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Oscar poll: Who'll win lead actress?

Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right") and Natalie Portman ("Black Swan") are the clear front-runners to win a lead actress Oscar.

Bening is 1.) overdue, having lost three times; 2.) plays gay.

Portman is 1.) a rising superstar ripe for recognition; 2.) sexy like most champs in recent years; 3.) underwent a strenuous physical transformation while learning to dance ballet for real.

Best actressFor one of their rivals to break through and lead the pack, they'll need to win some of the early film-critics' kudos in December. Maybe it will be Michelle Williams, who gives such a brave, emotionally raw performance as a despairing lover in "Blue Valentine" that it's hard not to recall her own tragic affair with recent, posthumous Oscar champ Heath Ledger.

Jennifer Lawrence is the ingnue of the year, starring in the critics' fave gritty indie ("Winter's Bone"). Film critics adore Mike Leigh flicks and actors who give big, boozy performances, so that could be good news for Lesley Manville in "Another Year."

All award voters are suckers for stars who portray split personalities, so let's take Halle Berry seriously for her multiple roles in "Frankie and Alice."

"Rabbit Hole" generates passionate support among many early viewers gripped by Nicole Kidman's haunting performance of a mom grieving over her dead son. Cynthia Nixon reaped a Tony Award for that role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on Broadway.

James L. Brooks knows how to create Oscar-winning roles for actresses, as Helen Hunt ("As Good As It Gets") and Shirley MacLaine ("Terms of Endearment") can attest. Next up: Reese Witherspoon in "How Do You Know." We Oscarologists don't know. We haven't seen it yet.

I'm listing Julianne Moore only because she might be nominated. Of course, she has no chance of winning an Oscar this year because of her insistence upon remaining in the lead race (where she can only do damage to her "Kids" costar) instead of dropping to supporting where she has a shot.

-- Tom O'Neil

Photos: "The Kids Are All Right" (Focus Features), "Black Swan" (Fox Searchlight)

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