When Sandra Bullock went for a full-on lip lock with Meryl Streep at this season's Critics' Choice Awards, after both actresses were jointly named the best of the year for their performances in, respectively, The Blind Side and Julie & Julia, Bullock got laughs for being off-the-cuff funny and real-seeming, in the way that Bullock often does.
Streep gamely went along with it, but it was definitely Bullock's moment. It would not be her last, in what is unfolding as one of the only tight, and thus most closely watched, of the season: the race for the Best Actress Academy Award.
"Meryl never dresses for the Oscars," said veteran Oscar consultant Dale Olson. "Meryl puts on a misshapen dress with a belt. She'll wear some wonderful, old jewelry that's really just a bunch of beads."
• The Daily Beast’s Complete Oscar CoverageEarly on, it was thought that Streep was a lock—in the way that everyone assumes Jeff Bridges is for Crazy Heart, Mo'Nique is for Precious, and Christoph Waltz is for Inglourious Basterds—for her uncanny and deliriously entertaining turn as Julia Child in Nora Ephron's warm-hearted romantic comedy. But in recent weeks, Bullock has emerged as a cross between a black sheep and a comeback candidate, a narrative that Hollywood has been warming to, as it has to The Blind Side. Initially, that film, in which Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a sharp-tongued Memphis mom who takes in a poor African American teenager, was perceived as a palatable but hardly artistically triumphant film that grossed a lot of money at the box office. Last week, it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (Other Best Actress nominees include Helen Mirren for The Last Station; Carey Mulligan for An Education; and Gabourey Sidibe for Precious.)
As the stakes are heating up, things are getting ugly behind the scenes, as members of Team Meryl and Team Sandy—as well as those who have nothing to do with either actress, but will nonetheless be casting a vote for one of them—cast off-the-record aspersions and slights.
"Kissing Meryl was calculated," sniped one voter. "She knew from experience that anything that looks like you're paying homage" goes over well with Academy voters.
"It's the same thing that Kate Winslet did last year," this person continued, referring to all the shout-outs to Streep that Winslet made at pre-Oscar awards ceremonies last year—a tactic that apparently worked. Winslet won her first Oscar for The Reader. Streep, who was nominated for Doubt, went home empty-handed.
Observers are also noting how aggressively Bullock is hitting the campaign trail—and no one in these parts pretends anything less than campaigning is taking place in the Champagne-fueled weeks leading up to the Oscars. Since the fall, the actress has been on an all-out crusade, involving pit-stops on all the morning and late-night talk shows. She's been the belle of Blind Side cocktail parties, such as the one last December held at Il Cielo in Beverly Hills, where Bullock held court in a red velvet dress, shaking hands and chit-chatting with journalists. Last weekend, she received a special award—the vague, slightly foreign-sounding Riviera Award—at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, which is conveniently located in the tony town that many Academy members call home.
But Bullock's sweat shows how badly she wants it. And the Academy likes its stars to want what it bequeaths.
"Academy members are quite delighted to watch this circus, because it means that what we as members do is meaningful," said one.
Streep, meanwhile, is doing what she always does during awards season: nothing. Philosophically opposed to pirouetting for awards, and seemingly perhaps through with caring about them at all—much in the way Katharine Hepburn outgrew the charade (she didn't bother showing up the year she won for On Golden Pond)—she's been fairly invisible over the past few months. Even last fall, when she had another Oscar-hopeful movie to promote ( It's Complicated), she turned down magazine covers.
"She doesn't have to [campaign]," said Dale Olson, a veteran Oscar consultant. "That's her advantage. It's not important to her. Just like Meryl never dresses for the Oscars. Meryl puts on a misshapen dress with a belt. She'll wear some wonderful, old jewelry that's really just a bunch of beads."
But is Streep's outward indifference toward the Oscars hurting her? After scooping up statuettes early in her career, she has been chronically snubbed by the Academy. Over the last 27 years, she has been nominated 11 times. And never won. At last year's Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Streep won for Doubt, she seemed genuinely shocked by the news. "I didn't even buy a dress!" she said, upon accepting the award. She wasn't joking. In lieu of Valentino, she was wearing slim black pants and a billowing black top.
A few months ago, it looked like this would be Streep's redemptive year. Julie & Julia buzz was consistently strong throughout the fall, and Streep walked away with a coveted New York Film Critics award. At the Golden Globes, she won, again, in the comedy category—as did Bullock in the drama one.
But the tide turned at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Bullock, alone, won Best Actress. Afterward, Bullock told reporters, while once more employing the bow-to-elders strategy: "It's a fluke. I feel it's wrong if you really want to know the truth… My money was on Meryl, and I'll tell her that time and time again. There were exquisite performances this year, but Meryl always manages to top herself."
Streep, meanwhile, was faced with the embarrassment of going backstage to a roomful of press, where she was pointedly asked how it felt to not have won an Oscar in more than two decades. To which she replied: "It makes me feel fantastic."
What is perhaps most predictive about who will win is that, at this point, Bullock has a better story than Streep, which is to say that she is seen as more deserving. Of the many things that Streep is—beyond talented, brilliant, unstoppable—having already won two Oscars (for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice), Hollywood does not feel that it owes her. (Only two actresses have won more golden hardware: Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman.)
That she is Meryl—the queen, the grand dame, the best—also may, perversely, hurt her. "With Meryl, everyone simply expects a nomination," Olson said. "I think they overlook the win, because they say, 'Well, you know, she'll keep on doing this.'"
Bullock has never been nominated, let alone won, an Academy Award. She's the season's pleasant surprise—Hollywood's favorite sexy-tomboy turned serious artiste. The Erin Brockovich of 2009. Something else Bullock is, is hot, after a very long cold streak. And the fact that her heat (which was also generated by The Proposal) has paid off at the box office is not insignificant during a scary economic time when Hollywood's profit statements are being eaten away by video games, at-home theaters, and cell phones that have more apps than a Swiss Army knife has parts.
As one Oscar consultant put it: "Hollywood is in a mood to honor populism in a way that it hasn't in the past."
Then again, the Academy prides itself in being unpredictable. Anything that smacks of a smug certainty can roil the staunch institution's pedigreed, and very prideful, feathers —recall Mickey Rourke's trajectory last year. After sweeping all the major pre-Oscar awards (he was also a Riviera Award recipient) for The Wrestler, he was snubbed on Oscar night when Sean Penn won for Milk.
Which is to say, the mystery, elbowing, and side bets will continue. Which is, of course, exactly the kind of drama the Academy loves best.
UPDATE: This article originally misstated that Winslet won an Oscar for Revolutionary Road .
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.