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Women on the verge 

Are Hollywood and Oscar finally getting femme-friendly?

It has become a kind of mantra in Hollywood. Actresses terminally complain that in an industry where beauty and superficiality are well-represented, women just don't get the kind of meaty, bold, convention-defying roles that their male counterparts do. Or as a recent New York Times Magazine profile of the indie-film sensation Vera Farmiga notes, "The studios have become noticeably more stingy in the opportunities they present for actresses."

But it may only be because Hollywood is playing a late game of catch-up with independent cinema, whose energy, creativity and writing has been increasingly stealing the mainstream's thunder.

Times seem to be changing in Hollywood. Testifying to a new Hollywood recognition of strong female performances driven by an indie sensibility, the Academy recently has handed out Best Actress statuettes for some memorably gritty performances: Charlize Theron playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), Hilary Swank as a young woman cross-dressing as a boy in Boys Don't Cry (1999), and Halle Berry as a grief-stricken Southern woman in Monster's Ball (2001).

Say what you will about the relative merits of 2006's crop of Academy Award-nominated films; this year's female nominees comprise an impressive group that leans heavily toward women of a certain age and performances -- especially in the Best Actress category -- with an extraordinary amount of complexity and chutzpah.

There is the steely, nuanced Helen Mirren, 61, as Elizabeth II in The Queen whose subjects have rejected her matriarchal leadership for the more vulnerable victim/princess Di. In Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench, 72, delivers the kind of withering one-liners formerly heard from film noir detectives and teenage misanthropes but rarely dropped from the lips of such a vintage dame. Even Meryl Streep, 57, in the fluffiest role among them as real-life fashion editor Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada, brought a depth and gravitas to a character who was a shallow, one-note shrew in book form. Not to be outdone, even the relative young'uns in the category managed to bring sensuality and substance to the most thankless film role on record: the mother. Despite endless discussion of Penélope Cruz's ass prosthesis in Volver, the earthiness and womanly charm she brought to Pedro Almodóvar's film was all her own. Kate Winslet in Little Children conveyed some of the loneliness and alienation of suburban motherhood.

But it wasn’t just art-house and Hollywood actresses who shone this year. It was an equally notable year for actresses in on-the-margins indie films. Though Ryan Gosling is nominated for an Oscar category in Half Nelson many noted the equally praiseworthy but Academy-ignored performance by the film’s astounding newcomer, Shareeka Epps. The 17-year-old Epps was singled out by critics for her precocious, sympathetic turn as an eighth-grader living in a depressing sliver of Brooklyn with no real options. Another brilliant turn by very young actresses came from Ivana Baquero as the little girl confronting imagined and real-life monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth, a moving Emily Rios in Quinceañera, and a poignant portrait of directionless longing by Abbie Cornish in the Aussie indie Somersault.

In indie and art-house cinema this year, actresses ate nails, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, who in Sherrybaby offered a brutally real portrait of a woman recently released from jail, and brought a sense of urgency and also generated a great deal of empathy for a character seemingly hardwired to self-destruct. Gyllenhaal set the high-water mark for an indie year dominated by damaged women. This group includes Gretchen Mol, who brought both dignity and a self-defined sensuality to her turn as the hipster's favorite pinup in the overlooked The Notorious Bettie Page.

Laura Dern also did damaged well and proved able to handle the multiple changes of emotion required in playing dual roles in David Lynch's Inland Empire. Both Dern, 40, and Charlotte Rampling, 61 (a standout as a jaded sex-tourist in 1980s-era Haiti in Heading South), illustrate a growth industry this year in roles for women beyond ingenue-age. Hopefully, that trend will continue to trickle up to Hollywood.

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