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Bening Steps Up, Leo Stumbles -- Uncertainty in Oscar's Actress Races?

The men's winners seem preordained; if there's to be an Oscar upset, it might be up to the women

If there are any surprises in the acting races at this year's Oscars, they're obviously going to have to come from the women.

On the male side, forget it. Colin Firth has Best Actor locked up; at this point, there's just no way that enough votes will go to the Oscar host or the guy who won last year or the Spaniard or the Facebook kid who once seemed to have a shot at fast-talking his way to an upset.

In Supporting Actor, Christian Bale is almost as undeniable as Christoph Waltz was last year; only a massive "King's Speech" sweep could keep him from (reluctantly, one assumes) climbing those stairs to the Kodak stage.

Melissa LeoAs for the women … well, maybe, just maybe, there's room for an upset or two. Melissa Leo may be the favorite for "The Fighter," but taking out her own glam ads (sample left) makes her appear a bit desperate, which hardly befits a frontrunner.

Leo has said that the ads are about showing a different side of herself and getting opportunities as a 50-year-old actress in a tough industry for women her age; it'd be rough if her perceived show of weakness opens the door for the youngest nominee, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld.

And then there's the Best Actress race, where  a presumed two-person battle between  Natalie Portman ("Black Swan") and Annette Bening ("The Kids Are All Right") has gone to Portman through virtually all of the early rounds.

Clearly, Portman's is the showier role – and while the actress was not as ubiquitous as many others on the campaign trail, she was more accessible than Bening for much of awards season. But now, with Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG wins behind her, the pregnant Portman is starting to lay low.

Annette BeningBening, meanwhile, is stepping up. With husband Warren Beatty by her side most of the way (an everpresent reminder that she's Hollywood royalty), Bening received an award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in late January, and since then she's begun to make TV appearances and do Q&As.

She got a bigger round of applause than Portman at Monday's Nominees Luncheon (right; photo by Darren Decker/AMPAS), though I think that's less a function of popularity than of fatigue: with 150 nominees called to the stage in alphabetical order, people's hands are getting pretty tired by the time they get to the Ps.

Still, Bening is popular, and she used that popularity later on Monday to draw a full house to the Laemmle Music Hall on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, across the street from Academy headquarters where she sits on the board of governors.

In a half-hour Q&A between screenings of "The Kids Are All Right" and "The Grifters," Bening was typically composed and articulate; you don’t get emotional fireworks or tearful confessions from her, but thoughtful dissections of acting that referenced Stanislavsky's "moments of tragic inaction" and frequent glances to her husband in the front row.

Bening said that when she started auditioning, she was "comfortable when I had a script" but lost when directors expected her to be herself; that she was "terrified" working with Milos Forman on her first big movie, "Valmont"; and that she fell in love with the "Kids Are All Right" script because "it was beautiful and had a real classic structure to it."

Although the new movie was the focus, the interview was structured to cover Bening's entire career – because, let's face it, her play to Oscar voters is that in addition to a seamless performance in "Kids," she has a 20-plus-year history of deserving work.

Will it be enough to edge past Portman?  I'd say that's still a longshot, though Team Bening has revved up the engines and is counting on widespread AMPAS goodwill to help her pull off an upset.

"She's due" is a tough card to play at the Oscars these days; just ask Meryl Streep, who has now 12 consecutive nominations since her last win, most of them resulting in losses to younger actresses in flashier roles.

But Bening, for the moment, appears to be relishing the chance to tighten the race and enjoy her fourth nomination.

"It's like having children," she said of the Oscar nods. "The more you have, the better it gets."