Two contenders seem to be out front to win the Oscar for lead actress: Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right") and Natalie Portman ("Black Swan"). Both rivals have the Cool Factor and significant camps rooting for them to win.
Bening's performance as a lesbian momma is low-key compared with her flamboyant turns in the films that earned her past nominations: "The Grifters," "American Beauty" and "Being Julia." Ordinarily, this role wouldn't reap an Oscar bid, but Bening is so overdue to win that she could ride the same wave that resulted in victory for previous overdue veterans such as Helen Mirren ("The Queen"), Susan Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking") and Shirley MacLaine ("Terms of Endearment").
Also in Bening's favor: playing gay. That worked for Sean Penn ("Milk") and Tom Hanks ("Philadelphia").
However, the old academy boys usually love to crown ingenues, especially if they're sexy (we call it the Babe Factor) like recent champs Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"). Natalie Portman is truly hot in "Black Swan" — with steamy girl-on-girl and masturbation scenes. Portman is not unknown to Oscar voters, who gave her a nomination in the supporting actress race of 2004 ("Closer").
BEST LEAD ACTRESS
Annette Bening, "The Kids Are All Right"
Nicole Kidman, "Rabbit Hole"
Lesley Manville, "Another Year"
Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter’s Bone"
Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"
Michelle Williams, "Blue Valentine"
Anne Hathaway, "Love and Other Drugs"
Sally Hawkins, "Made in Dagenham"
Diane Lane, "Secretariat"
Julianne Moore, "The Kids Are All Right"
Carey Mulligan, "Never Let Me Go"
Gwyneth Paltrow, "Country Strong"
Hilary Swank, "Conviction"
Naomi Watts, "Fair Game"
Reese Witherspoon, "How Do You Know"
Left photo: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight
Right photo: Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right." Credit: Focus Features