LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's Oscar race is only about six weeks old, but already one theme is emerging: unlike most years when men dominate the critical buzz for strong roles, this season women are the talk of the town.
From previous Oscar winners such as Nicole Kidman and big stars like Annette Bening to newcomers such as Jennifer Lawrence, women are tearing it up on the big screen. Some Oscar watchers see as many as 15 possible contenders for five best actress nominations.
The experts cite several reasons for what may be dubbed "The Year of the Actress" at Oscar time in February. Chief among them is that many of the strong female stories are making it onto film because the women themselves have greater clout to get their pet film projects made.
"Not only are women taking center stage, they are dominating the stage entirely," said Tom O'Neil, awards expert for TheEnvelope.com.
The Oscars, of course, are the world's top film honors, and pundits begin handicapping the awards categories, based on screenings at film festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, which generally begin in late August and early September.
Most years when it comes time for some 6,000 voters at the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Arts and Sciences to pick winners, Academy watchers have a difficult time narrowing down the best actor category because generally three or four, if not all five nominees have turned in strong performances.
Best actress, however, typically narrows more easily because often times there is just one or two favorites. Last year, for instance, Sandra Bullock faced very little competition when she picked up the statuette for her role in football film, "The Blind Side."
"Normally with the actress race, you scramble to find three good ones," said Pete Hammond, awards columnist with Deadline Hollywood. "You're looking at women who may not even get nominated this year, while in a lesser year they may have very well won."
A variety of themes in movies are giving numerous women a shot. Notions of what a family truly means dominate comedy "The Kids Are All Right," which has Bening and Julianne Moore playing a lesbian couple raising a pair of teens.
Briton Sally Hawkins portrays a "Norma Rae"-type factory worker with a mission to get women equal pay in "Made in Dagenham," and Natalie Portman won raves at September's Venice film festival playing a vengeful ballerina in director Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan."
Kidman is a grieving mother whose young son dies accidentally in "Rabbit Hole," and Michelle Williams is a woman who wants out of her marriage in "My Blue Valentine." Lawrence is turning heads as a teen left alone to fend for her younger siblings in drug drama "Winter's Bone."
And the list goes on: Anne Hathaway ("Love and Other Drugs"), Lesley Manville ("Another Year"), Gwyneth Paltrow ("Country Strong") and Naomi Watts ("Fair Game").
Making the 2010 best actress race even more interesting is that many of the roles are being judged independently from their male counterparts, said O'Neil.
That phenomenon contrast to recent wins by actresses such as Reese Witherspoon, who took home an Oscar for playing June Carter to Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" (2005) or Hilary Swank, who played a boxer in "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) opposite Clint Eastwood as her coach.
Hammond pointed out that many of the roles come out of movies made independently from Hollywood's big studios and the actresses have been instrumental in finding funding.
Moore, for example, championed "Kids are All Right" for five years while its makers looked for financing and was instrumental in bringing actor Mark Ruffalo on board.
Kidman read a review of the stage play "Rabbit Hole," which prompted her to pursue the project as a film adaptation. She became a producer and personally enlisted Aaron Eckhart to play her husband.
"They're getting these passion projects made that would otherwise never see the light of day," said Hammond.
So this year, when Oscar nominations open up, the Academy will have plenty of women to choose from, and the big question won't be, "who is in?" Rather, it will be "who is out?"
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte