EW previews this year's Best Actress frontrunners -- Dave Karger and Missy Schwartz tell you why this year's field is surprisingly slim

By Dave Karger and Missy Schwartz
Updated November 25, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Imagine if there were no Best Actor and Best Actress categories at the Oscars and the Academy simply nominated 10 contenders in a coed Best Performance race. How many nominees would be male and how many would be female? As in past years, Oscar voters and awards watchers are finding a surplus of Best Actor candidates in 2005 — from exciting breakthroughs like Hustle & Flow‘s Terrence Howard and Brokeback Mountain‘s Heath Ledger to perennials like Cinderella Man‘s Russell Crowe — and yet they’re straining to find five female-lead performances interesting enough to fill out the Best Actress list. Sure, there’s Walk the Line‘s Reese Witherspoon, who’d be a lock in any year, but after that, who? Charlize Theron or Gwyneth Paltrow for the tepidly received North Country and Proof? Felicity Huffman for the upcoming tiny indie Transamerica? It’s not a pretty picture — and it never seems to change.

The lack of solid roles for women in Hollywood has been decried for decades. Yet things have arguably worsened recently, and that’s with production at four of the six traditional major studios overseen by women. ”Marketing will tell you: Cast a man in the lead of the movie, build a franchise around him, and you have a better chance of making money,” says Harvey Weinstein, who between his old and new companies hopes to end up with three Best Actress nominees this year (Huffman, Paltrow, and Mrs. Henderson Presents‘ Judi Dench). ”And after the [performance of] recent female movies, [studios] will probably run farther away.”

Looks like they already have: ”Even romantic comedies are driven by men right now, in the season of Wedding Crashers and The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” says producer Lynda Obst (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). ”I feel frustrated that when one male-based romantic comedy works, they throw the whole genre open and say, Let’s turn the girl into the girlfriend again, as opposed to the protagonist.”

Then again, there’s no denying that female-driven flops have been a big part of this year’s box office slump. Ostensibly bankable stars like Sandra Bullock and Cameron Diaz stumbled with Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous ($48.5 million) and In Her Shoes ($32.5 million), respectively. Some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses also struck out as leads: Nicole Kidman with Bewitched. Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water. (Credit for the success of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which racked up $186 million, goes more to Brangelina than Angelina.) In fact, only two of 2005’s films headlined solely by women qualify as hits: Jodie Foster’s action thriller Flightplan, which had dual-gender appeal ($87.5 million), and Monster-in-Law, which grossed $83 million thanks to the much-hyped comeback of Jane Fonda. Says Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, which produced Walk the Line and In Her Shoes: ”It is increasingly difficult [to get] adult women to the movies. So it boils down to, you either [make movies that] get the male component of the audience, or you have to make [them] enough of an event that women want to go, like Monster-in-Law. In Her Shoes, I wish we had done better in the domestic box office, but I’m very proud of that movie. And again, it points to a situation where perhaps that was so female-centric that it was hard to get [a wider audience].”