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Time to Handicap the Academy Awards (Part 2 - Best Actress)...By Hartley Henderson

From the outset movie sites and critics have been touting one woman as this year's best actress - Helen Mirren as the Queen. When the movie came out it was clear why she was given this distinction. Mirren clearly stole the show as Queen Elizabeth II and from all accounts her portrayal of the real queen was flawless. The movie was all about her and the inner conflict she felt as the public and British PM Tony Blair wanted her and the rest of the monarchy to acknowledge grief over Diana's death while in reality she really didn't care for the woman. She demonstrated to a tee the difficulty she and the rest of the monarchy felt as they were expected to put on a public display of emotion and grief over the death of someone they personally never cared for. If they failed to do so it could have led to the abolition of the monarchy in Britain.

Mirren's displays of stoicism, crocodile tears and firmness in the aftermath of Diana's death was spectacular. It's no wonder she is less than even money to win best actress at the sportsbooks that have odds listed. At the same time, is she a sure thing? There is no doubt her performance was excellent and the Academy absolutely loves her but if the movie receives little recognition at nomination time it could hurt her chances. Furthermore, the trend in Hollywood of late is to give the Oscar to actors who put on a huge showy display of emotion in their roles. Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line", Charlize Theron in "Monster" and Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball", for example, were all remembered for their great acting and the over the top displays of emotion. "The Queen" naturally didn't have this emotion and consequently there may be nothing in particular in the movie that the Academy will remember Mirren by when they go to vote. Also going against her is her age; the last several winners were much younger. Although, Mirren has never won an Oscar and this could be her big chance.

The second favourite is Penelope Cruz. Her role in "Volver" is apparently spectacular and the movie will get more recognition at nomination time than "The Queen". The Spanish movie about a woman who has to deal with the death of her mother and the loss of her husband to her own daughter is complex, but Penelope Cruz as Raimunda is said to be spectacular. She is heart warming, thoughtful and, unlike Mirren, full of emotion. According to the director of the movie Pedro Almodovar, the only fault he could find in Cruz is that her ass wasn't big enough (no joke). Cruz is also much younger than Mirren and the Oscars lately have gone to younger actresses.

I personally haven't seen Volver and really have no desire to see it and that could be an issue with many in the Academy. As a general rule, English subtitled films do not fair that well in the non foreign film categories, as many moviegoers don't like to read a movie. I'm sure the same holds true for Academy voters. As well, Penelope Cruz was never particularly liked by critics or Academy members in her English role films prior to this and for those members who won't go to see "Volver", they may decide to judge her performances from movies like "Vanilla Sky", "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" and "Blow" where she received Razzie nominations as worst actress.

The third mention goes to Meryl Streep for her role as Miranda Priestly in the "Devil Wears Prada". Streep played a ruthless New York magazine editor and showed incredible displays of cynicism, manipulation and evil. Her role was lauded by almost every critic and she is a Hollywood darling. At nearly 60 years old, this could be one of her last real chances at an Oscar. The biggest knock against her is the fact that the movie itself just wasn't that good. Most critics acknowledged Streep's performance but also suggested that without her the movie would have been lousy. Even with her, the movie just wasn't that interesting. She'll probably be the only nomination from the "Devil Wears Prada" for an Oscar and that could sway the Academy voters away from her. As well, since she's been around so long and garnered 14 Oscar nominations in her career, many Oscar voters will judge her performance in comparison to the others. And by all accounts her Oscar winning performances in "Sophie's Choice" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" as well as her loss in "The Bridge's of Madison County" were just better and more memorable performances. Still, she can never be counted out.

The fourth most mentioned actress for an Oscar is Kate Winslet in "Little Children". Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, a mother who is angry at life and takes it out on her daughter whom she blames for taking up her time. From all reports Winslet's potrayal was very good, although the movie itself wasn't seen by many. Some suggest she was great, while others suggest she was just okay. But Winslet does have something going for her and if she does indeed win it could have absolutely nothing to do with the acting she did in the movie, but rather her age and beauty. Looking at Oscar winners over the last several years, it is clear that the Academy prefers to vote for the younger actresses when possible. Renee Zellwegger won last year, Hillary Swank won the year prior to that, Charlize Theron in 2003, Nicole Kidman in 2002, Halle Berry in 2001, etc. With three of the likely nominees at 55 years of age and older, (Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench), Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz could actually be the actresses that the Academy choose. Of course there are exceptions to the rule as Jessica Tandy and Katherine Hepburn were in their 80s when they won for "Driving Miss Daisy" and "On Golden Pond", respectively. There is no question Kate Winslet is absolutely stunning and she will always be remembered for her role in "Titanic". If the "older vote" goes equally for Mirren, Streep and Dench, look for Winslet to come up the middle. She will get some competition for the younger vote from Penelope Cruz, but that may not mean much if the Academy refuses to recognize a foreign film in the main Oscar categories.

Lastly, the final likely nomination for best actress is Judi Dench in "Notes on a Scandal". It seems like Judi Dench is nominated for an Oscar every year and, of course, she did win for her roles in "Mrs. Brown" and "Shakespeare in Love". "Notes on a Scandal" won't be released until December 27th and is about a pottery student (Cate Blanchett) who has an affair with one of her classmates. Judi Dench is Cate Blanchett's professor and essentially takes control of Blanchett's life through blackmail after witnessing the affair. The movie is apparently quite dark but Dench's performance is said to be meomorable. Her biggest obstacle to winning an Oscar is probably Helen Mirren, who has never won an Oscar and is the most likely choice of the academy if they choose one of the older actresses.

The only other actresses really given any consideration are Cate Blanchett in "Babel", Beyonce Knowles in "Dreamgirls", Annette Benning in "Running with Scissors" and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Sherrybaby". Blanchett will probably be passed over for "Babel" and given a supporting actress nomination for "Notes on a Scandal". Beyonce Knowles is apparently nothing spectacular in "Dreamgirls" and was outperformed by Jennifer Hudson so she won't win either. And Maggie Gylenhaal probably has little chance as independent films generally don't win Oscars. That leaves Annette Benning as the only other real condender for an outside shot. Benning has been hailed by many as the bright spot in an otherwise dreadful film. The movie was lambasted by critics and it really never did anything at the box office. For that reason alone, Benning probably will be overlooked despite a very good performance.

So in summary, Helen Mirren is the Oscar favourite for her role as Queen Elizabeth II, and rightly so. Her main competition seems to be Merryl Streep and Penelope Cruz, but the true dark horse and value play at this point is Kate Winslet. The LA Film Critics awards on December 10 and the Golden Globe nominations on December 11 will likely determine whether Mirren can be beat. If the odds get too low on Mirren, she's worth betting against.

Hartley Henderson

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