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Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actress

Oscar voters must pick between an actress no one in Hollywood had heard of a year ago, two veteran character actresses and two A-list Oscar winners who are among the world's biggest movie stars and both regarded as "America's Sweetheart."

Oscar Contenders Supporting Actress Split - H 2014

Prior to the 86th Oscars on March 2, THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg will present an eight-part series of posts breaking down the key facts and figures pertaining to each of the "big eight" Oscar categories. (For his predictions, see the weekly "Feinberg Forecast" post.) This post focuses on the best supporting actress Oscar race.

And the nominees for the best supporting actress Oscar at the 86th Oscars are...

For her turn in Blue Jasmine as the sweet working-class sister of the snobbish title character, 37-year-old Brit Sally Hawkins joins a long list of actresses who have been nominated for performances in Woody Allen films -- resulting in four Oscar wins in this category! -- including Dianne Wiest twice, Mira Sorvino and Penelope CruzPreviously best known for her widely acclaimed but Oscar-snubbed work five years ago in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, Hawkins this year received a Golden Globe nomination and has pending noms for the BAFTA and Independent Spirit awards, as well.

Jennifer Lawrence won the best actress Oscar just last year for David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and she is nominated again this year, in the other female acting category, for another Russell film, American Hustle, in which she plays the ne'erdowell, spitfire New Jersey housewife of a conniving operator who she knows is cheating on her. For her thickly-accented, often hilarious performance, the megastar has already won a Golden Globe, as well as awards from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Online; has been nominated for Critics' Choice and SAG awards; and also has a still-pending BAFTA nom. If she wins the Oscar, she will become only the sixth person to win acting Oscars in back-to-back years (Luise Rainer, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Tom Hanks) and, at 23, the youngest two-time acting Oscar winner in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards (Jodie Foster won her second when she was 26).

PHOTOS: 2014 Oscar Nominees

The exciting newcomer in this year's race is 30-year-old Lupita Nyong'o, a Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale School of Drama-educated actress who had never appeared in a film before Steve McQueen picked her from thousands of actresses for the role of a terribly brutalized slave in 12 Years a Slave. For her heartbreaking portrayal of a woman for whom life becomes not worth living, Nyong'o has received off-the-charts reviews, not to mention Critics' Choice and SAG awards, the L.A. Film Critics Association's award, a Golden Globe nomination and a still-pending BAFTA nomination. Her poise, eloquence and fashion on the awards circuit have only further elevated her Oscar prospects.

Then there's fan favorite Julia Roberts. Thrice previously nominated for Oscars, the 46-year-old was last in the race -- and won -- 13 years ago for Erin Brockovich. This year, she's back in the race for her work opposite Meryl Streep in John Wells' big screen version of Tracy Letts' revered play August: Osage County, in which she plays Barbara, the oldest daughter of a man whose death brings her home to reunite with her colorful, hilarious, dysfunctional family. She shares a number of unforgettable scenes with the film's huge ensemble cast -- most memorably the dinner table sequence -- and also has a few showpieces of her own, not least of all the "eat your fish" rant and the scene that closes the film. For her work, she won the Hollywood Film Award; has been nominated for the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards; and has a still-pending BAFTA nomination.

PHOTOS: Oscars: Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill and Other Supporting Actor Nominees Spill Secrets Behind Their Roles 

And finally there's the lovable veteran of the category, 84-year-old June Squibb, who has been stealing scenes in movies for decades, never more so than opposite Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Alexander Payne's black-and-white dramedy Nebraska. (Many film buffs will also recognize her for her performance as Jack Nicholson's wife more than a decade ago in Payne's About Schmidt.) In Nebraska, her hard-bitten, wise-cracking, irrepressible wife and mother is the picture of spunkyness, and for her work she won top honors from the Boston Society of Film Critics; nominations for the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards; and has a still-pending Independent Spirit Award nom. If she wins the Oscar, she will be older than any other honoree in this category ever was at the time they were recognized, surpassing A Passage to India's Peggy Ashcroft by more than seven years.

STORY: Oscars: 'American Hustle,' 'Gravity' Score 10 Nominations Each 

But this race is probably between Nyong'o and Lawrence, with a slight edge to Nyong'o, both because she's unforgettable in her breakthrough role and because Lawrence, as great as she is, will probably be expected to put in a little more time before being made a two-time winner.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg