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Best Actress: a close race

In the "best actress" competition, this year's strongest contender is Sally Field in "Norma Rae." It's a strong and gritty performance, with little glamour but loads of energy, in a movie that's respected as a sincere statement about the tribulations of unorthodoxy in a factory town. If Miss Field does walk away with the Oscar, it will be a fit and proper victory.

Yet there is hefty competition. Jane Fonda also combines a strong performance with a sense of commitment in "The China Syndrome," and Marsha Mason is uncommonly close to reality in "Chapter Two," where she plays an actress (like herself) who marries a widowed writer (like her husband, Neil simon). Jill Clayburgh, nominated for "Starting Over," may have momentum left over from "An Unmarried Woman," where she made enormous impact. And don't forget Bette Midler in "The Rose" -- a long shot in a mediocre movie, but a possibility nonetheless.

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To a degree, this year's competition is muddled by the fact that several major performances are buried in the "supporting actress" category. Consider Meryl Streep in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan." The roles themselves are not very large, but they have made an impression on the moviegoing public that's out of proportion to their size. Similarly, Candice Bergen does the best work of her career in "Starting Over," in which she plays an ex-wife who become an excruciatingly poor pop singer.

As for Jane Alexander in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and Barbara Barrie in "Breaking Away," these are roles closer to the usual "supporting actress" mold, yet they are first-rate all the same. It's a full slate of eager contenders. At this point, anyone could pull into the lead.

Next week -- best screenplaym


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