Movieline‘s Stu VanAirsdale is asking why Carey Mulligan hasn’t caught on as a formidable Best Actress finalist. I could feel this bizarre turn taking shape but I didn’t want to face it. I finally did on 1.13 in a lament/argument piece. Mulligan will still be nominated, of course, but the race is now between Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock — we may as well face facts.

Carey Mulligan

But why? How did her handlers “utterly fail to build any public image or brand for their awards hopeful?,” as VanAirsdale puts it. It couldn’t have been easy to let the advantage slip away, given Mulligan’s headwind out of Sundance ’09, but somehow it happened. It seems fair to say that Sony Pictures Classics didn’t exactly quarterback the campaign like Eli Manning. Tom Bernard and Michael Barker are known to be equitable and hands-offish when it comes to acting-awards campaigns. It therefore never seemed likely that they would have orchestrated some kind of balls-out Mulligan push. That’s not how they play it.

“Any number of unknowable internal factors contributed to this,” VanAirsdale says, “from peaking too early to Mulligan’s personal reluctance to play the game (especially after she started dating Shia LaBeouf) to Sony Pictures’ Classics’ institutional thriftiness to simply taking an awards nod for granted and planning to regroup in February — after the Oscar nominations are announced — for a legitimate campaign.”

And to think it was only three months ago when I told Scott Feinberg the following:

“Meryl Streep gives an expert performance as Julia Child in Julie & Julia. She always gives expert performances. She always gets everything right. But this time around she isn’t half as spirited or soulful as Carey Mulligan in An Education. Seriously, not by half. Streep is doing a bit. She’s the master of this kind of acting. But Mulligan is turning on the current, acting her butt off and pouring her heart out. She’s fresh and alive and expert as well. She’s got the moves and the chops.

“The industry worships Streep but I know more than a few people who are sorta kinda sick of her being so good all the time. Always the grand dame, always being nominated, etc. As she deserves to be — don’t get me wrong. But the bottom line reality is that her performance in Nora Ephron‘s decently made film is nowhere near as good as Mulligan’s in Lone Scherfig‘s superb one. That’s a fact.”

As Steve McQueen‘s Jake Holman cried out in the finale of The Sand Pebbles, “What the hell happened?”