Shallow pool for Oscar's actress contenders

Meryl Streep is one of only a few front-runners

"An Education" director Lone Scherfig recently lamented, good-naturedly, that she was tired of producers thinking of her for stereotypically female projects. "Everyone sends me scripts with these sweet stories," she said. "I've done that already. I want to make a movie with chases and explosions. I want to blow things up."

Scherfig might have a point about typecasting, but she also might consider herself lucky -- at least she's in a category in which women are getting their due. This awards season couldn't be a happier time for female helmers; as many as three (Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion and Scherfig) could be nominated for best director. That would equal the total number of women nominated -- can this be? -- in the 73-year history of the award (Sofia Coppola, Lina Wertmuller and Campion, if you're playing Trivial Pursuit).

And yet a look at a category designed for women shows a different picture.

In the best actress field, there's a single Oscar perennial (Meryl Streep, for "Julie & Julia"), some buzzed-about newcomers (Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe for "An Education" and "Precious," respectively) and ... that's pretty much it for the front-runners.

The women toplining the season's two costume dramas, Emily Blunt and Abbie Cornish in "The Young Victoria" and "Bright Star," respectively, are in the mix, along with Penelope Cruz fron "Broken Embraces," though none is generating loads of talk. You can throw in Hilary Swank, but with "Amelia" drawing mixed reviews, she could face a tough road.

Meanwhile, there are some unknown quantities in movies that have yet to screen widely: Saoirse Ronan in "The Lovely Bones," Helen Mirren in "The Last Station" and the women in the ensemble cast of "Nine." But without a consensus, and without even knowing if these actresses notch enough screen time to be considered leads, it's hard to regard them at this point as strong contenders.

How shallow is the pool? Some are talking about performances such as Sandra Bullock's in the feel-good film "The Blind Side."

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The lack of depth has led to a slew of awards-season chatter, from the expected downplaying -- all categories are cyclical -- to blanket explanations about studios making fewer awards movies in general.

If the latter explanation were a factor, best actor also would be weak this year. It's not. Colin Firth, Jeff Bridges, Jeremy Renner and George Clooney are considered best-actor front-runners for their respective meaty performances in "A Single Man," "Crazy Heart," "The Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air," which means such Oscar-pedigreed types as Daniel Day-Lewis, Viggo Mortensen and Morgan Freeman will have to jostle just to get nominated. That category could expand to 10 slots and still leave someone out.

So what's really going on here?

It's axiomatic that older actresses who want to play strong lead roles often have to abandon features for venues like cable TV. Awards season has a way of reinforcing the point. During the 1980s, three women older than 50 won the best actress Oscar, while a fourth (Shirley MacLaine) was about to turn 50.

During the past 20 years, on the other hand, exactly one fiftysomething woman has taken the prize (Helen Mirren, for "The Queen").

That's far from a comment on this generation's talent or even on the preferences of voters. But it does say plenty about the roles women are offered.

In a way, there's a nice inversion to female helmers like Kathryn Bigelow getting an opportunity to direct male stars like Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, especially as they engage in stereotypically masculine activities like fighting a war.

But it also highlights that, for all the strides made by the women behind the camera, the women in front of them can still be subject to the old prejudices. Indeed, the more cynical in town -- including at least one actress awards-contender -- say that the director and actress trends are hardly a coincidence. Many female directors, they argue, can feel pressure to cast a preponderance of strong male leads to negate the perception that theirs is a female-oriented film.

Awards voters increasingly are willing to recognize emerging actresses. This year brings the possibility of two young breakouts in Mulligan and Sidibe.

But those choices are telling too. Both got choice lead roles not in mainstream studio or specialty productions but offbeat indies that struggled to get made or released. It turns out that it's not just older performers facing obstacles: It's hard even for younger actresses not named Angelina Jolie to get a serious movie made within conventional Hollywood.

The season will progress, with female directors being honored and with the actress category struggling to fill its ranks. The way things are going, that trend will continue until someone in the system, well, blows things up.