How we got here

Helen Mirren was hardly born into royalty, having grown up in the blue-collar waterfront town of Southend-on-Sea. She worked the carnival rides and games as a barker, calling out to passersby, saying whatever it took to get them to play.

So her performance in “The Queen” wasn’t exactly in her blood (although she is descended from the Russian aristocracy). Yet this is a woman who brought such authenticity to Her Royal Highness that, if England’s citizens suddenly had a vote on who’d they like to see inhabit Buckingham Palace, Mirren would be packing right now.

On closer inspection, her transformation shouldn’t come as such a surprise. She’s been acting for 40 years and has played queens before, specifically in 1994’s “The Madness of King George” and, more recently, in HBO’s stellar telepic “Elizabeth I” — both she and the film won Emmys and Golden Globes.

The part came instinctually to her, and never did she feel intimidated.

“It was a terrifyingly easy shoot,” Mirren says. “Once I’d done all my homework and all my thinking — and then put on the wig, the last element — I felt totally comfortable, which is presumptuous, I know.”

Meryl Streep proved that even after establishing herself as the most acclaimed — and Oscar-nommed — actress of her generation, she still has some surprises in store. She took the one-dimensional role of fashion editor Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” and elevated it. She also seemed to really relish the role, and that pleasure of performing came through onscreen. It was nice to see Streep go the diva route.

Like Streep, Judi Dench got plenty of meat to chew in “Notes on a Scandal.” As deranged high school teacher Barbara Covett, Dench appreciated being able to emotionally let loose, a change from some of her previous, more uptight characters.

“I was fascinated by the bleakness of the book,” she said. “It can be very lovely when you’re asked to play something very different.”

Penelope Cruz came into “Volver” knowing the role could change her career and show a new side to herself in the U.S. after she’d proved her worth in Europe.

Working with Pedro Almodovar again, after pairing with him on “Live Flesh” and “All About My Mother,” gave her a boost of confidence she might not have had with another director.

“I cried because somebody I admire so much was putting in my hands a character that could do so much for my career, could represent a drastic change,” she says.

And there’s Kate Winslet, an actress who freely bares her soul — and sometimes her flesh — for every role.

“For the first time ever, I was forced to play a person with some qualities that I didn’t really understand and

didn’t respect,” she says of her role in “Little Children.” “I had to find my own quiet ways of understanding why she was making the decisions she was making.”

Even so, she makes the process look so simple that her talent, at this point, is almost taken for granted. But it’s her fifth nom, so the Acad is not taking her for granted.

Oscar pedigree

There’s a reason this category is being called extraordinarily strong this year.

Going in, these five lead actresses had a combined 25 nominations among them — 13 of them Meryl Streep’s. Her first dates back 28 years ago to “The Deer Hunter.” Streep earned five Oscar nominations in a six-year period (1979-84), winning twice, for “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Sophie’s Choice.” Somewhat surprisingly, that was the last time she’s won.

Judi Dench is on a bit of a streak herself. She has accumulated six noms since 1998, including a win for her short but memora-ble turn as Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love.”

It hardly seems possible that Kate Winslet is only 31 years old, considering she has five noms under her belt (“Sense and Sen-sibility,” “Titanic,” “Iris,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Little Children”). She has yet to win, but it’s only a matter of time.

Helen Mirren has been nominated twice before, both times for supporting roles — “The Madness of King George” and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park.” Her third time might certainly be the charm.

And while this is Penelope Cruz’s first Oscar nomination — and the first for a Spanish actress — she has a Goya (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) for her performance in “The Girl of Your Dreams.”

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