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Mirren, Mirren on Oscar wall

Oscar's actress nominees

Stranger things have happened.

The Mets won the 1969 World Series, Ken Jennings appeared on “Jeopardy!” for 74 consecutive shows, and former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura was voted governor of Minnesota.

As unlikely events go, it just might take something of that high order to prevent Helen Mirren from becoming the next lead actress winner.

In reviews for “The Queen” and on the kudo circuit, Mirren has been treated as royally as Queen Elizabeth II. Mirren’s performance as a woman who must adhere to protocol but is forced to change with the times following the death of Princess Diana has won her affection from critics and auds.

Among those leading the charge against Mirren is Meryl Streep. With an astonishing 14th nom, Streep surpasses the definition of a pro. Her ability to transform continues to amaze.

Somewhat surprising, though, is that with all those noms and adulation, Streep has not won an Oscar since “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). Her role as fashion maven Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” was a delightful romp, but the overall tone may be too lightweight for her to upset Mirren.

Like Streep, Judi Dench is no stranger to Oscar-nominated performances and now has the same reputation in that, whatever she does, the role is automatically considered awards-worthy. She’s been nominated six times over the past 10 years, winning for her abbreviated but memorable stint in “Shakespeare in Love.”

While “Notes on a Scandal” is certainly juicy material (“delicious” seems the adjective many have opted to use), and Dench is terrific as a psychotic high school teacher who gets her hooks into Cate Blanchett, the film’s easy-to-digest, easy-to-let-go nature might not benefit this Brit.

It’s somewhat hard to believe that Kate Winslet, who plays a suburban mom yearning to break free in Todd Field’s vastly underrated “Little Children,” is only 31 years old. Geez, the woman has been nominated five times already. If she doesn’t take home a trophy here, shed no tears. It’s only a matter of time before she’ll be giving her acceptance speech.

As for Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz, after being introduced to American audiences in films including “Vanilla Sky” and “All the Pretty Horses,” she found her relationship with director Pedro Almodovar made all the difference in the world at Oscar time.

“Volver,” which surprisingly didn’t make the foreign-language film short list, was the perfect vehicle to get the Academy’s attention. Her presence among the top five actresses should cement her place in U.S. cinemas.

AND THE NOMINEES ARE…

Penelope Cruz,
‘Volver’
Oscar pedigree: None
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom)
Why she’ll win: Returning to work with her mentor, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, for the first time since 1999’s “All About My Mother,” Cruz is funny, sad, sexy and dramatic, all at once.
Why she won’t: Only five performers (out of 26 previous noms) in the history of the Oscars have won for a performance in a foreign language. That “Volver” wasn’t a foreign-language film nominee doesn’t help.
Critical quote: “With this role, Ms. Cruz inscribes her name near the top of any credible list of present-day flesh-and-blood screen goddesses, in no small part because she manages to be earthy, unpretentious and a little vulgar without shedding an ounce of her natural glamour,” wrote A.O. Scott, New York Times.

Judi Dench,
‘Notes on a Scandal’
Oscar pedigree: “Shakespeare in Love” (win); “Mrs. Brown” (nom), “Iris” (nom), “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (nom), “Chocolat” (nom)
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom)
Why she’ll win: Dench is an Academy favorite, and she turns in a splendidly twisted performance as a duplicitous teacher. If the Academy has tired of seeing Helen Mirren make off with all the pre-Oscar kudos, the other grande dame in this year’s race may pick up her second golden boy.
Why she won’t: Voters may view the film’s subject matter (a sapphic “Fatal Attraction” laced with pedophilia) as too pulpy to be Oscar-worthy.
Critical quote: “The aptly named Barbara Covett … played with acid-tongued relish by Judi Dench in a radical departure from her roles as royalty, (is) a deliciously nasty piece of work,” wrote David Ansen, Newsweek.

Helen Mirren,
‘The Queen’
Oscar pedigree: “The Madness of King George” (nom), “Gosford Park” (nom)
Current kudos: Boston Film Critics (win), Broadcast Film Critics (win), Chicago Film Critics (win), Dallas-Ft. Worth Film Critics (win), Florida Film Critics (win), Golden Globes (win), Kansas City Film Critics (win), Las Vegas Film Critics (win), Los Angeles Film Critics (win), National Board of Review (win), National Society of Film Critics (win), New York Film Critics Circle (win), Online Film Critics (win), Phoenix Film Critics (win), SAG (win), San Diego Film Critics (win), San Francisco Film Critics (win), St. Louis Film Critics (win), Toronto Film Critics (win), Vancouver Film Critics (win), Washington, D.C., Film Critics (win).
Why she’ll win: She has dominated the pre-Oscar kudos circuit and has received unanimous praise for her measured and mesmerizing portrayal of the British monarch.
Why she won’t: If the sun suddenly fails to rise in the east and set in the west. Or, maybe, if voters don’t want to be pigeonholed into thinking they can’t act on their own.
Critical quote: “Mirren, who (has been honored for) playing Elizabeth I for HBO, may well deserve an Oscar for this ripe appraisal of Elizabeth II. Her performance shows how an aging monarch can both acknowledge her diminished status and act to correct it,” wrote Richard Corliss, Time.

Meryl Streep,
‘The Devil Wears Prada’
Oscar pedigree: “Kramer vs. Kramer” (win), “Sophie’s Choice” (win); “The Deer Hunter” (nom), “Adaptation” (nom), “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (nom), “Silkwood” (nom), “Out of Africa” (nom), “Ironweed” (nom), “A Cry in the Dark” (nom), “Postcards From the Edge” (nom), “The Bridges of Madison County” (nom), “One True Thing” (nom), “Music of the Heart” (nom)
Current kudos: Golden Globes (win), National Society of Film Critics (win); Broadcast Film Critics (nom), SAG (nom)
Why she’ll win: She single-handedly elevated a slight summer entertainment into an awards player by turning the one-dimensional role of a monstrous fashionista into a singular Streep creation.
Why she won’t: While Streep’s performance was nearly universally praised, the film itself was considered good but not great. With four other incredibly strong performances in this category, Streep may have to settle for the honor of being nominated. Again.
Critical quote: “Streep has noodled around with comedy before. … But we haven’t seen our Meryl like this until now, relishing the role as if it were the swellest Best of Everything achievement award a 13-time Oscar nominee could receive. And it is,” wrote Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly.

Kate Winslet,
‘Little Children’
Oscar pedigree: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (nom), “Iris” (nom), “Titanic” (nom), “Sense and Sensibility” (nom),
Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), Golden Globes (nom), SAG (nom)
Why she’ll win: In a career already marked with four Oscar nominations before the ago of 30 and countless other acclaimed roles, Winslet tops them all with her defining, devastating portrait of a woman struggling to make sense of her place in the world.
Why she won’t: The film’s dark themes and subject matter (including a pedophilia subplot) might turn off voters and leave Winslet an Oscar bridesmaid for the fifth time.
Critical quote: “A never-better Kate Winslet goes so deep into her character you can almost feel her nerve endings,” wrote Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.

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