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FEMALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

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Halle Berry

Monster's Ball

This has been a breakout year for Halle Berry. While it's true she was nominated for a SAG Actor Award last year for her role as Dorothy Dandridge in HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, it wasn't until her raw and heartfelt performance in Monster's Ball that audiences and critics finally looked beyond her Miss America appearance. Berry has consistently tried to resist typecasting, but there's no doubt she's had her share of vacuous, sexy-chick roles. Swordfish, X-Men, and The Flintstones certainly did nothing to give her acting career merit. Yet, for every mainstream role she's picked, Berry has taken a risk. Remember her turns in Girl 6, Bulworth, and Jungle Fever? Audiences didn't seem to-- and have continued to unfairly lump Berry in with the model-turned-actress crowd.

However, in her gripping role as Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball, Berry has at last produced a performance that refuses to be ignored-- ruthlessly unglamorous and honest. The most painful scenes-- beating her son for eating a candy bar, drinking nips of Jack Daniels as her husband is being executed-- are controlled and understated. We hope these moments, candid and complex, make Berry's performance truly memorable-- for audiences and awards voters alike.

-- Pamela Bock

For this role, Berry won the National Board of Review award, was nominated for an AFI Award and a Golden Globe, and is nominated for an Academy Award.

Jennifer Connelly

A Beautiful Mind

It's hard to believe she's been at it for almost 20 years, but former child actor Jennifer Connelly-- remember Labyrinth?-- has followed a relatively low-profile career, choosing work chiefly in independents and smaller studio films. Smart choices finally seem to be paying off for this 32-year-old actress. As the intelligent yet struggling Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Connelly has seemingly emerged anew into the mainstream (though she never really strayed very far).

At first glance Alicia contains all the trappings of a typical Connelly character-- seductive, charming, defiant-- but Connelly subtly transforms Nash into a weary, disempowered housewife, confined by the circumstances of her situation. For the first time, we see the actress domesticated and frustratingly submissive, and Connelly brings it home (literally) with a strained expression of support and an occasionally impatient tone. Connelly reveals Alicia's desire to remove herself from her schizophrenic genius husband, played by Russell Crowe, but also successfully reveals Alicia's strength and devotion to her husband during the film's more challenging moments. Connelly's secret weapon here is her trademark warmth, assuring us that Nash's desire for a better life will always be outweighed by her hope for resolution. By the end of the film, Connelly proves that Alicia Nash's strength was derived from her willingness to commit to her sacrifice-- and that we've underestimated this actress' potency all along.

-- Nicole Kristal

For this role, Connelly won an AFI Award and a Golden Globe and is nominated for a British Academy Award and for an Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actress).

Judi Dench

Iris

Most people have an indescribable affection for Judi Dench. Perhaps it's because she has a history of delivering remarkably compelling performances, often embodying strong, intelligent women with difficult pasts. And perhaps Iris answers what would happen if one of Dench's typically empowered, articulate women lost her power, and her words, scene by scene.

In Iris, the 67-year-old actress so realistically portrays a victim of Alzheimer's that you grow to welcome the flashbacks into Iris Murdoch's past as relief from the brutal present. Dench effectively deflates her character's power, gradually revealing the tragedy of a brilliant, intelligent woman losing her mind. The actress's vacant expressions, confused tantrums, and reckless behavior force viewers to experience personally the heartbreak of losing a loved one to this horrific disease.

Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, lauded Dench for her ability to convey his late wife's kindness with such simple expressions. Her performance also pleased the film's director, Richard Eyre. "Toward the end of the film, when Iris' mind has gone, and you look at Judi's face and see that implacability, the sense of peace, and the absence in her eyes, that is alchemy," he said in The New Yorker. The magic behind her performance unravels through the actress' painful, empty silences. and unpredictable, childlike outbursts. Of acting, Dench has said, "The subconscious is what works on the part." It works for her, indeed.

-- Nicole Kristal

For this role, Dench was nominated for a Golden Globe and is nominated for an Academy Award and a British Academy Award.

Sissy Spacek

In the Bedroom

Though Sissy Spacek has never sunk into mediocre acting, her recent performance in Todd Field's directorial debut, In the Bedroom, is being touted as her "comeback" role. Even Spacek acknowledged to Back Stage West that she's felt like she's had a recent reawakening as an actor. Spacek, who's been on a creative roll since taking parts in Paul Schrader's 1997 Affliction and David Lynch's The Straight Story, said, "In the last few years I have really worked to get back to the early years, when I did it for all the right reasons and I didn't make career moves."

Though she makes her work look seamless, Spacek had a challenging task on In the Bedroom-- to repress her character's fury. Stripped of her familiar Texas accent and with little physical work to do in preparation for the role, the actress sank into the deep chasm of Ruth Fowler, where stubbornness, pride, grief, and rage eat away at a calm exterior. It's the kind of internal performance that looks easy but is one of the hardest things for an actor to pull off-- to subtly reveal a character's buried emotions in a way that feels truthful and resonates with audiences. Spacek again proves herself a master at this fine art.

-- Jamie Painter Young

For this role, Spacek won an AFI Award, a Golden Globe, and prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle, and she is nominated for an Academy Award, a British Academy Award, and an Independent Spirit Award.

Renee Zellweger

Bridget Jones's Diary

Kids across the country may have been breathless this year, waiting to find out whose was the face of Harry Potter, but women across the world will tell you that the most important casting question of 2001 was: Who's going to be Bridget Jones? For once, American actors got a little of their own back as Renee Zellweger crossed the Pond to pull off this British icon of independent but insecure Gen-X womanhood with panache.

Her performance has many of the things awards-givers seem to adore: physical transformation (the pounds-- or stone, shall we say-- that she put on), the flawless dialect. But, most impressively, Zellweger has again proven-- as she did in Nurse Betty and Jerry Maguire-- that she was made in the mold of the classic comediennes. Like Lucille Ball, Zellweger could have just banked on her beauty, moving from ingenues to leading ladies, but she must have recognized that there's more to life than just a pretty face. Good looks can ultimately be a liability; a sense of humor takes you further. Zellweger has been fearless in allowing herself to look ridiculous on-screen. And this isn't the cheap and easy cruelty of Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit: Whether sliding down a fireman's pole or stumbling through a book-signing introduction, Zellweger as Jones is humanly ludicrous, and unashamed of it. And, as with Bridget, it's this courage that makes her all the more attractive.

-- Scott Proudfit

For this role, Zellweger was nominated for a Golden Globe and is nominated for an Academy Award, a British Academy Award, and a Golden Globe.

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