With knockout performances, Halle Berry and Will Smith could be shoo-ins for Oscar nods. Also, our picks for the other contenders.

Call Oscar the great equalizer. Released one day apart in December, Will Smith’s Ali and Halle Berry’s Monster’s Ball could not be more different. One is a nearly three-hour epic following a larger-than-life sports hero over 10 years and two continents; the other is an intimate character piece that was shot in just 21 days. Smith’s reported $20 million asking fee not only dwarfs Berry’s $100,000 paycheck but is enough to fund five Monster’s Balls. Despite their disparate wallet sizes, though, they’ve both found themselves at the forefront of this year’s uncharacteristically unpredictable Oscar race. (For our bold predictions, see stories starting on page 27.)

But perhaps the two performers aren’t so different after all. Both are industry fixtures whose initial showbiz incarnations — Berry as first runner-up at the Miss USA 1986 pageant, Smith as teen rapper Fresh Prince — didn’t exactly indicate their acting potential. Both have recently turned in transformative, arguably career-high performances — Berry as Leticia Musgrove, a recently widowed Georgia mom who falls for a racist ex-death row guard; Smith as endearingly arrogant heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. And both are attempting to land their first Oscar nominations and make Academy Awards history. If Berry, Smith, and Denzel Washington, already honored by the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for his performance in Training Day, land on the shortlist Feb. 12, it will mark only the second time three African Americans have received lead-acting nominations in the same year (the other was 1973, when Lady Sings the Blues star Diana Ross was named along with Sounder’s Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield). And should any of them win, it would break an almost 40-year losing streak: No African-American Best Actor candidate has won since Sidney Poitier for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, while no black woman has won Best Actress ever.

Berry’s first film role, as a foul-mouthed crack addict in Spike Lee’s 1991 drama Jungle Fever, certainly hinted at her future gritty choices. Still, the 35-year-old actress views as inferior all the work that preceded her acclaimed turn as the woman who, ironically, made history as the first African American ever nominated for Best Actress in the 1999 HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. ”I was acting before that from a place of fear, worrying about what people thought of me,” she says. ”The experience of Dorothy Dandridge freed me from that. I got to relive her struggle, which was very much mine, and I thought, Okay, I can either keep going around and around making lateral moves and 50 years from now somebody will be telling my story and going ‘Well, Halle could have done this but she was too scared to go there,’ or I can break this cycle and approach my career from a more courageous standpoint.”

The first hurdle: conquering her fear of on-screen nudity. ”I would hear about so many great parts and the first thing I would say was ‘Is there a love scene? Is there nudity?…Okay, well, then don’t even send it,”’ she recalls. ”I mean, how stupid is that?” Her first-ever topless moment in last summer’s Swordfish, she says, primed her for her frank three-and-a-half-minute sex scene with Monster’s Ball costar Billy Bob Thornton. ”Now I’m able to use my whole body and not worry about how I’m looking,” Berry says. ”That love scene is less than pretty because we really didn’t care. We didn’t care where the camera was. We just went for it and they shot.”

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