A few months ago, the leading-lady race was looking like one of the most crowded of the year. But now it's the easiest to predict. Blame much of that on Helen Mirren, whose feisty and completely transformative performance in The Queen has won her no fewer than 20 critics' awards. (The only group not to crown Mirren as the year's Best Actress so far? That wildly contrarian Austin Film Critics Association, which went with Hard Candy's Ellen Page instead.)
Our two other cover girls, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep, will also easily make the cut. Dench, a past winner for Shakespeare in Love (where she played a different Queen Elizabeth), proved herself equally riveting out of period garb as Notes on a Scandal's disturbed schoolteacher. And Streep, already the most nominated actor ever, will boost her count to 14, thanks to her impressively three-dimensional nightmare boss in The Devil Wears Prada. Kate Winslet stands to score nod No. 5 with her sympathetic turn as an adulterous suburban mom in Little Children, a remarkable feat considering she's only 31. (Streep was 34 when she earned her fifth nomination.) And the category's newcomer will most certainly be Penélope Cruz, whose third teaming with writer-director Pedro Almodóvar in Volver gave the Spanish actress her toughest role yet, as a fierce protector of her only daughter. It's a challenge she met with strength, humor, and whimsy.
Locking up all the nominations at the SAG Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, these five women shut out a number of worthy runners-up, including Annette Bening, whose wickedly hysterical performance as Augusten Burroughs' psychotic mother in Running With Scissors seems to have been overshadowed by negative reaction to the film. In a weaker year, she'd have made the list. The same could be said for Dreamgirls' lead Beyoncé Knowles, who, like Bening, landed a Golden Globe nomination. But yielding the spotlight to scene-stealer Jennifer Hudson will probably cost her an invite to the Oscars. And although past nominees Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts deliver typically fine work in The Good German and The Painted Veil, respectively, both December releases have simply fallen through the cracks. At least Blanchett is a lock for Best Supporting Actress.
For Your Consideration
A recovering junkie/ex-con desperate to reconnect with her daughter, the character Maggie Gyllenhaal plays in Sherrybaby is selfish, self-destructive, and often infuriating. But Gyllenhaal inhabits her so deeply that you can't help being moved especially when a failed reunion with her child leads to a heroin relapse. The look of defeat on her face is heartbreaking. And surely worthy of some Academy love.