It is an unusually rich year for actresses in Hollywoodmovies and some of the most versatile performers in the business arefrontrunners for awards glory.

Leading the pack is the indomitable Judi Dench, giving anoutstanding performance in Mrs Henderson Presents. But she is, ironically, competing with several actresses under theage of 30 - Reese Witherspoon, Claire Danes, Keira Knightley (who shared sceneswith Dench in Pride & Prejudice),Zhang Ziyi and Q'Orianka Kilcher among them.

Numerous talents are on show. Witherspoon in Walk TheLine and Rosario Dawson in Rent sing in their films - always considered a boonaround awards time. Naomi Watts emotes convincingly opposite a special effect.Felicity Huffman plays a pre-op transsexual man. And the experienced JoanPlowright, Joan Allen and Julianne Moore consume the screen with plain oldno-props acting.

As usual, some of the year's best performances by women arein smaller independent films which will be hard-pushed to make a dent in thebig-spending world of Oscar campaigning.

Vera Farmiga won an acting prize at the Sundance FilmFestival in 2004 for her portrait of a devoted mother-cum-drug addict in DownTo The Bone. That film has finally secureda small US release and, based on its success, Farmiga has gone on to work withJonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese and Anthony Minghella, but it is unlikely thesmall, dark film will be seen widely enough to get her awards notice.

UK actress Emily Mortimer delivered a tender performance asa single mother in Dear Frankie, but thefilm fell foul of the Miramax/Disney break-up and had only limited exposure.Mortimer also shines in a supporting role in Woody Allen's MatchPoint, for which she stands more chance ofnominations.

Also unlikely to see much attention, not for lack ofcritical acclaim, are Natalie Press and Emily Blunt, the young Britishactresses who played the lead roles in My Summer Of Love. Both are already scoring roles in other films buttheir bold, unfettered performances in Pawel Pawlikowski's bitter romance areamong the most notable debuts by young women, since Melanie Lynskey and KateWinslet exploded onto the screen in Heavenly Creatures 11 years ago.

1. Judi Dench, MrsHenderson Presents

Dench has rarely been as touching and witty as in StephenFrears' film in which she plays ageing widow Laura Henderson whose new hobby -opening a theatre in London's West End - brings her adventure and possibleromance. It is the best leading role for a septuagenarian in recent memory, andDench's majestic performance, twinned with her perennial popularity, could takeher all the way to her first best actress Oscar not to mention her 10th BAFTAaward.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS IN ACTING CATEGORIES: four - leadactress in Mrs Brown (1997); supportingactress in Shakespeare In Love(1998); supporting actress in Chocolat (2000); lead actress in Iris(2001). Won for Shakespeare In Love.

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: five - lead actress(drama) in Mrs Brown (1997); supportingactress in Shakespeare In Love(1998); supporting actress in Chocolat (2000); lead actress in a mini-series or TV movie for LastOf The Blonde Bombshells (2000); leadactress (drama) for Iris (2001).Won for Last Of The Blonde Bombshells.

PREVIOUS BAFTA NOMINATIONS: 20 - most promising filmnewcomer in Four In The Morning (1965);lead actress (TV) in Talking To A Stranger (1966); lead actress (TV) in Macbeth, On Giant's Shoulders and A Village Wooing (all 1979); lead actress (TV) for A FineRomance, Going Gently and TheCherry Orchard (all 1981); lightentertainment performance for A Fine Romance (1982); lead actress for Saigon - Year OfThe Cat (1983); light entertainmentperformance for A Fine Romance(1983); light entertainment performance for A Fine Romance (1984); supporting actress in Wetherby (1985); supporting actress in A Room WithA View (1986), supporting actress in 84Charing Cross Road (1987); supportingactress in A Handful Of Dust(1988); lead actress (TV) in Behaving Badly (1989); comedy performance in As Time GoesBy (1997); lead actress in Mrs Brown(1997); supporting actress in Shakespeare In Love (1998); supporting actress inChocolat (2000); lead actress(TV) in Last Of The Blonde Bombshells (2000); lead actress in Iris (2001); supporting actress in The Shipping News (2001). Won for Four In The Morning,Talking To A Stranger, A Fine Romance, Going Gently, The Cherry Orchard, A FineRomance, A Room With A View, Mrs Brown, Shakespeare In Love, Last Of The BlondeBombshells and Iris.

2. Reese Witherspoon,Walk The Line

Judi Dench's biggest competition comes from America'ssweetheart Witherspoon, the perky Louisiana-born leading lady who has quicklyrisen to become one of the world's most bankable film stars. Always a finedramatic actress, Witherspoon has been sidetracked of late to become a romanticcomedy star but returned with full force in Walk The Line, giving a likeable portrayal of the feisty countrystar June Carter. Singing her own songs and investing Carter with a touchingvulnerability, the actress almost walks away with the picture from her co-starJoaquin Phoenix.


PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: two - lead actress(musical or comedy) in Election (1999);lead actress (musical or comedy) for Legally Blonde (2001).


3. Felicity Huffman,Transamerica

Fresh from her Emmy win for Desperate Housewives, Huffman emerges in a small independent movie calledTransamerica giving a brassycentral performance as a pre-op transsexual man called Bree who discovers shehas a teenage son just weeks before her final operation. It is bold casting onthe part of director Duncan Tucker, but Huffman pulls it off, avoiding a stuntperformance by breathing genuine life into Bree's character beyond thechallenges of gender and physicality. Huffman follows in the footsteps ofOscar-winning performances from Linda Hunt playing a man in The YearOf Living Dangerously and Hilary Swankplaying a cross-dresser passing for a man in Boys Don't Cry.


PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: two - lead actress in aTV series in Sports Night (1998); DesperateHousewives (2004).


4. Charlize Theron, NorthCountry

Since winning the Oscar in 2003 for Monster, Theron has become one of the most sought-afteractresses in Hollywood and that demand can only increase after NorthCountry. Again playing a victim of abuse,this time throughout her life at the hands of schoolteacher, husband andco-workers, Theron roared off the screen in Niki Caro's fictionalisation of thelandmark Evelyth Mines sexual harassment court case of the 1980s. Theron makesJosey Aimes complicated - she is neither classic victim nor dogged crusader -and she invests her with an elemental intensity which is mesmerising to watch.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS IN ACTING CATEGORIES: one - leadactress in Monster (2003). She won.

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: two - lead actress(drama) in Monster (2003); supportingactress in a series, mini-series or TV movie in The Life And Death OfPeter Sellers (2004). Won for Monster.

PREVIOUS BAFTA NOMINATIONS: one - lead actress in Monster (2004).

5. Gwyneth Paltrow, Proof

Paltrow does her best work since Shakespeare In Love in arole she originally explored on stage in London with director John Madden. Sheplays Catherine, the 27-year-old daughter of a mathematics genius whose grief forhis death is tempered by fears she might have inherited some of his mentalinstability as well as his brilliance. Paltrow gave an introspective,well-observed performance which should win her a second Oscar nomination.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS IN ACTING CATEGORIES: one - leadactress in Shakespeare In Love (1998).She won.

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: one - lead actress(comedy or musical) in Shakespeare In Love(1998). She won.

PREVIOUS BAFTA NOMINATIONS: one - lead actress in ShakespeareIn Love (1998).

6. Claire Danes, Shopgirl

The film adaptation of Steve Martin's novella Shopgirl wasmost notable for a luminous performance by Danes, a veteran at 26 whosematurity as an actress grows with each role. As the lonely Mirabelle, sheeloquently expresses the joys and heartbreak of a love affair with a man whocannot give her what she wants. It is a fully realised characterisation of acontemporary young woman which marks Danes out as one of the best actresses ofher generation.


PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: one - best actress in aTV series (drama) for My So-Called Life(1994).


7. Keira Knightley, Pride& Prejudice

Few would have thought the sexy star of King Arthur and Pirates Of The Caribbean could see awards talk this year, but that is exactlywhat the 20-year-old English actress is generating for her surprisingperformance as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. Knightley brought contemporary vibrancy to the partbut was never out of keeping with the period milieu or the Austen drama itself.If the film wins favour with voters as it has with audiences, recognition forKnightley could be part of the equation.




8. Toni Collette,In Her Shoes

The always-convincing Collette can bring an audience totears with just one look, and does so on several occasions in Curtis Hanson's InHer Shoes. As the smart, successful Rosewho struggles with her weight problems and self-esteem, she commanded the screen- not an easy task when Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine are among yourco-stars. Nominated for awards for numerous performances in the past, and awinner of four AFI awards in her native Australia, Collette is an actress whocould score nominations again this year for playing Rose. Then again, if it isnot this year, she will have plenty of other opportunities in the future.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS IN ACTING CATEGORIES: one - bestsupporting actress in The Sixth Sense(1999).

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: one - best actress(musical or comedy) in Muriel's Wedding(1994).

PREVIOUS BAFTA NOMINATIONS: one - best supporting actress inAbout A Boy (2002).

9. Ziyi Zhang, MemoirsOf A Geisha

The mesmerising Chinese actress Zhang changed her name (shewas formerly Zhang Ziyi) and spoke English for the first time in Memoirs OfA Geisha, after a string of glorious,star-making performances in local films such as Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon, The Road Home, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and 2046.Playing the Japanese girl Sayuri, whose hard-knock life as a servant isreversed when she becomes one of the most in-demand geisha girls in pre-WorldWar II Japan, Zhang is compelling, bringing a non-verbal radiance to herperformance that transcends any problems caused by her faltering English.




10. Joan Allen, TheUpside Of Anger

Allen, who also shone in Sally Potter's Yes, stands her best chance for awards recognition thisyear in Mike Binder's comic family drama The Upside Of Anger. She played Terry Ann Wolfmeyer, a happily marriedwoman whose joyful demeanour turns to savage, drunken bitterness when herhusband leaves her for another woman. Spitting out her lines and working up anenjoyable romantic chemistry with next-door neighbour Kevin Costner, thewell-respected Allen's portrait of a woman scorned is a pleasure to watch.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS IN ACTING CATEGORIES: three -supporting actress in Nixon (1995); supporting actress in The Crucible (1996); lead actress in The Contender (2000).

PREVIOUS GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS: two - supporting actressin The Crucible (1996); lead actress(drama) in The Contender (2000).

PREVIOUS BAFTA NOMINATIONS: one - supporting actress in Nixon(1995).

The next 10

11. Julianne Moore, ThePrize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio

12. Q'Orianka Kilcher,The New World

13. Sarah Jessica Parker, The Family Stone

14. Natasha Richardson,The White Countess

15. Joan Plowright, MrsPalfrey At The Claremont

16. Naomi Watts, KingKong

17. Rosario Dawson, Rent

18. Radha Mitchell, MelindaAnd Melinda

19. Emily Watson, SeparateLies

20. Patricia Clarkson,The Dying Gaul