TIME movies

Oscars 2014: Why Lupita Nyong’o Will Win Best Supporting Actress

12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave Francois Duhamel—Fox Searchlight

It all comes down to Lawrence vs. Lupita — but isn't Jennifer Lawrence's trophy case getting a little crowded?

NOMINEES
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Two dreams of an Oscar nomination: getting one with your first role in a feature film, as Nyong’o has; and being recognized, like Squibb, at 84, after a 60-year career in small roles in movies and TV shows, on Broadway and on the road. Before she secured the part of Bruce Dern’s wife — she of the ancient angelic face and the salty mouth (“I ain’t fiddlin’ with no cow titties, I’m a city girl”) — Squibb’s most notable credit was as a replacement in the original Broadway run of the musical Gypsy, in 1960. She played Electra, the stripper with the flashing lights on her costume, singing the Styne-Sondheim “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (“If you wanna make it, / Twinkle while you shake it”). A mere 53 years later: stardom!

(READ: Corliss’ pick for Best Actor in the 2014 Oscars)

Hawkins won many critics’ awards (but no Oscar nomination) for her role as the optimistic teacher in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008; she becomes an Academy finalist playing Cate Blanchett’s reality-based sister in Blue Jasmine. Roberts, who lends passion and bitterness to her role as one of Meryl Streep’s rebellious daughters in August: Osage County, achieved movie fame in three short steps in her early twenties — Mystic Pizza, Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman, with nominations for the last two — and won her Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich. She would be considered a prodigy among star actresses — unless her competition were Lawrence, Hollywood’s new great blond hope.

(READ: Corliss’ pick for Best Actress in the 2014 Oscars)

Nominated at 20 for Best Actress in the indie drama Winter’s Bone, Lawrence won last year as the truculent widow who gets Bradley Cooper to dance in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook; she was the second youngest winner in this category (after 21-year-old Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God in 1987). If the Academy blesses Lawrence for her film-stealing role as the sexy wife in Russell’s American Hustle, she would be the youngest performer with two competitive Oscars. In between these award-winning turns, all she’s done is anchor the sensationally popular Hunger Games franchise. With The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, she became the first actress since Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music to be the top-billed female star of the year’s highest-grossing movie.

(READ: Corliss’ pick for Best Supporting Actor in the 2014 Oscars)

There’s simply no comparing Lawrence’s saucy comedic brio in American Hustle with Nyong’o’s long-suffering sanctity as the prize property of sadistic Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. Nor do the usual auguries point to a clear winner. Nyong’o, raised in Kenya and a graduate of the Yale Drama School, won most of the critics’ prizes and the Screen Actor Guild award; Lawrence took the Golden Globe and BAFTA citations. We can safely predict that Nyong’o will be named Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards, held on her 30th birthday, the evening before the Oscars. (Lawrence is not nominated there, because the American Hustle budget was too high for the movie to be eligible as an indie production.)

(READ: Lisa Schwarzbaum on Nyong’o “the front runner”)

On Oscar night, it’s a coin toss — the closest race among the major categories. Our tentative guess: the Academy will decide that Lawrence, still only 23, will be around for ages to cop more statuary, and that Nyong’o and the searing film she represents is worthy of one acting award (plus, possibly, Best Picture). But we won’t be shocked if the golden girl with the throaty laugh is on stage to receive yet another item for her overstocked trophy case.

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