Laura Linney is the only American in the best actress category this year, which also numbers the legendary Julie Christie, dazzling French star Marion Cotillard and 20-year-old newcomer Ellen Page

CATE BLANCHETT Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Shekhar Kapur's movie may have been one of the most over-directed souffles of the year, but Blanchett walked away unscathed with more glowing reviews for playing Queen Elizabeth I. As decisive and imperious as she is in her public life, Blanchett's Elizabeth is vulnerable and kind in her personal life, and the actress straddles the two with customary self-possession. With two nominations this year (the other in the supporting category for I'm Not There), Blanchett is fast becoming one of the most garlanded actress in film today. Here she has accomplished the unusual but not unprecedented feat of earning two nods for playing the same role.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 3, for Elizabeth (1998), The Aviator (2004, supporting actress) and Notes On A Scandal (2006, supporting actress). She won for The Aviator.

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Blanchett's performance is truly majestic and the Academy might wish to make amends for not giving her the award 10 years ago.' Allan Hunter

One of cinema's classiest acts, Christie gave a beautifully modulated performance as a woman descending into Alzheimer's Disease in Sarah Polley's Away From Her. From the opening scenes in which she and her husband (Gordon Pinsent) prepare for her move to a nursing home to her total loss of awareness of who he is, Christie is heart-rending without resorting to cheap theatrics. The 66-year-old Christie does not take too many lead roles these days, but when she does voters tend to take note, as in the case of Alan Rudolph's Afterglow in 1997.

PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 3, for Darling (1965), McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) and Afterglow (1997). She won for Darling.

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Sarah Polley's accomplishment is all the more impressive given the challenge she set herself in adapting Alice Munro's short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, a work that astonishes with its elliptical feints and seamless transitions, not to mention the clarity and texture of the prose. But Polley found the ideal mediums in the faces of Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent.' Denis Seguin

Cotillard's monumental performance as Edith Piaf is the kind of work that crosses borders and language and could easily make her the first actress since Sophia Loren in 1962 to win the acting Oscar for a foreign language film. Cotillard adopted Piaf's voice, looks, singing style - even the haggard posture of her later life - to create a fully-realised warts-and-all portrait of the legendary diva, which is up there with Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles, Sissy Spacek's Loretta Lynn, Diana Ross' Billie Holiday and Judy Davis' Judy Garland in the league of great musical biopic performances. The film, and of course Piaf herself, were popular enough in the US to engage voters who tend to pass over foreign-language performers. Cotillard has been mentioned as an awards favourite ever since the film opened in May, and she recently won the Golden Globe for best actress (musical or comedy) as well as taking the BAFTA.


WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Transformed by make-up, Cotillard gives a brassy, vulnerable and imperious rendering of Piaf, on stage and off.' Benny Crick

Linney has never been better than in Tamara Jenkins' The Savages as Wendy Savage, an overwrought woman engaged in a thankless affair with a married man and with delusions of being a playwright. Although the film follows her reunion with her brother to care for their ailing father, Linney's achievement here is to embody the confusion and neuroses of a single woman in her late thirties who has apparently missed the boat when it comes to marriage and children, while also failing to achieve success in her career. A highly accomplished character actress perhaps best known for playing uptight or repressed characters, Linney had failed to win much notice in awards season until now. PREVIOUS OSCAR NOMINATIONS: 2, for You Can Count On Me (2000) and Kinsey (2004, supporting actress).

WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Linney dominates the film. She proves that she is one of the finest US actors working. She is fearless, funny and explosive, unafraid to reveal her shame, humiliation or embarrassment, whether suddenly recoiling from her failed lust for a Nigerian hospital aid worker or expressing the ridiculousness of her increasingly tawdry alliances with her married lover.' Patrick Z McGavin

The fearless 20-year-old Canadian caught the attention of critics with precocious performances in independent movies Hard Candy and An American Crime, but she has won mainstream adulation as Juno in Jason Reitman's much-loved comedy. Page is the heart and wise-cracking soul of the film, playing a teenager tackling an unwanted pregnancy. She is rarely off screen and gives an unwaveringly unsentimental performance that makes Juno all the more believable and ultimately moving. A smart and sweetly optimistic comedy like Juno is bound to appeal to voters in a season of dark dramas, and few could resist Page's unshowy charms.


WHAT SCREEN SAID 'Cody's twisted dialogue would jump awkwardly from script to screen were it not for Page's composure and sure-fire timing.' David D'Arcy