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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 17:36 GMT
In profile: Best actress nominees
It's the battle of the dames as favourite Dame Helen Mirren goes head-to-head with Dame Judi Dench and Meryl Streep - America's first lady of the screen.

Perennial Oscar bridesmaid Kate Winslet and first-time nominee Penelope Cruz fly the flag for the younger generation in their bid to bring home Oscar.

PENELOPE CRUZ - VOLVER

Penelope Cruz in Volver
Cruz won a best actress award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival

Though Cruz's Oscar nomination may come as a surprise to those who first came upon the actress in the much-anticipated but lamentable Captain Corelli's Mandolin, fans in Spain know differently.

The 32-year-old actress has been a star in her native country since her revealing film debut in the 1992 erotic comedy Jamon, Jamon.

Born in Madrid, to a shopkeeper and a hairdresser, Cruz trained as a ballet dancer before catching the acting bug.

Her Mediterranean good looks won her many admirers, but it was not until her performance in Pedro Almodovar's Carne Tremula (Live Flesh) that her talent became apparent.

Alejandro Amenabar's Abre Los Ojos (later remade in Hollywood as Vanilla Sky) won her further plaudits, but it was her role as a wayward nun in Almodovar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) that brought her to Hollywood's attention.

The move to Tinseltown brought her celebrity boyfriends - notably Tom Cruise, whom she met on the set of Vanilla Sky just as his marriage to Nicole Kidman was collapsing.

But while it advanced her fame, it did her talent no favours. Her English-language performances proved halting and unconvincing, and she was reduced to playing eye candy in films like Blow and Sahara.

Ironically, it took a return to Spain and director Almodovar to secure her first Oscar nomination as the troubled single mother coming to terms with her past.

"The most difficult thing in the world is to start a career known only for your looks, and then to try to become a serious actress," Cruz once said.

With Volver, she may finally have turned the tide.

DAME JUDI DENCH - NOTES ON A SCANDAL

Dame Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal
Dame Judi co-stars with fellow Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett

Dame Judi is no stranger to the Oscars. Indeed, the actress has become as ubiquitous as her rival Meryl Streep - with six nominations in less than a decade.

This includes the best supporting actress Oscar she won for her cameo role as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love in 1999.

Long celebrated at home, Hollywood recognition came relatively late for the 72-year-old actress.

Dame Judi, who was born to a family with acting connections in York, has won nine Bafta awards in a career that has spanned half a century.

Awarded the prestigious Companion of Honour in 2005, she is regarded as a first-class stage actress.

Her comedic presence on the small screen, in TV sitcoms A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By, has also garnered awards.

But her first Oscar nomination did not come until 1998, for her role as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown.

Chocolat, Iris and Mrs Henderson Presents secured the actress subsequent nominations.

Ironically, however, it is her role as M in the Bond films that has won the actress worldwide attention.

She claims she takes roles "because someone asked me to", but her turn as an embittered schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal only serves to emphasise her versatility.

DAME HELEN MIRREN - THE QUEEN

Dame Helen Mirren in The Queen
Dame Helen was the first choice of director Stephen Frears

So laden with awards is Dame Helen Mirren for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II that missing out on the ultimate film prize would be a shock akin to Crash stealing the spoils from Brokeback Mountain last year.

The 61-year-old actress, feted in the UK for her TV role as detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, has never won an Oscar.

Her two nominations, in the supporting actress category, include Gosford Park and The Madness of King George - in which she played Queen Charlotte, another royal role.

Indeed, monarchs are proving something of a talisman for Dame Helen, with a double win at the Golden Globes for The Queen and her title role in Channel 4 drama Elizabeth I.

Yet the outspoken Mirren, whose early career was marked by a disregard for propriety and a penchant for nudity, initially seemed an unlikely choice to play the British monarch.

Roles in films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, The Long Good Friday and even 2003's Calendar Girls seemed a world way from playing the Queen.

Married to Californian director Taylor Hackford, whose films include An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray, the pair have settled in Los Angeles - a far cry from Windsor.

But the actress has stunned critics with her vulnerable yet dignified performance, gaining stature and statuettes as the film awards season has progressed.

She even dedicated her award to the monarch herself at the recent Golden Globe awards. "I think you fell in love with her, not me," she told the assembled audience.

It was a regal gesture that cemented her bid for the Oscar crown - a crown that looks to be hers for the taking.

MERYL STREEP - THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada
Streep can currently be seen in the late Robert Altman's last film

Oscar favourite Meryl Streep racks up her 14th nomination with her performance as bitchy magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep's reputation has been built on an almost uncanny ability to inhabit her characters.

But the 57-year-old actress appears to be anything but a diva. The mother-of-four is known for her down-to-earth attitude and is beloved by actors and directors alike.

"I really, really depend on the other actors for the confirmation of who I think I am," said the star of Out of Africa and The Deer Hunter.

She has twice won the Oscar - as best supporting actress in 1979's Kramer vs Kramer, and as best actress in the harrowing Sophie's Choice (1983).

But while it is her dramatic work that has invariably been singled out, recent years have revealed a keen grasp of comedy.

With nominations for 2002's Adaptation and her current performance in The Devil Wears Prada - which won the actress her sixth Golden Globe in January - it seems even the Academy is coming round to a more light-hearted Streep.

KATE WINSLET - LITTLE CHILDREN

Kate Winslet in Little Children
Winslet is the youngest actress to earn five Oscar nominations

Despite earning her fifth Oscar nomination, Oscar bridesmaid Kate Winslet has yet to win an Academy Award - and the 2007 gong looks like a long-shot.

Winslet gives another powerful performance as a disillusiioned suburban mother in Todd Field's Little Children, effortlessly adopting an American accent and proving once again why she is arguably the best actress of her generation.

The 31-year-old has delivered consistently strong performances since her memorable film debut in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures in 1994.

Initially her success in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility - which won her her first Oscar nomination - suggested she might end up, like Helena Bonham Carter, corseted to period drama.

Then came Titanic, which launched Winslet in Hollywood - earning her another Oscar nomination and making her the youngest actress to ever receive two Academy nods.

But constant press attention about her weight saw Winslet shake off her newfound fame and dive into indie movie Hideous Kinky, where she met first husband James Threapleton.

She resurfaced on the Academy's radar with 2001's Iris, in which she co-starred with Oscar rival Dame Judi Dench - and, in 2005, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Now in her thirties, with a newfound confidence, the mother-of-two has settled down with American Beauty director Sam Mendes.

"I don't believe that actors and actresses should look perfect in movies," she told the BBC. "It's important to hang on to the sense of reality."


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