PITY Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her eight-minute onstage singing performance-cum-nervous breakdown in Georgia is one of those bravura scenes that virtually secures an Oscar nomination – remember Bette Midler’s similar rampage in The Rose, which won her a nod in 1979? But unlike recent races in which critics loudly complained that the Best Actress category was impossible to fill out, this year’s field is so rich that there are almost no guarantees.

”It’s the only category where someone really deserving is going to get left out,” predicts Miramax marketing executive Cynthia Swartz. ”It’s the most exciting this year.”

Okay, maybe there are two sure shots: Emma Thompson, who wrote herself a starring role in her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, gets one slot. And Meryl Streep, whose Italian-American accented turn in The Bridges of Madison County made her lonely housewife more than a romance-novel cliche, gets another nomination – her 10th. But, after that, it’s every woman for herself.

The critics have already split between lauding Leigh’s junkie and Elisabeth Shue’s hapless hooker in Leaving Las Vegas. New York chose Leigh over Shue; L.A. chose Shue over Leigh. But if Academy voters have to choose, one insider predicts that Leigh has the edge. ”Remember, actors are naturally jealous,” he theorizes. ”They can respect Leigh because she’s paid her dues, but Shue may be too much of an overnight success.”

Similarly, can Sharon Stone win enough votes from her fellow actresses for her harrowingly serious performance in Casino? (Presumably, she has already bewitched the actors.) And can Nicole Kidman overcome her have-it-all rep as Mrs. Tom Cruise to win respect for her wickedly comic performance in To Die For? In a less cutthroat year, Sandra Bullock would win the unofficial new-girl-in-town nomination for While You Were Sleeping – just as Julia Roberts was nominated for Pretty Woman in 1990 – but this time around, that’s an uphill battle.

In addition, there’s a whole list of veteran performers to account for: Susan Sarandon, bravely eschewing high-glam makeup to play a nun in Dead Man Walking; Angela Bassett, the very personification of a strong black woman in Waiting to Exhale; Annette Bening, bringing an adult’s romantic wariness to The American President; Michelle Pfeiffer, a cooler-than-Coolio Ms. Chips in Dangerous Minds; and Vanessa Redgrave, whose comic elegance in A Month by the Lake won her a surprise Golden Globe nomination. Who says there are no good parts for women?