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Witherspoon has the Oscar momentum

But could Felicity Huffman sneak up and take the prize on Oscar night? By John Hartl

Two former winners and three first-time nominees are competing for best actress in the current Academy Awards race. And it looks like one of the newcomers, Reese Witherspoon, has the edge over former winners Judi Dench and Charlize Theron.

In “Walk the Line,” Witherspoon plays country singer June Carter, who eventually added “Cash” to her name when she married Johnny Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Both actors did their own singing, impressing critics as well as Academy voters with their ability to sound like the singers they’re playing.

Sissy Spacek did much the same thing with her impersonation of Loretta Lynn, winning the best actress Oscar for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” a quarter of a century ago. Spacek made such an impression in her earlier films (“Badlands,” “Carrie”) that her Oscar win carried an unmistakable it’s-about-time factor.

The same kind of momentum may help Witherspoon, who should have been nominated for her 1999 breakthrough role in “Election,” as a ruthless Nebraska high-school politician matching wits with a schoolteacher.

Consistently busy since since her attention-getting debut in “The Man in the Moon” (1991), she was especially effective in “Freeway” (1996), as a seductive teenager who hitches a ride with an unbalanced psychiatrist, and in “Pleasantville” (1998), as a high-school kid trapped in a 1950s television show. “Cruel Intentions” (1999) didn’t quite work as a contemporary version of “Dangerous Liaisons,” but the star was her future husband, Ryan Phillippe.

Witherspoon demonstrated her box-office potential with the featherweight comedies, “Legally Blonde” (2001) and “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002), and earned respect if not the greatest notices for trying to resurrect “Vanity Fair” (2004) and “The Importance of Being Earnest”  (2002) — in which she co-starred with Dench.

Don’t count out Dame Dench

British actress Judi Dench holds a bunch of flowers after she won her 11th British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) nomination from the British film industry for her part in \"Mrs Henderson Presents\" in central London on Thursday Jan. 19 2006. (AP Photo/Yui Mok/PA) ** UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE **Yui Mok / PA

Dench was a hit with art-house audiences last year in both “Ladies in Lavender” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” two World War II stories in which she co-starred with another celebrated British actor: Maggie Smith in the first film, Bob Hoskins in the latter. She was also a memorable Lady Catherine de Bourg in “Pride and Prejudice.”

But the nomination was bestowed for her performance as the widowed Laura Henderson in Stephen Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” a fact-based story about a theater owner who introduces “artistic” nudity while facing declining audiences during the blitz. In almost any other year, Dench be a contender for her sly performance as a pragmatic woman whose motive turns out to be linked to the previous world war.

What’s likely to keep her from taking home the prize is the fact that she’s a fairly recent Oscar winner in the supporting category, for her brief appearance as Queen Elizabeth in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). She was even better as Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), which earned Dench her first nomination for best actress.

A late bloomer who spent her early years on the stage, she was also nominated for “Chocolat” (2000) and “Iris” (2001), in which she played the novelist Iris Murdoch. During the past decade, she reached the largest audiences of her career by taking on the role of “M” in the James Bond movies starring Pierce Brosnan. She’s set to play the role again in “Casino Royale.”

Theron: More than a one-hit wonder

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29: Actress Charlize Theron arrives at the 12th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Charlize TheronVince Bucci / Getty Images North America

Charlize Theron is even less likely than Dench to pick up a second Oscar; she took home the best-actress award just two years ago for “Monster.” Her remarkable physical makeover made it easy to accept her as serial killer Aileen Wuoronos. She looks more like her old self in “North Country,” playing a single mother who battles brutal male chauvinism when she works at a mine.

The fact-based script is full of strong moments for Theron, who gets considerable help from Frances McDormand as her frightened co-worker (she’s nominated for best supporting actress) and Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins as her parents. But the movie itself is not as challenging as “Monster,” the competition is fierce, so it looks she’ll make do with the nomination this time.

Still, a second nomination from the Academy calls attention to the fact that this South African actress is not a one-hit wonder. She’s a better actress than many critics conceded even when “Monster” came out. Her spirited performances in “The Cider House Rules” (1999), “2 Days in the Valley” (1996) and “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” (2004) deserve another look.

Could Huffman spoil Witherspoon's party?Felicity Huffman, making her Oscar debut with a nomination for “Transamerica,” may have the best chance of upsetting Witherspoon. Physical makeovers are always popular with the voters, especially when they’re accompanied by a performance that can match the makeup, and that’s the case here.

Actress Felicity Huffman is interviewed on the set of the television series Desperate Housewives in Universal City, California, after being nominated for best actress for her role in \"Transamerica\" as nominations were announced for the 78th annual Academy Awards in Beverly Hills January 31, 2006. The Academy awards will be presented in Hollywood on March 5. REUTERS/Mario AnzuoniMario Anzuoni / X90045

Playing a homely transsexual who is still physically male, Huffman subtly suggests that her character has always been uncomfortable in his/her own skin. It’s not an outrageous or campy performance, but it is based on a sense of dislocation that gradually builds and makes the case for a transformation.

When the Golden Globes were handed out, she and Witherspoon were placed in separate categories, and both won. When they’ve been competing for the same award, Witherspoon is usually the winner, but it was Huffman who triumphed at the National Board of Review’s awards.

Knightley warmth wins votes

British actress Keira Knightley, nominated for best actress in a musical or comedy for her work in \"Pride & Prejudice,\" arrives for the 63rd Annual Golden Globe Awards on Monday, Jan. 16, 2006, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)Kevork Djansezian / AP

The fifth nominee, and the only marginal surprise in this category, is 20-year-old British actress Keira Knightley, for her work as Elizabeth Bennet in the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Pride and Prejudice.” Ziyi Zhang was expected to earn this best-actress slot for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” just as she was considered a supporting-actress possibility five years ago for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but neither nomination materialized.

In the end, Knightley’s charm and warmth carried the day, in a role that Greer Garson and Jennifer Ehle once made their own. The daughter of playwright Sharman Macdonald and actor Will Knightley, she’s been acting in films for the past decade, playing Guinevere in “King Arthur” (2004) and scoring her biggest hit opposite Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean” (2003). She’s also appearing in two “Pirates” sequels.