By EW Staff
Updated January 07, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Cate Blanchett: Andrew Cooper

Best Supporting Actress 2005: Oscar’s likely contenders

The annual smattering of critics’ prizes has effectively raised three ladies to the top of the supporting-actress heap. Cate Blanchett, nominated six years ago in the lead category for Elizabeth, has won three awards for her dead-on portrayal of another notable Kate, Katharine Hepburn, in The Aviator. Meanwhile, Laura Linney, another former Best Actress nominee (You Can Count on Me), has scored four critics’ kudos for her equal-parts humorous and touching turn as Kinsey‘s sexually awakened wife, Mac. But the most crowded shelf so far belongs to never-nominated Virginia Madsen, whose understated performance as Sideways‘ wine-loving waitress has been termed the comeback of the year and anointed with eight early prizes, including ones from the New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups.

Cloris Leachman picked up this prize 33 years ago for The Last Picture Show, and though she’s had 17 Emmy nominations since then, she’s never been invited back to the Oscars. Early buzz indicated that her half-drunk mother in Spanglish would be just the role to guarantee a return trip, but the film’s critical ravaging seems to have killed her chances. Two-time nominee Gena Rowlands fashioned an unforgettable portrait of an Alzheimer’s victim in The Notebook, but she’s been left out of most of the early awards.

Along with newcomer Sharon Warren (see below), Ray costar Regina King provided passion and spunk as Ray Charles’ jealous mistress/background singer, though voters may not come to a consensus on which supporting female performance was more worthy. Minnie Driver brings much-needed comic relief to The Phantom of the Opera as a narcissistic soprano, but her role is probably too small to warrant serious consideration. Newcomer Lynn Collins has won raves for holding her own opposite Al Pacino and Joseph Fiennes as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, but hers isn’t a DVD voters will be rushing to play. As Kevin Bacon’s troubled girlfriend in The Woodsman, Kyra Sedgwick makes us forget she’s his real-life wife, though Bacon’s fading buzz presages a similar fate for her. If Hotel Rwanda maintains its upward climb, Sophie Okonedo, who plays Don Cheadle’s wife with grit and empathy, could sneak into this race, but she still has a good deal of ground to make up.

The Golden Globes selected Closer‘s Natalie Portman, so tough and vulnerable in her first real adult role that it’s hard to imagine the Academy won’t agree. But the Globes also went with Meryl Streep for her vicious turn in The Manchurian Candidate. Though Streep is certainly an Academy favorite (with a record 13 acting nods), might voters consider this performance over the top? If so, our hunch is that they’ll look to Kate Winslet, who, as Finding Neverland‘s severely ill widowed mother (take that, all comers!), provides the drama with the most tear-jerking power.