BEST ACTRESS | EW.com

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BEST ACTRESS

Not since the Olympics has female competition been so fierce. So many women, so little room.

Playing a pregnant police chief, FRANCES MCDORMAND [A] gave Fargo its heart; she is the front-runner, having been hailed by the Broadcast Film Critics and National Board of Review. Critics’ honors and Golden Globe nominations also mean great expectations for BRENDA BLETHYN [B] (as a working-class mom in Secrets & Lies) and KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS [C] (as the upper-crust lover in The English Patient). Hollywood, of course, doesn’t always heed the critics. EMILY WATSON was singled out by the New York critics and National Society of Film Critics as the self-sacrificing wife in Breaking the Waves, but the challenging Christ allegory is not the kind of film that Hollywood readily embraces.

DEBBIE REYNOLDS [D] should have no trouble being embraced for her performance as the slyly controlling mom in Mother. She not only got swell reviews but can count on support from two strong voting blocs: her own aging contemporaries, and pals of her hip daughter, Carrie Fisher.

Rocker COURTNEY LOVE [E] – high on praise for her role as the colorful Althea in The People vs. Larry Flynt – is expected to be the year’s most unconventional nominee, but she’s no shoo-in. Some Hollywood actors don’t enjoy seeing plum parts go to outsiders, and there has been some confusion about which category she belongs in. While Sony Pictures is lobbying for a Best Actress nomination, the New York critics lauded her as Best Supporting Actress.

To understand just how tight this year’s actress race is, consider the backups: DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP, possible nominees for Marvin’s Room, will probably cancel each other out. GWYNETH PALTROW’s title turn in Emma earned her lots of magazine covers, but her Oscar buzz was drowned out by the thunder of the formidable fall and holiday competition. WINONA RYDER, a dervish of hysteria in The Crucible, was mentioned early on, but support hasn’t solidified. In a less crowded year, GENA ROWLANDS (Unhook the Stars) and KATHY BATES (The War at Home) would already be out buying dresses. And The Evening Star’s SHIRLEY MACLAINE can take comfort in the fact that she already won for playing Aurora Greenway.

Don’t forget MADONNA as Evita. Though she’s been playing the part of potential nominee – attending glittery premieres, patiently answering reporters’ questions – she is still seen as an arriviste in Hollywood. Also, rock operas are not showcases for acting; Madonna’s main task as Evita is to hit the notes and strike the poses – and no one doubts she can do that.

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LOVABLE LONGSHOT

Few people have seen LAURA DERN in Citizen Ruth. That’s a shame, because in a season full of actresses taking big risks, her blunt, unsentimental performance is the bravest, funniest high-wire act of all. As the screwy, incorrigibly stupid pawn of both anti-abortion fundamentalists and pro-choice lesbians, Dern is a heroine worth rooting for. That’s more than acting – it’s alchemy.