the prospect of a big, swinging contender waltzing into the lead actress race like this.

Just imagine what kind of an intriguing bookend to, say, Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor for “Lincoln” (if that actually happens) this would be. It’s an election year. The zeitgeist is in the air.

But enough of that. You watched the 60 Minutes piece, right? I want to know what the story is with assault dog “Cairo.” Uggie who?

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in limited release on December 19.

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