Credit: Transamerica: Rafeal Winer

Best Actress 2006: Oscar’s likely contenders

This year’s crop of critics’ prizes catapulted two women from very different projects to the forefront of the Best Actress race. Reese Witherspoon‘s vibrant and poignant performance as June Carter in the ambitious biopic Walk the Line has earned her victories from the New York and National critics’ groups (plus eight others), while Felicity Huffman‘s turn as a preoperative male-to-female transsexual in the tiny-budgeted indie Transamerica avoided any gimmicky pitfalls and won kudos from the National Board of Review. Both women will easily score their first Oscar nominations (Huffman recently won her first Emmy for Desperate Housewives).

Their likely competition includes two actresses who know what it’s like to reach Oscar’s stage: Judi Dench, a Supporting Actress winner in 1999 for Shakespeare in Love, delivers another juicily humorous performance as a World War II-era theater owner in Mrs. Henderson Presents, while Charlize Theron, who picked up this trophy two years ago for glamming it down as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, proved herself far more than a one-hit wonder with her gritty iron miner lead in North Country.

In addition to these four, the last SAG award nominee this year was Memoirs of a Geisha protagonist Ziyi Zhang, but lukewarm overall reaction to the film among critics and the guild awards means she’s no sure thing. Instead, the Academy may reach back to March, when Joan Allen‘s brilliantly caustic alcoholic in The Upside of Anger hit theaters. Claire Danes received dream reviews for her melancholy glove-saleswoman heroine, Mirabelle Buttersfield, in Shopgirl, but the film hasn’t emerged as a contender in any category. Naomi Watts proved it’s possible to conjure up real emotion opposite CGI work in King Kong, but the blockbuster is still likely to be considered an effects movie, not a performance-driven one. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association surprised everyone by giving its Best Actress award to Vera Farmiga for the drug-abuse drama Down to the Bone, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many Academy members who have heard of the film, much less seen it. Past winner Gwyneth Paltrow (Proof) and four-time nominee Julianne Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) have watched their films flop at the box office and fade from memory. And The New World newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher‘s impressive debut lacks the necessary character arc to reach the final five. So that last position could go to Keira Knightley, who at age 20 carries the widely respected remake of Pride & Prejudice with a blithe charm and fierce gravity way beyond her years.