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Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series

Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters

Brothers & Sisters lost the services of its creator, award-winning playwright Jon Robin Baitz, as a result of the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, which provided the producers with a contractual loophole allowing them to dismiss him. Since then, the show has had an ever-increasing scent of soap about it, reaching a nadir with ludicrous simultaneous plot twists involving Rebecca, the illegitimate daughter of the deceased Walker family patriarch, who conveniently turned out not to be his daughter after all (so that she can have a romantic relationship with his son Justin), and another illegitimate child, a son this time, suddenly discovered (and by yet another mother).

The redoubtable Sally Field has had to navigate this slippery terrain in her role as Nora Walker, and she has done so with her customary grace and authority. Revisiting the emotions Nora felt when betrayed by her husband's infidelity and dishonesty, Field avoided replaying the earlier feelings, emphasizing instead the grit and hard-won maturity in Nora that have allowed her to move on with her life. Nora also conducted a serious romantic flirtation with her senator son-in-law's former security chief, played by Danny Glover, during which her girlish delight and womanly wisdom were on delightfully simultaneous display.

Field remains adept at limning Nora's many contradictions: a loving, supportive mother who can also be harshly judgmental; a highly intelligent woman with a surprising lack of self-knowledge; a widow who insists on standing on her own while sometimes encouraging her children to treat her as if she were helpless. Now in the middle of Season 3, Field knows her character so well that even in scripts of uncertain quality she manages to rivet our attention with this fascinating, complex, irresistible woman.

For this role, Sally Field won an Emmy Award in 2007 and was nominated in 2008. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 2008 and this year. She was nominated for a SAG Award in 2008 for Brothers & Sisters and in 1995 for Forrest Gump, in 1996 for A Woman of Independent Means, in 2000 for A Cool Climate, and in 2001 for David Copperfield and ER.

Erik Haagensen

Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

One might think that after 10 years as NYPD Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay would be delivering performances that are flat and repetitive. But while some of the story lines are just that, Hargitay brings ingenuity and vibrancy to her portrayal.

She continues to give Benson a delicacy and grace, the same qualities the detective brings to her cases' victims. But Hargitay brilliantly animates every facet of her character in a way that makes Benson both relatable and inspiring. When investigating a crime scene or interrogating a suspect, she is quick, sharp, and poignant; when soothing a young victim, she is intuitive and nurturing. She can also be fierce, and Hargitay switches among the qualities with such ease that we don't think about how pingponging from one extreme to another must affect Benson's personal life.

Whether visually dramatic or understated, Hargitay fully embodies the multilayered character. She'll clench her jaw, and dedicated viewers know exactly what she's feeling and whose side she's on. She'll scan the room, and we can see the depth of emotion in her eyes. She'll steal a glance at her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and we can almost hear her thoughts. It's a measured performance, and whether those measures are large or small, Hargitay's recipe works.

For this role, Mariska Hargitay was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2004, 2005, and 2008, and winning in 2006. She also won a Golden Globe in 2005 and was nominated again this year. She was nominated for a SAG Award in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

Jessyca Dewey

Holly Hunter, Saving Grace

Oklahoma City police detective Grace Hanadarko never does anything halfway. Whether she's busting criminals or indulging in one of her many vices — copious drinking, inappropriate men — she dives in headfirst, never second-guessing, never looking back. The same could be said of Holly Hunter's blazing performance as Grace. Hunter commits fully to every single one of Grace's foibles, to her mood swings and penchant for getting into trouble. She makes the character a dizzying force of nature: impossible to keep up with, yet we feel the need to be there for every step of her journey.

Hunter also lets us know that Grace has a gentle side, channeling her tenderness with ease. Grace's love for friends and family and her undeniable affection for scruffy angel Earl (Leon Rippy) are just as crucial to the character as her unabashed hedonism, and Hunter expertly brings this quality to many of the show's smaller moments: a scene with a badly burned boy, for instance, in which Grace entertains him with a magic trick involving a paper straw wrapper. It's a brief scene, but Hunter infuses it with such warmth, such gentleness, that we remember it long after the episode is over.

But the duality of Grace's character is perhaps best explored in her tumultuous romantic relationship with her married detective partner, Ham (Kenny Johnson). When Ham suffers a devastating family tragedy, Grace does her best to be there for him in her own way. Hunter ably conveys the multiple conflicts within their relationship, showing us that although Grace finds it nearly impossible to commit, she also can't hide the depth of her feelings. The texture Hunter brings to her performance ensures that we are completely mesmerized by Grace's seemingly endless path of self-destruction — yet we also feel for her so deeply, we just want everything to work out for her in the end.

For this role, Holly Hunter was nominated in 2008 for a SAG Award, an Emmy Award, and a Golden Globe. She was nominated for a SAG Award in 2004 for Thirteen.

Sarah Kuhn

Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men

Much of the drama on Mad Men, AMC's brilliantly nuanced portrait of ad execs in the 1960s, takes place just beneath the surface. Characters reveal themselves in the most subtle ways: in an aside, a look, a subtle change in intonation. As up-and-coming copywriter Peggy Olson, Elisabeth Moss does more with these tiny shifts than some actors accomplish with pages and pages of dialogue.

There's a classic Peggy moment in Season 2 when she decides to start calling her much-admired mentor, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), by his first name. It's a simple thing, a single line, "Thank you, Don," but Moss, smiling a serene Mona Lisa smile, lets us know this is a very big deal for Peggy, something she feels she's finally earned.

As Peggy continues to make her way in what is still very much a man's world, Season 2 also deals with the aftermath of the secret baby she delivered at the end of Season 1. In one of the shattering climactic scenes of Season 2, Peggy finally confesses to her former lover Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), explaining that she had the baby and gave it away. Moss runs the gamut of emotions in the scene, capturing everything that's going on in Peggy's psyche with aching precision: halting regret, steely resolve, the need to be perfectly, brutally honest. Her voice wavers but never cracks, and Moss conveys that Peggy is allowing herself to be vulnerable in a way she almost never does. As Peggy turns to leave, she places a comforting hand on her ex-lover's shoulder — a small gesture that somehow speaks volumes and, thanks to Moss' mastery of the character, leaves Pete and the audience completely devastated.

Elisabeth Moss was nominated for a SAG Award in 2008 as a member of the Mad Men ensemble. She is also nominated this year as a member of the show's ensemble.

Sarah Kuhn

Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

When it comes to wrangling a confession with panache, no one does it quite like Kyra Sedgwick's Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson. As soon as Johnson sits down across from a suspect in that familiar LAPD interrogation room, we know it's over. She can play it earnestly sweet or tough as nails or both — whatever's most likely to crack the case. Sedgwick imbues Brenda with such intuition, we have no problem believing that on the job she's a master of human relations.

Of course, it's a different story when it comes to Brenda's personal life. Sedgwick cleverly shows us this side as well: the woman who tries to accommodate her overly doting parents (Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen) and drags her feet when it comes to setting a wedding date with her FBI agent fiancĂŠ, Fritz (Jon Tenney). In one of this season's most memorable Brenda-Fritz scenes, she gently rebuffs his queries about buying a bigger house together. The real issue is children, and Sedgwick lets us know, without ever uttering the words, that Brenda doesn't want any. It's a weighted scene, full of delicate looks and emotional subtext, and in lesser hands it could have easily come off as overwrought. But Sedgwick — ably aided by Tenney — maintains the balance, her face falling into a sad, grateful smile of relief as Fritz accepts Brenda's feelings on the matter.

Four seasons into the series, Sedgwick continues to show us new dimensions of this utterly winning character.

For this role, Kyra Sedgwick received a Golden Globe Award in 2007, was nominated in 2006 and 2008, and was nominated again this year. She was nominated for an Emmy in 2006, 2007, and 2008. She was nominated for a SAG Award individually in 2006, 2007, and 2008 and as part of the show's ensemble in 2006 and 2008. She is also nominated for a SAG Award this year as a member of the ensemble.

Sarah Kuhn

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