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Best actress category looks slim for Oscars

When it was announced that Hilary Swank would be starring as Amelia Earhart in the new biopic “Amelia,” Oscar-watchers everywhere thought to themselves, “Well, of course.” Swank, after all, took home Best Actress Oscars for two films — 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” — that required her to cut her hair, wear pants and communicate photogenic anguis

When it was announced that Hilary Swank would be starring as Amelia Earhart in the new biopic “Amelia,” Oscar-watchers everywhere thought to themselves, “Well, of course.” Swank, after all, took home Best Actress Oscars for two films — 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” — that required her to cut her hair, wear pants and communicate photogenic anguish.

When Swank goes glam, as in “The Affair of the Necklace” or “The Black Dahlia,” audiences fail to engage. So playing legendary aviator Earhart aligns perfectly with the roles that have done the most for her career. (Don’t be surprised if she decides to play Joan of Arc or a Pennsylvania wife who crops her locks to join the Union Army before the next decade is out.)

In a typical year packed with noteworthy female performances, Swank’s relatively perfunctory work in “Amelia” (a film she also executive-produced) might get a snub from the Academy, but with 2009 looking like one of the leanest years in memory for leading actresses, Swank may wind up squeezing her way into Oscar’s five finalists.

Whether it’s the result of Hollywood’s recent abandonment of adult drama as a viable genre or merely some crazy kind of cyclical drought that periodically hits like Halley’s Comet, there aren’t nearly as many strong Best Actress contenders this year as there generally are — the usual Oscar rule of thumb states there are far more viable possibilities among leading ladies than among leading men. This year, however, it appears that the pool of possible nominees can pretty much be counted on two hands.

The sure things

There are very few metaphysical certainties when it comes to talking about the Academy Awards, but it’s pretty much a done deal that Carey Mulligan will be a Best Actress nominee for her funny and forthright starring role in “An Education.” Her character’s blossoming from dreamy-eyed schoolgirl to chic woman of the world has been dazzling critics ever since the film’s premiere at Sundance, which is also where the talk of a nomination began. Sure, she’s a relative unknown in this country — but so was Marion Cotillard the year of “La Vie en Rose.”

Before studio execs started looking at her as a summer box-office sure thing, the Academy has always been a big fan of Meryl Streep, nominating her 15 times over the years (with one win each in the Supporting Actress and Actress categories). In 2009, Streep offers Oscar voters two plum roles for their consideration — in “Julie & Julia,” she brilliantly impersonates chef Julia Child’s one-of-a-kind voice and her voracious appetite for both gourmet food and life itself, while “It’s Complicated,” later this year, sees a sexy Streep trying to choose between the affections of her boyfriend (Steve Martin) and her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin). Playing real people is always an Academy fave, and Diane Keaton got a nod playing a similar hot-mama-of-a-certain-age for “Complicated” director Nancy Meyers in “Something’s Gotta Give,” so either way, Streep’s in good shape. (Assuming she doesn’t split her constituency in half, of course.)

While some pundits are drumming up the notion of a “‘Precious’ backlash” because Lee Daniel’s urban melodrama came up empty in this week’s Gotham Awards nominations, there’s still a lot of talk about the film’s lead, first-timer Gabourey Sidibe, in the title role of an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who turns her life around. Granted, the producers might decide to pull a Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People” and push Sidibe into the supporting category to improve her awards odds, but the recent Best Actress nomination of Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2002’s “Whale Rider” shows that a young performer can be competitive in the big leagues.

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Longer shots

After these three fairly sure bets, things get a little more complicated. Penelope Cruz gives another terrific performance for Pedro Almodóvar in “Broken Embraces” — she received her previous nomination for his “Volver” — but festival audiences haven’t been as enthusiastic about his new movie compared to some of his other productions over the last decade. There’s also the issue of whether or not her supporting turn in the ensemble “Nine” will muddy the waters.

There’s some support for Annette Bening in Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child” — particularly among Oscar pundits who would love to see a third Swank vs. Bening showdown — but the film is an ensemble piece that has the “American Beauty” star on equal footing with Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington.

One of my favorite female performances this year was Maya Rudolph’s funny but vulnerable work as an expectant mother getting ready to face the next chapter of her life in “Away We Go,” but the movie got mixed reviews when it came out this summer, and the possibility exists that she might lost in the shuffle.

Abbie Cornish has gotten raves for her portrayal of Keats’ muse Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” but audiences haven’t embraced the movie en masse. If Oscar voters see the film, many of them will cheer her work, but many are the box office disappointments that find themselves ignored by the Academy when awards season rolls around.

Could be, but doubtful

The very first screener DVD that many members of the Academy (as well as guilds and critics groups) received was for “Trucker,” the domestic drama that’s a been-there-seen-that exercise save for the powerful central performance by Michelle Monaghan (“Gone Baby Gone”). The producers get points for effort and enthusiasm, but the film is so trite and tired that it’s going to be difficult to generate a lot of excitement for Monaghan’s admittedly first-rate work.

Shohreh Aghdashloo has been nominated before (for her supporting role in “The House of Sand and Fog”), but I can’t imagine enough Academy members getting all the way through the dreary “The Stoning of Soraya M.”; the fact that Aghdashloo’s character barely progresses or changes over the course of the film doesn’t help her odds either.

The trailer for “The Blind Side” has Sandra-Bullock-Oscar-bait written all over it, but it’s going to take more than an accent and a heartwarming story for the talented Bullock to worm her way into Oscar’s good graces. On the other hand, few people thought that “Crash,” which starred Bullock, would make it all the way to winning Best Picture, so who knows?

And while the Cannes Film Festival jury bestowed their Best Actress prize on Charlotte Gainsbough for her wrenching performance in “Antichrist,” it’s hard to imagine Academy members even sitting down to watch Lars von Trier’s grotesque and violent artsploitation splatter epic, much less making it to the end and then honoring Gainsbourg for graphically masturbating on camera before torturing screen hubby Willem Dafoe.

So by comparison, for lots of Oscar voters, the prospect of snuggling up to the fluffy and old-fashioned “Amelia” probably sounds like heaven.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at