Golden Globes film actresses preview

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After years in which actresses have struggled to find compelling roles in Hollywood films, this is turning out to be an annus mirabilis for women in Hollywood.

Two of the three Globe acting categories look unusually competitive -- best actress (drama) and supporting actress -- with established names like Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet and taking on such awards newcomers as Viola Davis, Sally Hawkins and Melissa Leo.

Together, their work may indicate there is a resurgence of interest in women in Hollywood, which has failed to generate a substantial body of women's films since the heyday of the studios, when stars like Bette Davis were as powerful on the big screen as latter-day stars like Glenn Close and Holly Hunter are on the small screen.

Perhaps the present slate of women's films is a belated reaction to television's emphasis on women. Perhaps it's a kinder, gentler response to a remarkably aggressive past eight years. Perhaps it's just good timing. Whatever the cause, it's positive news for moviegoers, who'll find most of this year's awards categories chock-full of talent.

Here's a look at the chief contenders in the film lead and supporting actress categories:



Actress (Drama)

Streep signed on almost immediately when producer Scott Rudin and writer-director John Patrick Shanley offered her the role of the oppressive Sister Aloysius in Miramax's "Doubt," even though Cherry Jones had made such a stamp in the part onstage. And it's easy to understand why: With her fierce East Coast accent and intimidating manner, Streep seems born for the job.

Over the last 30 years, the HFPA has showered Streep with 21 nominations and six awards, most recently for 2006's "The Devil Wears Prada." But Streep could find herself displaced by the new millennium's master of accents, Cate Blanchett. She's been on the HFPA's radar for only a decade, and already it has honored her with seven nominations and two awards (1998's "Elizabeth" and 2007's "I'm Not There"). This year, she's a contender for Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which has the scope that awards bodies love, and an unusual dramatic hook: Can a woman find true love with a man aging backward?

Relative newcomer Anne Hathaway's performance as an embittered drug rehab vet in Sony Pictures Classics' "Rachel Getting Married" is generating powerful reviews. She could lead a wave of talented younger performers who are beginning to make their mark on Hollywood -- like Hawkins (Miramax's "Happy-Go-Lucky").

Another talented younger actress, Michelle Williams, is in contention with Oscilloscope Pictures' "Wendy and Lucy." The film was a labor of love for Williams, who agreed to star even though the entire production budget was only $175,000. (It ended up being closer to $300,000 when added elements were factored in.)

Even newer to the awards game is Leo, long an actors' favorite, who took on another indie venture, SPC's "Frozen River," in which she plays a working-class woman sucked into a scheme to bring illegal immigrants over the border. After being overlooked for masterly work in movies like 2003's "21 Grams," Leo might get her due this year.

Some major stars will jostle with Leo. Three-time Globe winner Jolie was an early awards season favorite for Warner Bros.' "Changeling," but the film's somewhat muted reception may have dimmed her chances.

Three-time winner Nicole Kidman looks like a classic contender for Fox's sweeping romantic epic "Australia," as does Keira Knightley for Paramount Vantage's costume drama "The Duchess."

Getting some of the buzz around is Winslet, drawing raves for her performance as a frustrated '50s suburbanite in DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road," directed by her husband, Sam Mendes. If she's nominated, she'll follow actresses like Frances McDormand (1996's "Fargo") and Susan Sarandon (1995's "Dead Man Walking"), who've earned awards kudos for starring in their partners' films.

Another English actress, Kristin Scott Thomas, is a near shoo-in for her role as a woman emerging from 15 years in prison in SPC's French-language "I've Loved You So Long" -- Scott Thomas, who lives in France, speaks the language perfectly.

Dark horses to watch include Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in the Weinstein Co.'s "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."



Actress (Comedy/Musical)

As strong as the dramatic and supporting races are, this category is weak, which means the HFPA will likely round out two or three strong nominations with others from movies that would not normally be considered awards-worthy.

On the comedy/musical side, awards magnet Streep is back in contention with Universal's big-screen adaptation of the ABBA-loving stage hit "Mamma Mia."

Two other Oscar winners are in contention in this category -- McDormand, who plays a gym worker hungry for plastic surgery in Focus Features' "Burn After Reading," and Emma Thompson, as a London airport employee who finds unlikely romance with an American jingle writer (Dustin Hoffman) in Overture Films' "Last Chance Harvey."

Scanning the year for standout female performances in comedies, it's hard to get past the film adaptation of the HBO series "Sex and the City" (New Line), which boasts juicy turns from its core quartet -- Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Sarah Jessica Parker. As leader of the pack Carrie Bradshaw, Parker must be seen as the favorite.

There might also be room in the category for fresh faces Elizabeth Banks, who plays a regular gal who makes an adult film in the Weinstein Co.'s "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," and Kat Dennings, who plays Norah in Sony's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."



Supporting Actress

This is a twofer category, packed with films that feature more than one potential nominee.

In "Rachel Getting Married," there's Rosemarie DeWitt and Debra Winger, both turning in strong performances as bride and mother, respectively.

Amy Adams gives an affecting performance as the timid Sister James in "Doubt," a role loosely based on a real-life nun who taught author Shanley, while Viola Davis impresses as the mother of a troubled boy. Davis appears in little more than two scenes, but even her co-stars say they were moved to tears while watching her shoot them -- and Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for a single five-minute, 40-second scene in 1976's "Network," so Davis should be Globe-ready.

In the end, they could all lose out to Winslet, who ages from 36 to 68 as a German tram conductor suspected of Nazi war crimes in MGM/Weinstein Co.'s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's acclaimed novel "The Reader."

Marisa Tomei, exposing body and soul as an aging stripper in Fox Searchlight's "The Wrestler," may also figure among the five nominees, as might Beyonce, who gives a strong performance as R&B singer Etta James in Sony's "Cadillac Records."

Another worthy contender is Penelope Cruz, proving she can be comic and scary at the same time for her tantrum-throwing turn in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." She plays Javier Bardem's ex-wife in the movie that brought the two thesps together in real life.

Other contenders include Hiam Abbass as the concerned mother of a deportee in Overture Films' "The Visitor"; Thompson as the aristocratic Lady Marchmain in the big-screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic 1945 novel "Brideshead Revisited" (Miramax); Banks as Laura Bush in Lionsgate's "W"; Christine Baranski as an oft-married plastic surgery enthusiast in "Mamma Mia"; Kathy Bates as a suburban busybody in "Revolutionary Road"; Rosario Dawson as a woman battling a heart condition in Sony's "Seven Pounds"; Jennifer Hudson as the caretaker of a lonely teen girl in "The Secret Life of Bees"; Elsa Zylberstein as Scott Thomas' younger sister in "I've Loved You So Long"; and Tilda Swinton as the title character's first love in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
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