Bountiful pics provide plethora of pursuasive perfs

When Lisa Cholodenko’s domestic comedy “The Kids Are All Right” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the reviews ranged from solid to outright ecstatic. After the film opened in July and became a commercial as well as a critical success, distributor Focus Features realized that the movie — and its pair of actresses, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore — would be significant players in this year’s Oscar race.

That was the good news. The bad: Moore and Bening, who play equal partners in a long-running lesbian relationship, would be competing against each other in the same category.

“Kids” is one of many movies this year with the potential to pick up multiple nominations in the acting categories. David Fincher’s ensemble drama “The Social Network” could land nods for lead actor Jesse Eisenberg and supporting players Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. The period crowdpleaser “The King’s Speech” might deliver good news for Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter across three categories. The family drama “Rabbit Hole” sports strong work from leads Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Same could be said for Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in “Blue Valentine.”

“The Fighter” might top them all with four. Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo will each have their supporters.

“When you have an ensemble where each actor is doing something really special, you get a cumulative impact that is greater than the sum of individual parts,” says Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate, which bought “Rabbit Hole” at the Toronto Film Festival this year.

Most of this year’s movies with multiple possibilities feature ensembles that nicely slot into separate categories. Not so with “Kids,” with Focus deciding to put both its actresses in the lead category, which seems logical considering they’re a couple in the film with an equal amount of screen time.

If Bening and Moore both manage to snag lead actress noms, they would join some select company. Five other pairs of actresses have been nominated in the lead category: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon for “Thelma and Louise” (1991), Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger for “Terms of Endearment” (1983), MacLaine (again) and Anne Bancroft for “The Turning Point” (1977), Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor for “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959), and Anne Baxter and Bette Davis for “All About Eve” (1950).

Of the nominated pairs, only one actress — MacLaine for “Terms of Endearment” — ended up winning.

“I’m sure they’d love to put Julianne in supporting and give both a clearer path toward nominations and maybe even winning,” says one Oscar campaign strategist. “But there’s just no way you can justify it, even though that kind of fraudulent placement happens all the time. They both have the same amount of screen time and satisfying character arcs. Focus is in a tough spot.”

Adds another veteran campaigner: “You could make the argument that if both are nominated, neither will win. Yet if the two of them are nominated together, it will also be a great story. It hasn’t happened in 20 years.”

What Focus must be careful to do, say several award season insiders, is to make sure both Bening and Moore receive equal attention in the media and publicity campaigns. (Focus declined to comment for this story.) At this stage of the Oscar season, that isn’t hard to accomplish, says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker.

“We push all of them,” says Barker, whose indie is aiming for a pair of “Made in Dagenham” noms with Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson. “What happens is when a particular actor has traction as a possible awards contender, from the moment the picture opens, we push that as far as we can,” Barker continues. “It’s really about screening the movie and getting Academy members to see it. Then it’s up to them to select who they want.”

By promoting a multitude of performances, says one studio publicist, studios make a strong signal to Academy members that their movie is a performance-driven film, a key designation to the Academy’s actors branch, by far the biggest in the org.

“Sometimes you get a snowball effect if a movie really catches on with the Academy,” says the publicist.

Those kids of bounties can be great on nominations day, but don’t always work out on Oscar night. “On the Waterfront” had three nominees for supporting actor — Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger — but Edmond O’Brien won for “The Barefoot Contessa” in 1954. Likewise, in 1972, “The Godfather’s” supporting trio of James Caan, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino lost to Joel Grey for “Cabaret.” Two years later, Robert De Niro won the category, besting fellow “The Godfather Part II” nominees Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo.

“You’re happy to be nominated, yes, but it’s always nice when you win,” Barker says.

More from Variety‘s Award Season Talent Preview
Femmes front and center | When Oscar happens | Double edge for pics with Oscar bounty | Red carpet prep

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