EVEN as the men's acting Oscar categories are overflowing with strong contenders, the actress races, as usual, reflect the paucity of opportunities for women.
Don't expect that to change any time soon. "Not when Will Smith movies make $78 million on their opening weekend," says critic and film historian Leonard Maltin. "There's been such a seismic shift since the days of the great leading ladies of the '30s, '40s and '50s, and I don't think we'll ever go back to that and we're the poorer for it."
Yet although the list of contenders in both actress categories is short again, the leading candidates are still a diverse and critically acclaimed bunch.
Consider Julie Christie, whose first Oscar was awarded for her turn as a fashion model in 1965's "Darling." Critics groups thus far have overwhelmingly favored Christie for her role as an Alzheimer's patient in "Away From Her," and Amy Ryan in supporting for "Gone Baby Gone," making them the actresses to beat.
But don't count out Marion Cotillard for her wrenching portrait as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" and Cate Blanchett's Bob Dylan portrayal in "I'm Not There" to bring the upsets.
The actress races of late have seen eight lead and supporting winners getting to the ceremony by playing a real person.
"The academy voters have always been impressed by what I call transformative performances," Maltin says. "So whether that's changing your appearance drastically, as Charlize Theron did [in 'Monster'] or inhabiting someone else's persona as Helen Mirren did [in 'The Queen'], it always attracts attention and respect. And whether or not you have any knowledge of Piaf or Dylan, the performances themselves are so extraordinary you can't help but be blown away."
This trend could also help offset poor box office in raising Angelina Jolie's chances of securing a lead actress nomination for her precise and emotional interpretation of Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart."
And then there are a bevy of comedic performances, often also-rans in the Oscar derby, that are providing fertile ground for hopefuls this year.
Consider Ellen Page in "Juno," Amy Adams in "Enchanted," Keri Russell in "Waitress" and even Laura Linney in the comedy/drama, "The Savages." The comedians are all flirting with Oscar's lighter side and earning nomination buzz.
Since the field this year in both categories is deprived of any surefire nominees, it could open up some slots to dark horses or genuine upsets. For best actress there's Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd," although her part is smaller than the original Broadway version and, judging from the ads, this is being sold solely as a Johnny Depp vehicle.
Further down the list, two-time winner and current Golden Globe nominee Jodie Foster has admirers for "The Brave One." Also there is Nikki Blonsky's spirited Globe-nominated debut in "Hairspray," in addition to Chinese newcomer Tang Wei's daring work in "Lust, Caution."
Oscar-winner Blanchett could also turn up here for the poorly received sequel "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," but the déjà vu factor is working against her.
Blanchett is more likely a contender in supporting for topping even her Kate Hepburn portrayal in "The Aviator" with her Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." She's in the company of favorites Ryan and "Michael Clayton's" corporate nemesis Tilda Swinton. The fourth and fifth supporting slots are bigger question marks, with possible academy love for veterans, including the never nominated Ruby Dee of "American Gangster" or past winner Olympia Dukakis in "Away From Her."
Finally, there are the four women in the running for Joe Wright's "Atonement." Keira Knightley is going for her second nomination as best actress, even though the real female lead in the film is the character Briony. That role is played at different ages by three actresses -- 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave.
But do they all cancel each other out? Or, for the first time since "Tom Jones" in 1963, do we see three -- count 'em three -- supporting actress nominees all from the same film?
Pete Hammond's Notes on a Season appears regularly on TheEnvelope.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun