By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A young widow, a bayou girl, an elderly woman, a mother and a CIA agent battle it out on Sunday for the Best Actress Oscar, a race that includes the youngest and oldest nominees in the category's history.
Jennifer Lawrence of "Silver Linings Playbook," 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," 85-year-old star of "Amour" Emmanuelle Riva, "The Impossible" lead Naomi Watts and "Zero Dark Thirty's" Jessica Chastain are competing for their first Academy Award.
"Any one of these five can win, it's one of the most hotly contested races in recent memory," Scott Feinberg, lead awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, told Reuters.
In the long movie campaign season, awards have been split between Lawrence, Chastain and Riva.
Lawrence, 22, who picked up her first Oscar nomination in 2011 for "Winter's Bone," was nominated for her portrayal of an endearing young widow in quirky comedy "Silver Linings Playbook."
The actress won the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards in the comedy acting categories, and bested Chastain for the Screen Actors Guild trophy.
"Jennifer Lawrence fits the perfect profile of a winner. (The voters) love an ingenue at the peak of her career," Tom O'Neil of awards website GoldDerby.com told Reuters.
"She is queen of popcorn pictures with 'The Hunger Games' franchise and she is delivering the kind of dramatic performance in 'Silver Linings Playbook' that merit her the ultimate crown," he added.
Chastain, who landed her first Oscar nod for supporting actress for the 2011 film "The Help," has picked up the Critics' Choice Best Actress award, and the Golden Globe for drama actress.
Yet Chastain, 35, an early Oscar front-runner for her role as dogged CIA agent Maya in the Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," has seen some of her support wane in the wake of criticism for the film's portrayal of torture, and director Kathryn Bigelow's omission from the Oscar director's race.
The race between Chastain and Lawrence has been fueled by reports of a rivalry between the two, which Chastain was forced to deny through her Facebook page last week, calling Lawrence "utterly charming and a great talent."
But with French actress Riva winning Best Actress at Britain's version of the Oscars this month, the star of foreign-language entry "Amour" could pull off an upset.
AN OPEN RACE
At age 85, Riva is the oldest Best Actress nominee for her performance as a retired music teacher felled by a series of strokes in "Amour." Many pundits believe this year is an opportune time to recognize the French actress for her five-decade film career.
"Riva may be helped by the fact that people want to do this now. They're not going to put it off for her as they might for the other nominees, who are all considerably younger," Feinberg said.
Chastain and Watts, 44, are nominated for playing characters based on real people. But Feinberg suggested that Watts, who plays a mother torn from her family by a tsunami in "The Impossible," had another advantage.
"(Voters) like to see that kind of physical transformation and Naomi is playing a real person, which they think is a taller order ... you need to provoke more than respect, you need to provoke awe or enthusiasm," Feinberg said.
"The problem with Jessica Chastain, as good an actress as she is, the part is very cold. It's hard for people to get excited about it," he added.
O'Neil noted that the 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - a predominantly male, over 50s group of movie professionals who select the Oscar winners - often vote for younger, attractive actresses in a close contest.
That would give Lawrence or perhaps child star Wallis an edge.
Wallis was a surprise Oscar nominee for her first acting role in mythical drama "Beasts of the Southern Wild," playing a defiant young girl in an impoverished Louisiana bayou community.
"Oscar voters love little girls," O'Neil said, citing Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin who won in the supporting category when they were children.
"Just because she is an adorable 9-year-old does not mean we should dismiss her as a contender. Oscar voters have historically shown that they love to give big hugs to little girls," O'Neil said.
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by Jill Serjeant and Stacey Joyce)