How we got here

The Academy’s affinity for all things Blighty is evident almost every Oscar season, and this year’s actress category proves that love affair is as raging as ever.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Judi Dench was nommed for her turn as a widowed theater owner who lets the ladies strut their stuff in “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” Dench, aka Dame Judi, could virtually get nominated these days by reading the opening credits. She’s become the British version of American film icon Meryl Streep, another thesp who receives Oscar buzz just by stepping onto the set.

Dench has been nominated five times over the past eight years and won in 1999 for her brief but memorable appearance in “Shakespeare in Love.” At 71, the elder stateswoman of the five nominated thesps here, she certainly struck a chord with older Acad voters looking for someone with decades of experience.

Though Keira Knightley is no less British, she is 51 years younger than Dench. Yet her youth, which can sometimes work against a performer vying for Oscar, seemed to play to her advantage here. The latest incarnation of “Pride & Prejudice” got solid reviews and Knightley was noted for her charm, which, in a year such as this where the actress field was lean, was more than enough to put her over the top. Her smile, it seemed, proved irresistible.

“This is one of my favorite characters in English literature, and I couldn’t bear it if I ruined it,” Knightley says of Lizzie, who falls for Mr. Darcy.

Charm and charisma have worked especially well for Reese Witherspoon over her career. Pics such as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Legally Blonde” and “Just Like Heaven” have made her a bankable star and rom-com go-to player, but “Walk the Line” was her most dramatic, and daring, film to date.

What made “Line” especially impressive is that she was co-starring with Joaquin Phoenix, who was sure to get most of the buzz for his turn as Johnny Cash. Witherspoon, as his great love June Carter Cash, could’ve easily become nothing more than a visual wallflower, but she filled the role with just the right combination of empathy and toughness. And the fact that she was forced by director James Mangold to do her own singing was a noteworthy accomplishment to boot.

Charlize Theron‘s take on Josey Aimes, a Minnesota mine worker who files a sexual harassment claim against her employer, was Oscar bait from the get go. Not that Theron didn’t have an impressive role in bringing the story to film, but just watching the trailer was more than enough to know that this one was right in Oscar’s wheelhouse.

After her win at September’s Emmys, nobody could be thinking that Felicity Huffman would be back on the kudos trail only a couple of months later. But when her turn as a transsexual — from a man to a woman — started garnering attention at various film festivals, this desperate housewife found herself in the spotlight once again for “Transamerica.”

Oscar loves body transformation — think Robert De Niro’s waistline in “Raging Bull” or Nicole Kidman’s nose in “The Hours” — so this change-of-gender pic can do no wrong in voters’ eyes. Like her character, Huffman is embracing change: from TV star to bigscreen one.

Oscar pedigree

It’s an upside-down field, with most of the attention focused on thesps with no Oscar history, while those who already have Academy Awards are getting less buzz.

Judi Dench and Charlize Theron are the Oscar vets here. Dench benefits from Oscar’s love affair with Blighty, but she’s such a steady pro that her performance in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” doesn’t necessarily stand out even in her own body of work.

Already boasting a win for “Monster,” Theron also arrives with an Acad seal of approval. “North Country” didn’t have much traction at the box office, though, and judging by the pic’s dearth of nominations, it may lack ardent supporters among voters.

As the race headed into its final weeks, everything seemed to be lining up for Reese Witherspoon to capture an Oscar. She won a ton of critics kudos and then walked away with the Golden Globe. But then the Felicity Huffman Express arrived.

It’s the first nomination for both Witherspoon and Huffman. Huffman’s pedigree comes from master showman Harvey Weinstein. Sensing the tide turning, he’s sending “Transamerica” DVDs to the entire Academy membership, hoping that might make a difference.

Witherspoon can counter the last-minute push for Huffman with her raft of wins elsewhere. She may be hurt because “Walk the Line,” once considered a near shoo-in for picture nom, didn’t make the final five there. But then, neither did any of the competish.

While Witherspoon and Huffman are relatively new to this awards game, Witherspoon certainly has more theatrical exposure. Rarely does the Acad vote for folks known almost exclusively for their television work.

It’s also the first nom for Keira Knightley, the youngest of this year’s nominees. She’s been mostly overshadowed by Witherspoon and Huffman at other kudofests. Still, her turn in “Pride & Prejudice was a star-making perf, and she, too, speaks in that English accent Oscar finds so charming. If the voters see her, they may decide they love her.

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