Oscar Watch

Best Actress

Nicole Kidman, The Hours | KIDMAN
KIDMAN

Who's up for the Best Actress Oscar

If there's one thing critics' groups hate, it's being unoriginal. Which is one reason why the various voting bodies usually spread out their awards among a handful of lead-actress contenders. (Last year, ''In the Bedroom'''s Sissy Spacek, ''Mulholland Drive'''s Naomi Watts, ''The Deep End'''s Tilda Swinton, and ''Monster's Ball'''s Halle Berry split most of the pot.) But this year, one performance has struck reviewers as so singularly impressive that it's racked up no fewer than 12 of the first 17 best-actress awards to be announced: JULIANNE MOORE's striking turn as Cathy Whitaker, the sunny '50s housewife whose life becomes gossip fodder in ''Far From Heaven.'' If there's one absolute certainty in this race, it's that Moore, previously nominated for 1997's ''Boogie Nights'' and 1999's ''The End of the Affair,'' will earn her third nod.

Four women have upset Moore by picking up the remaining critics' prizes, though at least one doesn't have a chance of factoring into the Oscar race: San Francisco critics' winner ISABELLE HUPPERT of ''The Piano Teacher,'' whose film was submitted last year in the foreign-language category. Meanwhile, ''Secretary'' breakout MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL won kudos from the Boston critics as well as a Golden Globe nod for her gutsy performance, but her S&M-tinged indie might strike voters as a bit too rough. Thanks to DIANE LANE's high-profile New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics wins, the onetime child star is in the running, despite ''Unfaithful'''s early-summer release date. And a Golden Globe nod bodes well for Las Vegas critics winner NICOLE KIDMAN's Oscar chances as ''The Hours''' Virginia Woolf.

For Kidman's costar MERYL STREEP, who plays harried New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan, a nomination would be nothing short of historic: The actress could increase her tally to a record-breaking 13 (or even 14, if she's also cited for her supporting role in ''Adaptation''). SALMA HAYEK also earned a Globe nod for her performance in ''Frida,'' although her portrait of an artist could get squeezed out of the picture. Likewise, in a weaker year comedic contenders like ''My Big Fat Greek Wedding'''s NIA VARDALOS and ''Lovely & Amazing'''s CATHERINE KEENER, as well as ''The Good Girl'''s surprisingly dramatic JENNIFER ANISTON, might have had a stronger shot at the final five. Instead, the multitalented RENÉE ZELLWEGER, who went from dowdy Brit (''Bridget Jones's Diary'') to full-on vamp (''Chicago'') in one year, should find herself with something else to sing and dance about: a second consecutive nomination.

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