At first blush, this year’s race for supporting actress may boil down to a two-way battle between Cate Blanchett, flying high on the momentum of “The Aviator’s” 11 noms, and Virginia Madsen, hoping that the history of this category (16 of the last 20 winners — and four of the last five — were first-time nominees) works in her favor.For her intimate turn as an oenophile with a wounded heart in “Sideways,” Madsen has dominated the pre-Oscar kudos circuit, earning supporting actor nods from a dozen critics’ groups — more than the four other nominees combined. Blanchett has picked up five crix groups honors and a SAG Award for her halting performance as screen legend — and most-decorated performer in Oscar history — Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes. After Madsen picked up the Broadcast Film Critics honor, it seemed she was well on her way to capping off a remarkable career resurgence with the industry’s highest honor. Then, less than a week later, Natalie Portman happened. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. gave its Golden Globe for supporting actress to the young star on the rise for her breakout adult role in “Closer.” Two days after that, “The Aviator” grabbed headlines by securing those 11 noms, more than any other film this year, and Blanchett’s fortunes seemed to improve, given the breadth and depth of support for the Scorsese pic, which included an nomination for Alan Alda in the supporting actor race. Despite nominations for Madsen and supporting actor Thomas Haden Church, the Academy’s omission of “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti from the lead actor race hinted at a potential lack of support for the movie among the performers branch that might be felt across the full Academy when final ballots are returned. And who can forget the critical article by A.O. Scott in the New York Times that proclaimed “Sideways” “The Most Overrated Movie of the Year.” Meanwhile, Laura Linney and Sophie Okonedo, nominated for their work in “Kinsey” and “Hotel Rwanda,” respectively, may appear destined for “it’s an honor to be nominated” status after turning in performances that in any other year might be considered front-runners. Linney is fast becoming her generation’s Meryl Streep, turning in bold and incisive perfs in film after film and generating legitimate talk of Oscar nominations with virtually every role. Her turn as Clara “Mac” McMillen in “Kinsey” might be arguably the year’s most emotionally and physically courageous, a tour-de-force in which she bares both her soul and her body opposite titular star Liam Neeson. The difficult subject matter of the film and the fact that she’s the only Oscar nominee from “Kinsey” makes for an uphill climb, however. Only twice in the past 20 years (Angelina Jolie for “Girl, Interrupted” and Marisa Tomei for “My Cousin Vinnie”) has a supporting actress Oscar gone to a performer in a film that received no other noms. British actress Okonedo has worked steadily in U.K. movies and television for the past 10 years, including a memorable turn as a prostitute in Stephen Frears’ underrated and under-seen (in the U.S.) 2003 thriller “Dirty Pretty Things.” In some respects, she is the Shohreh Aghdashloo of this year’s race, an unknown performer turning in a highly emotional performance opposite a strong leading actor (Don Cheadle) in a powerful film. Cate Blanchett
Current kudos: BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes (nom); Online Film Critics, SAG (won)
Oscar pedigree: “Elizabeth” (nom)
Why she’ll win: She took on one of Hollywood’s biggest icons — Katharine Hepburn — and nailed it.
Why she won’t: No one’s ever won an Oscar for playing an Oscar-winning actress.
Critically speaking: “Cate Blanchett has the task of playing Katharine Hepburn, who was herself so close to caricature that to play her accurately involves some risk. Blanchett succeeds in a performance that is delightful and yet touching; mannered and tomboyish, delighting in saying exactly what she means, she shrewdly sizes up Hughes and is quick to be concerned about his eccentricities.
– Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times Laura Linney
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics, Golden Globes, Online Film Critics, SAG (nom); National Board of Review (won)
Oscar pedigree: “You Can Count on Me” (nom)
Why she’ll win: The emotional depth and range of her performance was critically applauded (and she also garnered praise for her work in “P.S.”).
Why she won’t: “Kinsey’s” difficult subject matter may prove too off-putting for Oscar voters.
Critically speaking: “Linney marvelously conveys the diverse qualities that make Clara a woman able to cope with such a man, one whose behavior demands even greater flexibility and understanding as the years go on.”
– Todd McCarthy, Variety Virginia Madsen
Current kudos: Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Award, SAG (nom); Boston Film Critics, Broadcast Film Critics, Chicago Film Critics, L.A. Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, N.Y. Film Critics (won)
Oscar pedigree: None
Why she’ll win: Marking a career resurgence, she’s been showered with more pre-Oscar kudos than any other nominee.
Why she won’t: If momentum for “The Aviator” continues to build, or a “Sideways” backlash develops.
Critically speaking: “Madsen is a revelation. The years have made her beauty richer, her grasp of character more subtle and affecting. Note to the Academy: The Oscar for best supporting actress belongs right here.”
– Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Sophie Okonedo
Current kudos: SAG (nom)
Oscar pedigree: None
Why she’ll win: Her emotional work as a graceful and dignified woman under enormous pressure is top notch and the film’s weighty subject matter demands attention.
Why she won’t: Fierce competition — she’s the only one not to have won any award season kudoas — and the seeming inevitability of Madsen or Blanchett make it an uphill climb.
Critically speaking: “Cheadle already is generating well-deserved Oscar talk, as is the movie. But the Academy also should consider Sophie Okonedo, who plays Rusesabagina’s wife with nuance, humor and passion.”
– Claudia Puig, USA Today Natalie Portman
Current kudos: BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics (nom); Golden Globe, National Board of Review (won)
Oscar pedigree: None
Why she’ll win: “Closer” emphatically marks Portman’s transition into grown-up roles and capped a breakout year for the star, who also earned high marks for her quirky perf in “Garden State.”
Why she won’t: It’s her first nomination in a career that will undoubtedly yield many more opportunities for the Academy to honor her.
Critically speaking: “Portman, playing her first big, sexy lead, is both piquant and somewhat heart-breaking, both the most innocent and the most carnal of the four.”
– Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune