It's traditionally the toughest acting category to predict and the one most likely to produce a major upset (Marisa Tomei, Juliette Binoche, Tilda Swinton, to name but a few). At this point, Penelope Cruz is the only solid contender, but we still have a long way to go. So sit back and enjoy the ride--er, the show?
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Debra Winger: Rachel Getting Married Her performance as the mother of the bride--and Anne Hathaway--is being compared to Mary Tyler Moore's nearly 30 years ago in Ordinary People. If it's half as good, she'll get her fourth Oscar invitation and first in 15 years.
Kate Winslet: The Reader Director Stephen Daldry's last two films, Billy Elliott and The Hours, earned supporting nods for Julie Walters and Julianne Moore, respectively. If history repeats (and barring a dip in the skills of everyone involved, why shouldn't it?), Kate's role as the object of a teenaged boy's affection in postwar Germany will make her this year's Cate Blanchett.
Kim Basinger: The Burning Plain It's been downhill since her Oscar for L.A. Confidential 10 years ago (though I must admit that Cellular remains one of my greatest guilty pleasures). But her role as Charlize Theron's adulterous mom (left, with costar Joaquim de Almeida) in the directorial debut of the writer of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel could reverse her fortunes if she doesn't end up being overshadowed Babel-style by one of the unknown actresses in the multi-arc ensemble.
Penelope Cruz: Vicky Cristina Barcelona Two years after her nomination for Volver, Penelope's generating buzz again for her leading role in Elegy and this. In the past, director Woody Allen has had an excellent track record with supporting actresses. (Just ask Mariel Hemingway, Diane Wiest, Judy Davis, Jennifer Tilly, Mira Sorvino and Samantha Morton.) Right now, I think she's the one to beat.
Taraji P. Henson: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button She and the Academy already have history: Taraji sang on "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp," the 2006 Best Original Song from Hustle & Flow. On the evidence of her two brief appearances in the Benjamin Button trailer (watch it here), the role looks like it might by showy enough to nab her a spot in the final five.
Marisa Tomei: The Wrestler Time flies! When did Marisa (left) become old enough to play an "aging stripper"? She's been making smart choices lately, and I think it's just a matter of time before she gets her third nomination. I just hope someone somewhere is writing a kick-ass leading role for this very talented actress.
Sophie B. Okonedo: The Secret Life Of Bees She's said to stand out in an ensemble that includes Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Dakota Fanning. The film doesn't have much buzz yet, but as Oscar has been embracing multi-culturalism lately, I wouldn't rule out a second nomination for Sophie.