Vets face challenges from talented newcomers

Moments before the recent AFI Fest gala premiere of “Precious,” newcomer Gabourey Sidibe brought the crowd to its feet merely by walking into Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Sidibe got another standing ovation before a post-screening Q&A and yet another one when the panel ended.

“Some days I don’t believe where I am or my life,” the Bedford-Stuyvesant-born Sidibe says. “It seems like this joke has gone pretty far.”

If recent voting patterns hold true, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members will keep Sidibe’s laughter alive for another few months. This year’s lead actress race is shaping up as a battle between older and newer, with category perennial Meryl Streep (“Julie and Julia”) and possibly past winner Helen Mirren (“The Last Station”) competing against a bevy of newcomers sporting sparse resumes.

“The idea of ‘a star is born’ or ‘the girl from nowhere’ has always been a very fulfilling idea for show business,” film historian David Thomson says. “Those notions confirm the whole nature of Hollywood.”

Examples abound. In 1974 newcomer Tatum O’Neill won the best supporting actress Oscar for “Paper Moon.” Twenty years later, Anna Paquin repeated the same feat with “The Piano.”

This year’s “nowhere girls” include Abbie Cornish, the open-hearted star of the deeply romantic “Bright Star”; Carey Mulligan, playing the sophisticated English schoolgirl in the coming-of-age story “An Education”; and Sidibe, whose turn as an illiterate, beaten-down striver forms the heart of “Precious.”

Better known but still a relative awards-season rookie is Emily Blunt, playing English royalty in the December release “The Young Victoria.”

“It’s a great time of year for movies,” says Blunt, who was Golden Globe-nominated three years ago for her “The Devil Wears Prada” breakout role. “You take the awards talk with a pinch of salt. I mean, Meryl (in “Julie and Julia”) was one of the most joyous things I’ve ever watched. I was so happy while watching her that my cheeks ached. She’s going to sweep the boards this year.”

While you can understand Blunt’s enthusiasm for her “Prada” co-star, the Academy’s recent past might foretell a different outcome. Streep owns 15 Oscar nominations, more than any actor in the history of the award. But she hasn’t won since “Sophie’s Choice,” a streak of 11 nods over 26 years.

Another caveat: Almost every time a member of the Academy’s old guard goes against a relative newcomer in the lead actress category, the Oscar goes to the ingenue.

“The Academy, particularly the actors’ branch, likes making discoveries and anointing new stars on the rise,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “And that history goes back a long ways.”

Both Maltin and Thomson point to the Academy’s instant coronation of Audrey Hepburn when she won for her first starring role, 1953′s “Roman Holiday.” Hepburn was 24 when she won, the same age as Mulligan, whose performance in “An Education” often directly recalls Hepburn’s gamine grace and innocence.

But even if you think “Roman Holiday” is the name of a new Starbucks espresso, the Academy’s record just this decade shows that the lead actress category is an open race. Julia Roberts (“Erin Brockovich”) beat Ellen Burstyn in 2000. The following year, Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”) upset Sissy Spacek and Judi Dench. Charlize Theron won in 2003 for “Monster,” a year that saw 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes nominated.

And two years ago, newcomer Marion Cotillard came out of nowhere to win for “La Vie en rose.”

“It’s not surefire, but when the right role matches up with the right actress, it seems the Academy can’t resist,” says Thompson.

Given the critical acclaim for this year’s potential nominees, it’s safe to say that talent plays a part, too, though Blunt is happy to point out the preponderance of corsets in “The Young Victoria.”

“We don’t have the explosions, but we do give you plenty of boobs,” she jokes.

Ask about potentially competing against Streep, however, and Blunt is at a loss. “That would be very strange,” the 26-year-old actress says. “A little laughable. ‘Hilarious,’ I think, is the word.”

In fact, mentioning Streep’s name to any of the potential newcomer nominees is a guaranteed way of generating some serious shock-and-awe stammering.

“What a wonderful person to be mentioned in the same sentence as,” says Cornish. The 27-year-old Aussie-born actress adds she’s still trying to get her head “around all this stuff,” since the Oscars always seemed so far away when she watched them with her mom on the family’s New South Wales farm.

Sidibe, who won the title role of “Precious” more than two years ago at an open audition in the Bronx, echoes the prevailing sentiments.

“All this talk makes me feel a little itchy and a little nervous,” says Sidibe, 26. “But … Meryl Streep? I’m so honored that anyone would breathe my name in the same breath as hers.”

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