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Leading ladies split HBO love

Having two strong contenders in same category is nothing new for cabler

This year two Emmy actress contenders in the minis-and-made-fors category are Helen Mirren, for “Elizabeth I,” and Annette Bening, for “Mrs. Harris,” both HBO projects, which puts the pay-cable titan in a sensitive — but not a new — position.

The net has always courted top talent, and is always careful to favor all its “children” equally, especially with thesps as prestigious as Mirren and Bening.

Mirren is a two-time Emmy winner and perennial contender as the star of English suspenser “Prime Suspect.” This year, she arrives in a two-parter created with her in mind.

“She came onboard before the script was written,” says helmer Tom Hooper, “because the feeling was that it was only worth doing if she would play it.”

Elizabeth has been played memorably by many actresses, including Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench.

But “I did feel in coming to her that there was an area of Elizabeth that hadn’t been explored in a realistic sense: the emotional life. Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth was superb on the political level, but it didn’t concentrate on her personal and emotional life, the way she combined the personal and the political.”

One of her challenges, she discovered, was simply making the audience appreciate the intensity of Elizabethan life. “Their lives were so intense on every level, far more than anything we experience nowadays. It’s not a role that you under-act.”

Bening had an entirely different challenge, as posh school headmistress Jean Harris, who slayed her ex-lover, “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower, in a celebrated 1980 tabloid case.

“Annette is an actor who is really unafraid of being sometimes unsympathetic and she absolutely has no vanity, which were two very important ingredients for this role,” says director Phyllis Nagy.

“She has a very very keen and dark sense of humor and an actor who’s unafraid of intelligence, and who knows that the emotions cannot kick in without a co-dependence on the intellect — which always sounds like it’s pretty easy to find, but it really isn’t.”

Bening and co-star Ben Kingsley set a tone on the set that helped playwright-turned-helmer Nagy enormously.

“She never once behaved like a star in isolation, she was one of the gang. She made a point of not being treated differently, she made a point of absolutely making it clear that she wasn’t directing the film behind the scenes, nothing that could be seen as pulling rank of any sort.”

Having two strong contenders in the same category is nothing new for HBO; the cabler has had as many as four nominees in a single acting category in years past. It goes as far as tracking its “For Your Consideration” ads to make sure that no one can complain of being shortchanged.

That, they hope, shifts the quandary from HBO to the voters.

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