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How they got here: Lead actress

Populist choices mix with arthouse candidates

When the Academy expanded the picture category to 10 nominees, it was understood the move was largely a sally to expand the Oscars’ audience by honoring popular, recognizable films. Yet this year’s lead actress race needed no such goosing: The category offers two front-runners who are among the most recognizable actresses alive, each starring in an extremely popular film as, respectively, a TV chef and a brassy, Republican college-football nut.

Of course, Meryl Streep securing an Oscar nomination is hardly news, but Sandra Bullock joining the five certainly is. Long a consistent box office draw, Bullock was on few prognosticators’ radar screens prior to the surprising smash success of “The Blind Side” in November. Yet having just claimed statuettes from the Golden Globes (drama) and SAG, she finds herself a serious Oscar contender.

But counting Streep out is a dubious proposition. Already boasting an incredible number of critics groups’ awards and the Golden Globe comedy actress award for her turn in “Julie & Julia,” Streep could well break her winner’s drought this year.

Opposite those two on the commercial spectrum is 2006 winner Helen Mirren, garnering a fourth career nom for playing Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sofya in the little-seen “The Last Station.” In a similar boat is Carey Mulligan, whose nom had been considered a sure bet since “An Education” first preemed at Sundance. She can point to her BIFA and National Board of Review honors along with six crix group kudos to bolster her credentials.

The remaining newcomer on the ballot is Gabourey Sidibe, who horrified voters with her self-loathing turn in “Precious” before charming them blind on the press circuit; she could well latch onto co-star Mo’Nique’s kudo momentum.

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