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Viola Davis and Meryl Streep lead best actress Oscar

Meryl Streep arrives at the 16th annual Screen

Meryl Streep arrives at the 16th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. (January 23, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

This year's race for the best actress Oscar comes down to two front-runners. Meryl Streep, as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," just won the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama -- an award that has predicted seven of the past 10 Oscars. Viola Davis, playing a maid in the deep South in "The Help," just won the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding leading actress -- which has the exact same track record. So why does Davis have the advantage? Read on.

THE ACTRESS Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"

THE DEAL Close is genuinely moving as a woman passing for a man in this richly detailed period film. But it was a low-flying latecomer to the race and still hasn't built much momentum.

THE ACTRESS Viola Davis, "The Help"

THE DEAL There's a sense that the Oscars erred in passing Davis over for her star-making turn in 2008's "Doubt." That and the emotional resonance of her role in "The Help" make her the leading contender this year.

THE ACTRESS Rooney Mara, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

THE DEAL A terrific honor for this starlet, but it's mostly a referendum on her future. The role of a Swedish goth-punk won't win her the award, though the nomination might make her a star.

THE ACTRESS Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"

THE DEAL Streep's acting isn't in question -- Is it ever? -- but the movie struck critics and audiences alike as middling at best. Her win at the Globes, while not undeserved, seemed merely like a safe choice.

THE ACTRESS Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"

THE DEAL Despite the pre-release buzz for Williams as tragic screen siren Marilyn Monroe, mixed reviews ultimately pushed her toward the back of the pack. Her miscategorized Globe award, for best comedic actress, probably won't help.

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