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Best Actress

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Talk to most Academy Awards strategists and you’ll find that nearly everyone agrees that this year’s Best Actress race comes down to a single word: Julia. As in JULIA ROBERTS, the $20 million megastar who in her stellar 15-year career has racked up two Golden Globes, two ShoWest awards, three Blockbuster Awards, and five People’s Choice Awards — but no Oscar. Which isn’t to say the Academy has completely ignored her: She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for 1989’s Steel Magnolias (she lost to My Left Foot’s Brenda Fricker) and a Best Actress nod for 1990’s Pretty Woman (Misery’s Kathy Bates took home the trophy). This year, her quest for gold may come to an end. Roberts’ performance as a muckraking law clerk in Erin Brockovich earned the actress her best reviews ever, helped the film break $125 million at the box office, scored her a Golden Globe nomination and citations from the National Board of Review and the L.A. and Broadcast film critics’ associations.

Roberts’ stiffest competition will come from two other critics’ darlings, You Can Count on Me’s LAURA LINNEY, subtle and touching as a loan officer looking after her young son and her troublemaking brother, and Requiem for a Dream’s ELLEN BURSTYN, whose vivid portrayal of an elderly pill popper should earn the actress her first nomination in 20 years and her sixth overall (she won for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) despite the film’s dark tone and tough subject matter.

As for the other two slots, Icelandic singer BJORK scored a Globe nod for Dancer in the Dark, but as Madonna and Courtney Love can attest, the Academy is usually resistant to pop stars who steal precious acting jobs. RENEE ZELLWEGER earned raves for her scattered Nurse Betty heroine, but the film has all but faded from memory in the wake of the holiday movie onslaught. Two-time nominee BRENDA BLETHYN showed comic flair in Saving Grace, but the film is considered slight. MICHELLE YEOH will probably fall victim to the fact that her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon performance is subtitled. And CATE BLANCHETT carries The Gift but is hurt by that film’s genre trappings. The past nominees with the best chances at filling the fourth and fifth slots are The English Patient’s JULIETTE BINOCHE, who played Chocolat’s enchanting store owner, and Nixon’s JOAN ALLEN, stoic as usual as The Contender’s controversial vice presidential pick.

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In years past, the Academy has shown a refreshing willingness to reward television actresses who shed their small-screen skin and shine on film (see Mad About You’s Helen Hunt). The TV star who broke her own mold most dramatically this year is certainly GILLIAN ANDERSON, who left The X-Files’ Agent Scully back at her D.C. headquarters to become Lily Bart, the New York social climber who falls from grace in The House of Mirth. Radiant one moment and utterly distraught the next, Anderson proved that her post-TV career is definitely out there.