Viola Davis? Meryl Streep? And What Ever Happened to Kirsten Dunst? The Yahoo! Best Actress Roundtable Dishes

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I enjoy sitting around with my friends and chatting about Oscars -- the discussions tend to be knowledgeable and irreverent. For our first Yahoo! roundtable I welcome my colleagues Jonathan Crow and Matt Whitfield, as well as actress-director Jordan Bayne, "Movie Mom" Nell Minow, IndieWire blogger Melissa Silverstein, Oscar obsessive Nathaniel Rogers, and the Hot Pink Pen blogger Jan Lisa Huttner. Now that the Oscar nominees have been announced, we unscrewed the top off our virtual bottle of Chardonnay and began…

Thelma Adams: When I first looked at this race last September, I wondered whether Viola Davis was going to be considered as a leading role for "The Help," and now she's the front-runner after taking the SAG award last Sunday night. As for me, I adore Meryl -- 29 years since her last Oscar win! I also feel that if she can live with Viola Davis winning, so can I. One of them will come out on top next month, but I'm really mourning Kirsten Dunst getting completely shut out. Could that be why she was canoodling with Chris Hemsworth last week at Sundance?

Jordan Bayne: Streep deserves to win for this performance in "The Iron Lady." Taking nothing away from any of her other remarkable performances, even I had to struggle to remember this was Streep and not Margaret Thatcher in front of me. Not even an Oscar can hold a candle to her talent.

Matt Whitfield: A few weeks ago, I was convinced Michelle [Williams] had it in the bag. Then I boarded the Meryl train. Now, I'm thinking Rooney [Mara] has a legit shot. The academy loves an ingénue.

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Thelma: Rooney Mara? I know the academy loves an ingénue, and Mara looks terrific in black on the red carpet, but in my mind she makes Kristen Stewart look expressive as Bella in the "Twilight" series. I feel like Rooney is constantly looking out from under her lashes for the approval of some Daddy at the corner of the screen and, in the case of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," that Daddy is David Fincher.

Matt: We should be talking about Kirsten Dunst vs. Charlize Theron because they delivered the two best performances of the year. Both were robbed.

Thelma: I'm totally with you there, Matt.

Nathaniel Rogers: Thelma, I'm wearing black all this week as I'm also in Kiki mourning. The way she let her innate dreaminess as an actress curdle and sour for [Lars] von Trier's vision in "Melancholia" Is amazing! But, happy thoughts. "Momentum" is powerful in the awards games, and two straight years of acclaimed performances for Dunst should help her next time. I mean, look what three straight years of acclaimed work did for Tilda Swin … oh, wait!

As for who is still in the game: Streep always amazes, but I'm distraught that even the great Streep has to do biopic mimicry to gain winner's heat. Is that the only type of acting achievement they love? Give me Viola's soulful nuance. She truly elevates her film, while Meryl's Oscar grab remains her film's only reason for even existing.

Jonathan Crow: Dunst, Theron, and [Tilda] Swinton got robbed, but then when was the last time the winner of the best-actress category actually was the best actress of the year? (The same goes for the other top categories, too by the way..) Heck, Jessica Chastain deserved a nom for "Take Shelter."

I'll bet that Meryl wins this year. Viola Davis gives a fine performance in a pretty disingenuous movie. I suspect, though, that this won't be the last time Davis gets nominated. She's too good not to. The academy loves giving the supporting -actress award, but not best-actress, to the ingénue, so Rooney's out. Michelle Williams deserved the Oscar for "Blue Valentine" or for "Wendy and Lucy," and I think she'll most likely take the prize if Meryl doesn't. Meryl and Michelle are both in flashy, Oscar-friendly roles playing familiar historical figures in middling movies, and both are quite good. The difference is that Meryl is due. Did [Martin] Scorsese really deserve to win for "The Departed" based on all of his movies? No, but he was due. The same logic, I'll bet, holds for Meryl.

Matt: Can we just take a second to discuss how disappointing both "The Iron Lady" and "My Week With Marilyn" were? Both Meryl and Michelle delivered great performances, yet both films were jumbled messes.

Thelma: I'm with you, Matt, in that I think "Marilyn" underwhelmed. It was a movie desperate for a B plot -- or some spice. I think I stand alone in believing that "The Iron Lady" works as a movie, not just as a performance. And here's another performance that got no recognition because the movie was universally dismissed starting in Venice: Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in "W.E." She was absolutely terrific, believable, human, lost in a movie that was more ambitious than successful.

One thing we seemed to learn this year is that doing period pieces gives a performance a boost: Streep, Williams, Davis, and [Glenn] Close all played historical figures, whether based on fact or fiction. And then Mara comes in as the token ingénue. A performance like Tilda's, which is contemporary, thorny, a complex portrait of motherhood, just doesn't jibe with what is considered an Oscar-worthy performance. Agree or disagree?

Jordan: I agree, but didn't we learn that this past year? I mean, wasn't that what we were saying about "The King's Speech"? Give us a period piece. Get an Oscar. For instance, in the best-actress category:

2002 Nicole Kidman ("The Hours")

2004 Charlize Theron ("Monster")

2006 Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line")

2007 Helen Mirren ("The Queen")

2008 Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose")

2009 Kate Winslet ("The Reader")

Jonathan: It's not period pieces that the academy likes as far as acting goes; it's mimicry: playing a recognizable public figure is the fast road to Oscar gold. Ask Marion Cotillard, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, and Nicole Kidman.

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Matt: The more I think about Tilda's genius performance in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," the more I realize she never had a shot at a nom. Has the stodgy academy ever nominated or awarded an actress who was willing to portray a woman ruined by motherhood? I doubt it.

Jordan: With you on that, Matt!

Melissa Silverstein: Here are my two cents. I think this is a two-person race between Streep and Davis. Early in the race it was Viola ahead, then Meryl picked up steam, and now I'm heading back to Viola's camp.

I think Octavia Spencer is going to win, and that will help Viola. "The Iron Lady" just has Meryl; it's not well liked and has no coattails. But on the other hand, Meryl was able to make that film into a hit and that's impressive. We also remember that "The Help" was a very big mainstream hit with African American women in the lead, and that is something that resonates. While we so desperately need to have opportunities for African American women to play leading roles other than maids, this film offered up big, juicy roles for African American women, and I think that hits the sweet spot of Hollywood.

And Viola has been so incredibly lovely and articulate and passionate on the awards circuit, which helps. And "The Help" is her first leading role, which blows my mind. Meryl totally blew me away, but I do think this is Viola's year.

As for the others, Rooney won by being nominated. Michelle Williams, in my opinion, was great but has much ahead of her. And Glenn Close, what can I say? That movie left me cold. Not her fault, she was good but she just can't compete against the others.

Lastly, I thought Kirsten Dunst was great but it didn't kill me that she wasn't nominated. It did kill me that Tilda Swinton wasn't nominated, and I truly believe she wasn't because we have a really hard time with mothers who don't live up to society's expectations. Her performance in "We Need to Talk about Kevin" was breathtaking.

Nell Minow: For me, the best-actress category is one of the least interesting this year, somewhere under "best sound editing." They might as well hold a permanent place open for Streep in the nominations every year. Eventually she will win another Oscar, but I'd hate to see it be for this one. As deft and rich as it is, the movie's flaws make it tough to justify. I'd rather have seen her get it for "Julie & Julia" or "The Devil Wears Prada." Michelle Williams also did a lovely job in a lackluster film, but I fear it would be the imitation that is rewarded rather than the acting. If it were me, I'd give it to Viola Davis. She should also have been nominated for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," where she gave a very internal and thinly written character a depth and luminosity and humanity that transcended any condescending elements in the script.

Jan Lisa Huttner: With respect to Meryl Streep, I think the most important question is this: Why are almost none of the women who work with Streep ever recognized for their contributions in an art form that is all about team effort?

Thelma: Well, Viola Davis did get a nom with Streep in "Doubt," along with Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But, Jan, your chart on that subject raises some interesting questions.

Matt: Thanks to Davis' SAG win, it's a two-way race 'til the end. Will Meryl hoist her third Oscar, or will Viola triumph? My money is on Viola (and everything "The Help"-related, including Octavia for supporting and the film for best pic).

Jonathan: One year, though not this year, we should promise to give Meryl Streep every Oscar available: best actress, best supporting, best sound mixing, best makeup, and in exchange the academy never, ever has to nominate her again.

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Nathaniel: I just wrote a big gooey tribute to Viola, but what I most feel like screaming is, "I SAW HER FIRST. STEP AWAY." I literally gave her a "breakthrough" prize in 2002 for her indelible work in three small roles ("Solaris," "Far From Heaven," and "Antwone Fisher"). And I hope it happens for her this year because it's such a career moment.

It always hurts when actors are having their best year and they're passed over, which is what's happening with Brad Pitt. What does he have to do to win awards? Age another 15 years I suppose. They do love to make the golden gods wait until they're old and grizzled.

Nell: I totally agree on both, Nathaniel! The showoffs that impersonate celebrities, or do big detox or rage scenes, or gain or lose weight, or look ugly or act evil, they win. While the ones who make it look easy and natural are passed over.

Thelma: The challenge is for actresses playing roles that are not as easily digestible, that are shades of gray and grayer -- like Swinton, Dunst, or Theron. As for the unbearable sadness that is Brad Pitt's life and career, Nathaniel, we'll pick up there when we hold our best actor roundtable next week.

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