With just weeks to go before year-end eligibility deadlines for Academy Award nominations, the field is suddenly filled with contenders.
Viable candidates range from veterans overdue for huzzahs (Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica") to ingenues ready to be crowned as superstars (Ziyi Zhang in "Memoirs of a Geisha," Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice").
At this point, the advantage may rest with the ingenues, especially considering Oscar voters' reputation as geezers who lust after — and reward — younger babes.
A study published in 2000 by Pace University discovered that best actress winners of the previous 25 years were, on average, five years younger than victorious actors. And I must say, most of those champs were easy on the eyes.
While some seasoned actresses have claimed the top prize (Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking," Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment"), most tended to be attractive newcomers (Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love," Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall").
More recently, youthful beauty seems to be something all winners have in common, including Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), Nicole Kidman ("The Hours"), Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Hilary Swank ("Million Dollar Baby").
Among this year's comely contenders are actresses who star in films that are considered front-runners for best picture nominations. That kind of advantage has paid off in the past for Swank, Paltrow, MacLaine and Keaton.
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Zhang looks like a virtual shoo-in for a nomination, and the early leader for the statuette. Buzz on "Geisha" says a best pic bid looks inevitable, and screening audiences are especially high on Zhang, a Chinese actress who makes her English-speaking debut after top-lining past hits such as "House of Flying Daggers."
That crossover ability matters to Oscar voters, who remember Zhang from past best picture nominee "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and recognize her as a superstar overseas.
Whether or not Zhang takes home the gold may depend on how she handles criticism of director Rob Marshall's decision to cast a Chinese actress in a Japanese role.
Oscar voters are likely to take Zhang's side in the spat, since so many of them are actors who favor nontraditional casting because it increases the number of roles they themselves could potentially play.
But if the storm turns into a tsunami, voters might opt for another ingenue, like Q'Orianka Kilcher. "The New World" star is only 15 years old, but insiders say she's bewitching as Pocahontas, a huge role in a movie with a strong shot at a best picture nomination. "The New World" is directed by Terrence Malick, whose last film, "The Thin Red Line," picked up a nomination in 1998.
Kilcher's age could be a drawback. Traditionally, the Academy has put actresses this young into the supporting category, even when they were obvious leads (witness Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon.")
"But Oscar voters have been much more welcoming to young lead stars in recent years," notes veteran Oscar watcher Pete Hammond. "Two years ago we saw the 13-year-old star of 'Whale Rider,' Keisha Castle-Hughes, get nominated for best actress. That may have been a signal that things are changing."
Kilcher has another strong plus in her favor: she plays a real person. That's something Reese Witherspoon has going for her in "Walk the Line," also a leading contender for best picture.
Witherspoon nails a good impersonation of June Carter, shows off impressive dramatic skills (a key aim for the star of the "Legally Blonde" comedies) and even sweetens the deal with her newfound singing chops.
That's makes Witherspoon a triple threat. Add in the fact she's portraying the long-suffering wife of an abusive genius — which worked well for recent supporting actress winners Jennifer Connelly and Marcia Gay Harden — and Witherspoon becomes tough to ignore.
Voters are also fond of pretty actresses who won't put up with any guff, especially when they do it with a sexy British accent. That could put Knightley within striking distance of a win, or at least a nomination, for "Pride & Prejudice."