Though you’ll have to wait until the end of the night to find out for sure, this year’s best actress field is probably the easiest to judge of all the acting categories.

Sarah Royce
Reese Witherspoon with Joaquin Phoenix in “Walk the Line.” (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

The clear frontrunner is Reese Witherspoon, as Johnny Cash’s unshakable companion June Carter in “Walk the Line.” Though the film’s best picture buzz fizzled once it was released, both lead actors garnered nominations. Witherspoon’s costar, Joaquin Phoenix, might be the most deserving in his category, but he’s likely to lose in the face of immaculate performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger. His probable loss will only help Witherspoon’s already-strong chance at nabbing the award, as the Academy will look to make up for his snub.

What made Witherspoon’s performance far and away the best is the natural calm and charm she maintained throughout the movie, even during the emotionally draining sequences. Engulfed in the ups and downs of Johnny Cash’s life, June Carter is thrust into the film’s many trying circumstances. Yet Witherspoon’s portrayal remains fresh and uncontrived. She makes her character shine with an appropriately Southern aura; her performance is authentic and touching. She’s as we would imagine June Carter – strong, resilient and almost glowing with grace.

The “It’s-such-an-honor-just-to-be-nominated” inclusion in this category is Keira Knightley, whose performance as Elizabeth Bennett, the headstrong, independent young focus of “Pride & Prejudice,” was overshadowed by her costars. As laudable as Knightley’s step into Jane Austen’s most enduring classic is, the Academy will have a hard time forgetting that she could very well also be the worst actress of the year in her other role as bounty hunter/model, Domino Harvey in “Domino.”

While Knightley and Judi Dench (“Mrs. Henderson Presents”) appear destined to clap politely and look away from the camera when the award is announced March 5, Charlize Theron is a strong dark horse for her touching portrayal of a trailblazing single mother/coal miner in “North Country.” Her film was a commendable project the Academy may want to reward either with Theron or best supporting actress nominee Francis McDormand. Theron is the only one among the year’s field to have won a best actress award before; she won two years ago for her stunning transformation in “Monster” and there’s an outside chance she could upset Witherspoon and join the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jodie Foster and Hillary Swank on the short list of women who have won the award multiple times.

That said, it appears as if Witherspoon’s only real challenge will come from Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica”), better known for her role in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Huffman snagged the best actress in a motion picture drama award at the Golden Globes, but it seems unlikely that she will beat Witherspoon head to head (at the Golden Globes, Witherspoon’s nomination was in the musical or comedy category). Yet the Academy loves risk takers, and Huffman’s portrayal of a transsexual struggling to find inner peace certainly meets that criteria.

With limited competition from Huffman and Theron, and none from Dench and Knightley, expect an overjoyed, overwhelmed Witherspoon to tearfully take the stage and fumble through a heartfelt acceptance on Oscar night.

Oscar Race 2006 Best Actress
Judi Dench mrs. henderson presents
Felicity Huffman transamerica
Kiera Knightley pride & prejudice
Charlize Theron north country
Reese Witherspoon walk the line

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