But look out for Renee Zellweger, Michelle Yeoh, and others, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
November 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Julia Roberts leads the Oscar contenders

The 2000 Oscar race is going to be extremely hard fought — as you may have heard lately, sometimes mediocre choices can make for unusually close contests. But one consensus is emerging, and it involves, of all people, Julia Roberts. Eight months ago when ”Erin Brockovich” opened, a number of trigger happy Oscar predictors and effusive blurb whores said Roberts’ performance would be the one to beat in next year’s Academy Awards race. For once, they turned out to be right. With one month to go, no actress has yet emerged with the combination of great reviews, popular clout, track record entitlement (this would be Roberts’ third nomination, following 1989’s ”Steel Magnolias” and 1990’s ”Pretty Woman”), and prestige movie cred (”Brockovich” should be a contender in many categories) that would threaten Roberts.

That doesn’t mean she can’t fall prey to the curse of the early front runner, though. Here’s a rundown of the primary pretenders to her trophy:

Joan Allen, ”The Contender”
Like Roberts, Allen has been up twice before, but this would be her first nomination in the leading actress category. A lot of Academy voters feel she’s due for a prize, but this American cheesy political thriller could get overshadowed by the more prestigious White House drama ”Thirteen Days,” due next month.

Gillian Anderson, ”The House of Mirth”
Director Terence Davies rolled the dice by casting the ”X-Files” star in an Edith Wharton adaptation, but early reviews from the Toronto and New York Film Festivals suggest the risk paid off. Oscar voters love to reward actors for image shattering roles, and this is a big one.

Bjork, ”Dancer in the Dark”
It’s a love it or hate it performance in a love it or hate it movie — the same thing that was said of eventual nominee Emily Watson in Lars Von Trier’s 1996 Oscar contender, ”Breaking the Waves.” ”Dancer”’s star, this year’s Best Actress at Cannes, could be helped by a Golden Globe nomination. Strangely, given the film’s grim subject matter, she’d probably get to compete in the comedy/ musical category.

Ellen Burstyn, ”Requiem for a Dream”
Artisan, a company that’s been guilty of some irrational exuberance this year, is taking a gamble by promoting what many feel is a supporting performance to the Best Actress category. But it worked for Sharon Stone in ”Casino,” and it may work again here. Burstyn, a well liked Oscar veteran with five previous nominations to her credit, will win major points for giving a fearless, vanity free performance in the service of a talented young director at an age at which many of her contemporaries would be happy to coast.

Helen Hunt, ”Pay It Forward” or ”What Women Want”
This year’s most ubiquitous actress — she was also in ”Dr. T & the Women” and appears in Tom Hanks’ ”Castaway” next month — Hunt could get two Golden Globe nominations, then split the vote and find herself shut out at Oscar time. What’s holding her back? Savage reviews for ”Pay It Forward” (although she’s probably the film’s one shot at a nomination) and the possibility that her forthcoming comedy ”What Women Want,” in which she costars with Mel Gibson, is too light for the Oscars.

Laura Linney, ”You Can Count on Me”
The never nominated Linney, a respected stage actress and critical favorite, has drawn raves for Kenneth Lonergan’s Sundance prize winner. If the film’s initial promising box office holds up, this may end up as The Little Movie that Could at the Oscars — and a strong supporting role in ”The House of Mirth” will keep her on the Academy’s radar.

Michelle Yeoh, ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
It’s hard for an actress in a foreign language film to get nominated, and harder still for a woman in an action film, but a surge of critical support next month for Ang Lee’s visionary martial arts drama could bolster the chances of this elegant, restrained performance.

Renee Zellweger, ”Nurse Betty”
As one of the very few women besides Roberts to carry a major movie this year, and the beneficiary of terrific reviews, Zellweger stands a good chance of making the final five if she can overcome the Academy’s traditional predisposition against comedy.

But look out for some December surprises. With Cate Blanchett, Meg Ryan, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin all starring in upcoming movies, don’t write your final list in ink just yet. They all have their eye on Julia Roberts, and on the Oscar.