By EW Staff
Updated January 14, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Now here’s what we in the Oscar-prediction business love: an absolute, drawback-free, unqualified favorite. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present Oscar’s fairest lady/gentleman: HILARY SWANK. Her performance as Brandon Teena, the doomed transgender protagonist of Kimberly Peirce’s devastating Boys Don’t Cry, has already won everything but the Heisman Trophy, and that’s as it should be — her admirable work makes the former Beverly Hills, 90210 actress this year’s sweetest Cinderella story.

Wait…did we say unqualified favorite? Perhaps we should mention that few people have seen Swank’s film, and that four other actresses will be running alongside her. Breathing down her neck is Brit JANET MCTEER, whose over-the-top hot Southern mama in Tumbleweeds (a movie seen by even fewer people than Boys Don’t Cry) is all the more impressive if you saw her Tony-winning turn in Broadway’s A Doll’s House a couple of seasons ago (that reputation-making smash should help her with the Academy’s New York voters). And in case you were wondering if anyone you’ve actually heard of is in the hunt, there’s ANNETTE BENING, whose bold, Kathie Lee-gone-haywire rampage through American Beauty should win her a nomination.

That leaves two spots for the taking. FRANCES O’CONNOR made a strong impression in Mansfield Park, and CECILIA ROTH did stirring work in Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, but we suspect that after checking off Swank and McTeer, Academy voters will be looking for bigger names to fill out the roster. If so, they shouldn’t be able to ignore JULIANNE MOORE, this year’s hardest-working woman in showbiz (her ’99 resume includes dazzling supporting turns in Magnolia, Cookie’s Fortune, An Ideal Husband, A Map of the World, and — for consideration as Best Actress — her wrenchingly restrained starring role in The End of the Affair). Oscar perennial MERYL STREEP can never be counted out, although her lovely fiddling in Music of the Heart doesn’t hold up against her own best work (same goes for Anna and the King‘s JODIE FOSTER). SUSAN SARANDON‘s brassy role in Anywhere but Here was overshadowed by McTeer’s very similar turn in Tumbleweeds, and KATE WINSLET‘s wild-child portrayal in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke may be too Gen-X for the Academy (same for Election‘s REESE WITHERSPOON). Then there’s WINONA RYDER, who gets points for surviving both institutionalization and Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, and SIGOURNEY WEAVER, whose bravura performance in A Map of the World gets its big release Jan. 21…just in time for the last two weeks of voting. Given Weaver’s sterling work and her Golden Globe nomination, we like her chances.

For Your Consideration

Remember the dinner scene in Notting Hill? As a major movie star enduring an evening with commoners, JULIA ROBERTS went from wary to warm to wacky in a few well-modulated minutes, baring some fine acting chops beneath the famous smile. No, she wasn’t playing herself in Notting Hill, but the movie left us feeling she had sent herself up with grace and exposed her heart with skill.