Actress dark horses

What would the Academy Award race be without speculation on potential surprises? This year’s stable of actresses feature a handful in the lead and supporting categories who may have a long road to hoe to secure a nomination, but they’ve caught the eye of critics, festivals and moviegoers.

Who: Maria Bello
What: The Cooler
Why: Her Golden Globe and Online Film Critics noms for playing Vegas denizen William H. Macy’s waitress girlfriend can only help. Bello’s mixture of grit and vulnerability – not to mention some talked-about intimate bedroom scenes – might take her far if Lions Gate’s Sundance pick-up has legs at the B.O. and with other awards groups.

Who: Toni Collette
What: Japanese Story
Why: A prior nominee for “The Sixth Sense,” Collette is front-and-center for this unusual road pic from the actress’s native Oz. As a geologist who develops a close bond with a Japanese company rep she’s assigned to escort, Collette runs the gamut of emotions here.

Who: Jamie Lee Curtis
What: Freaky Friday
Why: Few female perfs this year were as inventively silly and spirited as Curtis’ teenager-in-a-mom’s-body in this hit Disney remake. With a Golden Globe comedy nom under her belt, Curtis – who’s never been Oscar-nommed – could be a welcome addition to the actress competition.

Who: Maggie Gyllenhaal
What: Mona Lisa Smile
Why: Gyllenhaal was prime underdog material in 2002 for the S&M love story “Secretary,” but this year her chances are bet-ter being part of a high-profile studio film. As a boozy, straight-talking college student chafing under repressive ’50s ideals, this talented, quirky actress easily steals the show.

Who: Judith Ivey
What: What Alice Found
Why: This DV-shot feature was a 2003 Sundance Jury Prize winner for “emotional truth,” and one could argue those words almost solely refer to Ivey’s witty yet unflinching portrayal of a trailer park prostitute. But the film’s resolute smallness makes an Ivey nomination harder than usual, even for dark horses.

Who: Diane Lane
What: Under the Tuscan Sun
Why: Last year’s Oscar nom for “Unfaithful” heralded a welcome return to the big time for Lane. Although “Sun” was gener-ally panned by critics, Lane’s sparkling turn as a love-rejuvenated single woman was praised across the board for its humor and exuberance, and garnered her a Golden Globe nom as well.

Who: Jessica Lange
What: Big Fish
Why: Already a two-time Oscar winner (“Tootsie,” “Blue Sky”), Lange makes an impression even with minimal screen time. Playing stalwart wife to dying husband Albert Finney, Lange etches a heartfelt portrait of love and support.

Who: Laura Linney
What: Love Actually, Mystic River
Why: Ensembles are hard to get noticed in, and Linney shines in two of them this year, as a heart-breakingly devoted sister in “Love Actually” and a creepily devoted wife in “Mystic River.” Both films have been successful, which helps, and if “River” sweeps this year, Linney could get caught up in it.

Who: Catherine O’Hara
What: A Mighty Wind
Why: The New York Film Critics nod to Eugene Levy in Christopher Guest’s improvised folk music comedy opens the door for recognition of Levy’s fellow “SCTV” alum O’Hara, who memorably played his singing partner. O’Hara has been a treasured staple of Guest’s beloved comedies – expert at their humor and unexpected poignancy – and this could be a defining year for her.

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