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Rich roles underscore lead actress race

Intense perfs will make triumph especially sweet

While the Oscars often reflect how much the film industry has struggled to create plum lead roles for women, this year’s lead actress race — whether a mirage or a sign of things to come — had enough competition that some very good performances were overlooked. The five finalists were all undeniably strong.

For much of awards season, the spotlight has been pointed at Natalie Portman for her turn as the psychologically scarred ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” Portman, who was nominated once prior for her supporting work in “Closer,” has been plie-ing pre-Oscar kudos, including a Golden Globe and SAG award, and could be the one accepting bravos on the Kodak Theater’s stage.

Annette Bening is making her fourth try at an Oscar, which could give her some sentimental support, as could her Golden Globe win for her performance as the tightly wound breadwinner in “The Kids Are All Right” (her co-star Julianne Moore was overlooked). If momentum for Portman is as fickle as momentum often is, Bening’s chances might be all right.

Both Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams starred in emotional films about tumultuous relationship struggles — Kidman in “Rabbit Hole” playing a mother trying to move past the tragic death of her child, Williams as a woman on the verge of a marital breakdown in “Blue Valentine.” This is Kidman’s third nomination and Williams’ second (after “Brokeback Mountain,” in which she co-starred with her former fiancee, the late Heath Ledger.) Kidman has also already won an Oscar — for “The Hours” — and there could be the sense among voters that she’s had her time. Though Kidman and Williams each received a Golden Globes nom, neither came away with many honors during the run-up to the Oscars.

The sole newcomer is Jennifer Lawrence, whose dauntless teenager determined to find out what happened to her missing father is in every scene of “Winter’s Bone,” which preemed at Sundance and built a following due to widespread critical acclaim and word of mouth. Lawrence was actually more popular than any lead actress aside from Portman among critics groups, which could make her a sleeper candidate.

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