Best Actress, 2001
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of the corresponding films.)

Halle Berry
Monster's Ball


Having begun her mission with Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry has now fulfilled it: she has beat all comers in the last two years as Hollywood's most galvanizing instance of an undertested performer announcing her skills. Monster's Ball would be a brave choice for any actress, but one with a magazine-cover reputation needed extra talent and resolve to use such a tricky vehicle as a stepping-stone to prominence. The SAG and Berlin Film Festival Awards back up Berry's PR buzz with hard critical support.

Not everyone is convinced that Berry is as free from her glamorous roots, as immersed in character psychology, or as discerning in her choice of roles as Monster's Ball's supporters want us to believe. It's easy to admire the new career trajectory that Berry has fashioned for herself and not actually vote for her.
Judi Dench

The best thing Judi has going for her is that, while Berry and Kidman duke it out in both the Young Hollywood and Extraneous Considerations derbies, and as more new viewers leave In the Bedroom going, "So what?", Dench is the category's emblem of redoubtable craft and simple, understated ability. Her win for Shakespeare in Love does not erase the realization that one of the world's great actresses lacks a leading-category Oscar.
What counts most against Dench is that she's starting to feel like something of an inevitability in these races: why vote for her now when it appears one will be able to vote for her whenever one wants in the near future? (Her Lady Bracknell in the forthcoming Importance of Being Earnest will no doubt be a treat.) Plus, even if Dench could stand to have two Oscars, Spacek has gone much longer without a trophy, without even a mention—and she's homegrown talent.
Nicole Kidman
Moulin Rouge

Having proved herself in two very different roles over the course of 2001, despite having a papparazzi problem that no one could envy, Nicole Kidman deserves whatever awards we can think to give her. Moulin Rouge has some committed fans who aren't likely to go for all this character-drama stuff that Berry, Dench, and Spacek have cast their lot with.
By the same token, however, what Kidman is playing in Moulin Rouge will only strike some as a "character"; to many others it is a cardboard figure, a bland archetype, and Kidman's beauty more than her acting talents will be cited as her chief contribution. A vote for her might seem too obvious a concession to factors beyond this film.
Sissy Spacek
In the Bedroom

The front-runner through most of the awards season, Spacek has barely lost an award for months, only recently giving up the SAG race to Berry and the BAFTA to Dench. She's immensely well-liked in the industry, and her picture obviously reached enough viewers to land it in the Best Picture category, a claim which only Kidman in this category can reiterate—and in that matchup, Spacek's is the more "actorly" work. Probably the best place for Bedroom's supporters to guarantee their film a trophy.
That the two awards Spacek has lost have been the two most recently voted may be revealing: is the home audience for Oscar screener cassettes discovering that Spacek isn't in the movie as much as all the press around her would have you think? Or that her playing isn't wholly remarkable, not appreciably different from what other actors would have done in the role? When is minimalist acting just minimal? Given Oscar's track record—why Laura Linney when you can have Julia?—it's a salient question.
Renée Zellweger
Bridget Jones's Diary

The Tomei Factor: against seasoned vets in self-serious projects, Zellweger is hanging in there as the symbol of ingratiating, modest filmmaking with a big heart and an ample supply of laughs: emphasis on "laughs" (not a lot of those in her competitors' films, in which seven major deaths take place) and emphasis on "ample" (no one's forgotten the weight she gained).
Come on now—is gaining 20 pounds really deserving of its own trophy? Does Bridget Jones's Diary seem like quite the acting challenge that the other four films, even Moulin Rouge, more patently offer? I haven't heard one person in any corner of the press imply that he or she is voting for this nomination.

WHO WILL WIN: Spacek seemed like a lock a while ago, but Berry and Dench have both been gaining momentum, or perhaps Spacek's just losing it. I still see her as in the lead, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

WHO SHOULD WIN: I realize more as I think about it that while I admired and enjoyed these performances, I don't quite adore any of them. All of the nominees have wonderful moments: Berry's confrontation with Peter Boyle, Spacek's cigarette-fueled vigil in front of late night TV, Zellweger's tortured intro at the Kafka's Motorbike bash. I might vote for Nicole Kidman, based not just on admiration for what she contributed to Moulin Rouge but also because she had to work harder than her fellow nominees to be noticed amidst all of the visual whirligigs. Judi Dench, however, in the first, most challenging hour of Iris, generates complexities that would shame her fellow nominees. It feels like a default choice, but Dench deserves it.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. Tilda Swinton in The Deep End. Here are some names I could have gotten straightforwardly excited about, but none of them were ready, apparently, for Oscar's prime time.

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