Annette Benning, Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Will Win: Hilary Swank
I had trouble, for a second, remembering all five nominees in this category. You know it's a pretty great year for actresses when a performance as unforgettable as Kate Winslet's in Eternal Sunshine slips one's mind, but this has basically reduced itself to a two-woman race, with one very deserving potential spoiler. Annette Benning and Hilary Swank face off again, both recieving their first nominations since they went head-to-head in this same category (for roles in American Beauty and Boys Don't Cry, respectively) in 2000. Swank won that round, and not surprisingly - after all, she was a beautiful newcomer playing a real-life transexual who dies in the end. But as one of Annette Benning's biggest fans, I can't say I haven't secretly hoped for a rematch.
This time, both actresses are nominated for the kinds of showy, meaty roles that other actors just seem to adore. I'm giving the edge to Swank, due to the greater momentum of the film, but it's by no means a completely sure bet. And don't count out Staunton - it's the best reviewed performance of the year, and Vera Drake has had a much stronger impact on viewers than Benning's Being Julia, for which she carries the film's sole nomination. Unfortunately, I would count out Moreno - it's that tough of a year - but the film came out months ago and has been comparatively little-seen, and, as the conventional wisdom goes, the young actress should have plenty of other opportunities.
Should Win: Kate Winslet
Another very, very tough choice. Between Benning and Swank I'd certainly go for the former, but I actually think these are the category's two weakest nominees. Swank imbues her performance style with a kind of self-important obviousness that I find really grating, and Benning always does the diva thing a little too well, to the point where nothing seems Oscar-caliber remarkable about this particular role or this particular film. Moreno and Staunton, heretofore unknown to mainstream American audiences, are much, much better, delivering performances deserving of the actress' elevation to the international stage. But it's Winslet who, cast against type as the flawed, almost accidentally-luminous Clementine, fearlessly falls into a character that seems so real, she threatens to pop off the screen and follow you home. For that, she'd get my vote.