Fast & furious feminine field

After a few lean years, ultra-competitive lead actress race becomes a study in excellence

The buzz began as early as May, when Penelope Cruz’s performance in “Volver” drew glowing comparisons to the likes of Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani.

It continued to build in June, when Meryl Streep received some of the biggest raves of her career — no small thing when you’re Meryl Streep — for playing a fascist fashionista in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

And it really heated up in September, when Helen Mirren’s regal embodiment of Elizabeth II in “The Queen” won a Venice acting prize and became an immediate Oscar front-runner.

Following what is generally conceded to have been the weakest slate of nominees in recent memory (around this time last year, Reese Witherspoon’s victory for “Walk the Line” was all but assured), lead actress has suddenly become the race to watch in 2006.

“There’s so many years when the actress category is not as strong, but this year it’s the strongest of all the categories,” says Sony Pictures Classics prexy Michael Barker. “It’s so exciting to see so many great performances by actresses.”

The list goes on. Kate Winslet could earn her fifth nomination, this time as a wayward suburbanite in “Little Children.” Academy fave Judi Dench, nominated last year for “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” has an even juicier role as a deranged schoolteacher in “Notes on a Scandal”; her co-star, Cate Blanchett, is a strong contender for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German.”

The dark-horse candidates — Annette Bening in “Running With Scissors,” Naomi Watts in “The Painted Veil,” Renee Zellweger in “Miss Potter,” Nicole Kidman in “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Sherrybaby,” Gretchen Mol in “The Notorious Bettie Page,” Beyonce Knowles in “Dreamgirls,” and so on — could easily fill out a category in any year.

The strength of the field — not only in the number of nominatable performances, but in the sheer range of thorny, complicated, fiercely independent femininity on display, from conflicted English monarchs to desperate housewives — would seem to rebuke the conventional Hollywood wisdom that decent parts aren’t being written for women anymore.

Or, as film critic Carina Chocano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s unlikely that this year’s best actress award will go to the actress playing the protagonist’s wife.”

This year, the actresses are the protagonists, in films that skew noticeably toward distaff auds yet still have strong popular appeal.

The most obvious example is “The Devil Wears Prada,” which became a critical and B.O. hit in no small part due to Streep’s comic villainy. Likewise, “Volver,” the latest femme-centric crowd-pleaser from Pedro Almodovar, is fueled directly by Cruz’s star wattage. The very title of Mirren’s film, “The Queen,” says it all.

And with early best picture buzz swirling around “Dreamgirls,” “The Queen” and even foreign-language hopeful “Volver,” Oscar 2006 could serve as a corrective to 2003 and 2005, when there was zero overlap between the nominees for actress and pic.

“You frequently find the best actor nominees are in the ‘Rain Man’ kinds of movies. The best actor tends to be in movies people see,” says Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think the last best actress winner who was really in a mass-market movie was Julia Roberts (in “Erin Brockovich”). You could argue about Reese Witherspoon, but generally, the actress nominees come from smaller movies.

“I won’t say it’s a class difference, but sometimes a scale difference. What men do is universal; what women do is particular.”

Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, says actresses tend to win Oscars for edgy work in smaller-scaled pics, citing examples such as Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” and Charlize Theron in “Monster.”

“If you look at Tom Hanks’ movies or ‘Gladiator,’ so many of the best actor movies seem to be big commercial hits. The females are always in the littler movies,” says Gabler. “When a male-driven drama is out there in the world, it often gets women (viewers), too. When a female-driven drama is out there in the world, it’s harder to get the men into those movies.”

Rickey says the most hopeful sign about the actress race is the likely recognition of vet thesps like Streep (57), Mirren (61) and Dench (71).

“It’s about women over 50 this year. You’re not going to see the 22-year-old ingenues being nominated,” she says. “These are older women, and they’re getting meaty roles after 40, which hasn’t happened for some time.”

Winslet, who could be one of this year’s youngest actress nominees at 31, is similarly encouraged.

“You look at people like Annette Bening and Meryl Streep and Judi Dench and you think, ‘I want to be like you,’ ” she says. “If I’ve ever had any ambition, it’s to be that age and doing it that brilliantly, and still being invited back in.”

But Rickey cautions against jumping to the conclusion that an Oscar race — even one this competitive — should be read as an accurate barometer for the state of women’s fortunes in Hollywood.

San Diego State U. professor Martha Lauzen’s annual study tracking women in the industry — which in June 2005 reported declines in the percentage of women directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on top-grossing U.S. releases — tells a different story.

“Just because you have a handful of nominatable parts doesn’t mean that anything has changed,” Rickey says. “The numbers are still working against them.”

Rickey recalls 1992, ironically heralded as the “Year of the Woman” at the Oscars, despite a slim actress category. “There were really so few nominatable performances that year, and then, two years later, there were a whole bunch. This stuff is cyclical.”

“There are so many great actresses out there who are not served by either the material that’s available or the movies that get made,” Barker says. He adds with a laugh, “I don’t know why it’s so strong this year. I’m just glad it is.”

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