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Oscars: Trio at the Top in the Lead Actress Race

Olivia Colman, Lady Gaga and Melissa McCarthy lead a field that’s packed with talent and possibility

At this point in the Oscar race, all of the serious contenders for lead actress have been seen. So how is this year’s field stacking up?

Three performances feel like shoo-ins for nominations: Olivia Colman’s mad Queen Anne in “The Favourite,” a controversial category placement decision for a role some argue is supporting (though the film really features triple leads); Lady Gaga’s portrayal of a working-class diamond-in-the-rough in “A Star Is Born,” which could be one of two bids in the picture for the recording superstar, including original song recognition; and Melissa McCarthy’s best work yet as author/cat lady Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which should make her a return contender after her first nomination seven years ago for “Bridesmaids.”

The battle for the gold likely lurks among that trio, but it will be interesting to see how the final two slots fill out; there’s fierce competition for them.

Glenn Close (six nominations without a win) has the veteran card on her side with “The Wife,” a Sony Classics release that has performed well in the specialty market. Felicity Jones gets to dabble with the zeitgeist as Ruth Bader Ginsberg in “On the Basis of Sex,” a crowd-pleasing drama that plays to the audience. Viola Davis is in the thick of it as a grieving woman on a mission in “Widows,” a genre film that satisfyingly straddles the line between prestige and commercial cinema. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, boasts song-and-dance talent in “Mary Poppins Returns,” sure to be a holiday hit for Disney.

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A true underdog contender in the race is first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio for her stirring, emotional performance as a surrogate for director Alfonso Cuarón’s real-life nanny in his latest, “Roma.” The category has often been receptive to newcomers — from Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) to Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) — and Aparicio has traveled with the film all over the world. She’s formidable.

As always, however, outside the general consensus there are treasures that deserve to be in the conversation. So let’s make sure they’re there.

KiKi Layne, for instance, is quietly fantastic in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” though like Aparicio, she’s new on the scene and there won’t likely be room for both in the category. In “Wildlife,” Carey Mulligan delivers her career-best work as a wife and mother following her own path. In “A Private War,” Rosamund Pike could receive attention for her gruff embodiment of late war correspondent Marie Colvin” (director Michael Mann recently hosted a screening and event for the film). And in the modest but effective “Ben Is Back,” Julia Roberts hasn’t been better since the last time she was nominated, for 2013’s “August: Osage County.”

“It’s become old hat to note that the lead actress race is a heated one.”

Yet, a plea to this year’s Academy electorate: Please spare some consideration for Toni Collette in Ari Aster’s impeccable if gruesome “Hereditary.” The horror genre has historically struggled to find a foothold at the Oscars, even if Collette’s only other nomination to date came for M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” (admittedly a landmark release compared with “Hereditary”), and “Get Out” performed well just last year. It may take a major critics group to take the plunge on her before she and her colossal performance get a fair shake from voters, but if you’re asking this columnist, Collette deserves the Oscar.

Other actresses who have their champions include Keira Knightley (“Colette”), Joanna Kulig (“Cold War”), Elsie Fisher (“Eighth Grade”), Nicole Kidman (“Destroyer”), Saoirse Ronan (“Mary Queen of Scots”), Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”) and Charlize Theron (“Tully”), among others.

It’s become old hat to note that the lead actress race is a heated one. Every year it seems the ladies outpace the gentlemen in delivering the more nail-biting affair, and this year is no exception. Good luck to voters in settling on a final quintet.

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