Reese's Big Year!

In her new movie Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays a woman who hikes 1,000 miles to find herself. Offscreen the star, 38, is gearing up for another hard journey: awards season. Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild opens Dec. 3 and called for the actress to take a decidedly unglamorous walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. “I’m southern,” she told PEOPLE in September. “It wasn’t easy.” The performance has catapulted her into the Oscar race (Witherspoon has an Academy Award for 2005’s Walk the Line). This year she also starred in the The Good Lie and produced a blockbuster, Gone Girl, through her company Pacific Standard, which makes films with strong female characters. It’s all helped the mom of three feel more “evolved as a human being and an actress.” And happier for taking risks. “I’ve been really touched,” she says. “People have been so receptive to me doing something different.”


Which woman will take the Oscar for a leading role? The contenders in the Best Actress category are an array of vets, upstarts and big names. Witherspoon has major buzz, but many insiders say the smart money to go all the way is on Julianne Moore, 54, for playing a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in the drama Still Alice. Moore has been nominated four times but has never won. “A lot of people in the industry feel she is overdue for a win,” says Dave Karger, host of Fandango’s Frontrunners. Then there’s Jennifer Aniston, 45, getting the best reviews of her career as an embittered woman in the tragicomedy Cake, which required her to put on weight and wear a back brace. “It puts you in a different state of mind not to take care of yourself,” says the star, who is “flattered” by the praise. Academy darling Amy Adams, 40, may land a spot as a quirky painter in Big Eyes, and 35-year-old English import Rosamund Pike’s chilling turn in Gone Girl may push her into the race. The breakout? Fellow Brit Felicity Jones, 31, winning raves as Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything. Is she ready for the Oscars? “To think of your name being associated with that word,” she says,”is a very special thing.”


Among the men, the early hometown favorite is Michael Keaton for his portrayal of a fading action star trying a Broadway comeback in Birdman. “Michael gives a funny performance that also has fascinating dramatic moments,” says Karger. “And he nails it.” But there are talented Englishmen nipping at his heels: Eddie Redmayne, 32, whose showy turn as Stephen Hawking in Everything earned comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis. Hot property Benedict Cumberbatch, 38 (see p. 90), is getting raves as a tortured scientist in The Imitation Game, and Redmayne welcomes the competition: “Ben is an old friend and someone I hugely admire.” Gaining ground: David Oyelowo, 38, as Martin Luther King in Selma. “I’m not bashful about awards,” he says. “They symbolize that we’ve done a good job.” But don’t count the Yanks out. Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) may figure in the race. And Oscar voters may reward Steve Carell for playing it straight—and scary—as a wealthy killer in Foxcatcher.


When it comes to Oscar’s biggest prize, the race is wide open. “There’s a rich array of performances,” says Ben Affleck, who starred in Gone Girl, a critical and box office smash. “It’s too bad that it becomes about horse racing rather than just good movies.” Okay, Ben, but betting on horses is really fun! And we’re off, with Hollywood eagerly awaiting Unbroken, the WWII drama produced and directed by Angelina Jolie. Like Unbroken, American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, is based on a true story and bestseller. The same is true for Wild, directed by Oscar nominee Jean-Marc Valleé (Dallas Buyers Club). Insiders expect the Stephen Hawking story The Theory of Everything to vault to the front for being both worthy and a crowd-pleaser. That bodes well for the MLK bio Selma. “That’s something Academy voters gravitate toward,” says Karger, who also points out that despite their sweeping themes, many of this year’s contenders are really studies in family dynamics. That’s good news for a critically loved sleeper: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a family drama filmed over 12 years.

Related Articles