It’s awfully appropriate that Hilary Swank plays a boxer in “Million Dollar Baby” because it’s shaping up to be a 15-round slugfest in the actress race.In no particular order of preference, Hollywood loves both a good fight and a sequel, and this rematch combines elements of both. Swank defeated Annette Bening five years ago dressing up as a fella in “Boys Don’t Cry” while Mrs. Beatty dutifully watched “American Beauty” co-star Kevin Spacey win the actor prize, wishing she would’ve partaken in “Beauty’s” bounty as well. This year’s smackdown shares at least one similarity with the 2000 race. Swank won the Golden Globe back then for “Boys,” defeating Bening, who would come back to take the SAG Award for top actress. But now that Swank has captured this year’s SAG, she could be in a commanding position come Oscar night. And then there’s the fact that Swank stars in a much more populist film than Bening’s. While “Being Julia” might have drawn decently in the arthouse circuit — it’s earned a meager $4.2 million — “Baby,” which has just opened wide across the country to impressive box office after a series of limited releases, will be seen by a much wider margin of moviegoers. Whether that plays into the equation is anybody’s guess, but the Acad may not want to seem like an exclusive hoity-toity club to the rest of America. Interestingly, the other three noms in the actress category are all foreign-born. London native Imelda Staunton is the veteran of the group and her work as an abortionist in “Vera Drake” drew all kinds of critical praise. As a post-World War II wife who works a series of housekeeping jobs, Staunton keeps her emotions in check — as any repressed Brit normally does — until she is caught by authorities and lets all her pent-up frustration out. Fellow U.K. resident Kate Winslet may have taken second billing to Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” but it was clear that her perf was more captivating with voters. At only 29 years old, Winslet is already an Academy darling, now racking up her fourth Oscar nom — the other three coming for “Sense and Sensibility,” “Titanic” and “Iris.” And finally there’s Catalina Sandino Moreno, who finds herself in contention at the Kodak for her first-ever movie role. She’s in good company: Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”) and Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl”) both won in their inaugural bigscreen efforts. Annette Bening
Current kudos: Boston Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics, SAG (nom); Golden Globes, National Board of Review (won)
Oscar pedigree: “The Grifters,” “American Beauty” (nom)
Why she’ll win: Bening lost out to Hilary Swank back in 2000 and she’s too well-respected to go down twice to someone who doesn’t have the full breadth of career as Bening’s.
Why she won’t: While she indeed might be terrific in “Being Julia,” it’s too small of a film for voters to gather support. And the reviews of the film, unlike “Million Dollar Baby,” were all over the board.
Critically speaking:“Part of the delight of watching Ms. Bening pivot gracefully from steely composure to histrionic distress comes from the feeling of witnessing two bravura performances at once.”
– A. O. Scott, The New York Times Catalina Sandino Moreno
Maria Full of Grace
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics, Independent Spirit Awards, SAG (nom)
Oscar pedigree: None
Why she’ll win: As much as the Acad seems predictable, they love to throw in an upset. Hey, Anna Paquin won for her first role (“The Piano”) in 1994, defeating vets Holly Hunter and Emma Thompson.
Why she won’t: The Swank-Bening showdown is too much to overcome. Plus, it’s rare that actresses win for non-English speaking roles.
Critically speaking: “She is pure instinct — at once, for example, eager for boys yet wary of them — full of flashing anger, impatient for adventure, sexual and otherwise, yet also full of doubts, which assail her when she thinks no one is looking. This isn’t acting, it’s behaving.”
– Richard Schickel, Time Imelda Staunton
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes, Online Film Critics, SAG (nom); Chicago Film Critics, L.A. Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, N.Y. Film Critics (won)
Why she’ll win: Acting aficionados really thought her turn here was impressive and if Swank and Bening split the vote, she mght be the most logical candidate to cash in.
Why she won’t: The political nature of the film may prevent voters who take a hard stand on abortion to dismiss both the pic and her performance.
Critically speaking:“As an evocation of English working-class life half a century ago, it feels utterly authentic, and is ennobled — not too strong a word, I think — by Imelda Staunton’s performance in the title role.”
– Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal Hilary Swank
Million Dollar Baby
Current kudos: Online Film Critics (nom); , SAG, Boston Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes, National Society of Film Critics (won)
Oscar pedigree: “Boys Don’t Cry” (won)
Why she’ll win: Her performance, no pun intended, was a knockout and the Acad loves it when a thesp goes through a physical transformation.
Why she won’t: At only 30 years old, it might be a bit premature for the Acad to bestow two Oscars to Swank. Perhaps voters would like to see her in more films before she doubles up on her statuettes.
Critically speaking: Hilary Swank is astonishing as Maggie. Every note is true. She reduces Maggie to a fierce intensity.”
– Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times Kate Winslet
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Current kudos: BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes, SAG (nom); Online Film Critics (won)
Oscar pedigree: “Sense and Sensibility,” “Titanic,” “Iris”
Why she’ll win: The Acad is obviously very fond of her, considering she now has four noms at age 29. The fact that she’s still in the running for a film that came out in March is a positive sign.
Why she won’t: The pic’s sometimes confusing and unorthodox premise probably didn’t play all that well with older voters.
Critically speaking: “In a turn that will surprise those who have mostly seen her in period costume roles, Winslet is terrifically witty, spontaneous and emotionally transparent.”
– Todd McCarthy, Variety