By William Paul Jones

With the Golden Globes a now a swiftly-fading memory, eyes turn to the Oscars, and with it one of the most anticipated awards showdowns of the year, the Best Actress battle between Annette Bening and Natalie Portman.

While official nominations for the Oscars aren’t being released until the 25th, there is no doubt that Bening will get a nod for her work in The Kids Are All Right, the story of a middle-aged lesbian couple raising two delightful teenagers who get it into their heads to befriend their biological father, the sperm donor that none of them have ever met.  The film garnered several nominations at the Golden Globes.

Portman, on the other hand, is the main star weight behind the critical powerhouse Black Swan, recently released and still the talk of the town.  A barely-disguised retelling of the story of the ballet Swan Lake, the film follows two rival ballerinas as they gradually go nuts-balls crazy and suffer violent psychotic breakdowns.  Directed by mighty man Darren Aronofsky, the film is shameless Oscar bait of the most riveting kind, and seems to be doing a great job of rallying support.

As the frontrunners for the Best Actress award this year, the two women have a sort of fire and ice dichotomy that mini-series are made of.  It’s a battle of ages, of genres, even of artistic classes.  Bening is a conservatory actor with a wealth of training and experience, while Portman started as a child actor after being discovered by a modeling agent in a pizza parlor (lesson: hopeful models should still eat pizza; diets are for failures).  Portman’s performance is the most dire melodrama, stacked against Bening’s lighthearted family dramady.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Bening has already lost Best Actress bids twice to a younger, breakout starlet (Hilary Swank both times, in 1999 and 2004), so she’s either due for a win or tends to lose, depending on your persuasion of spin.  On the other hand, Portman lost her one and only Oscar shot to the older, more experienced Cate Blanchet in 2004 for Best Supporting Actress, when Portman was nominated for Closer.

So, with both of these women coming in with a track record of losing to the type of actress the other represents, who holds the edge?  Bening surely has the Hollywood old guard on her side, and not just because of her age; with three previous nominations (the other was for 1990’s The Grifters for Supporting Actress) and no wins, the Academy has to feel that she finally deserves a statue.  However, Portman has a natural charisma that has served her well through a fairly tumultuous career and kept her out of the titflesh starlet pigeonhole even after the “Star Wars” prequels and “V for Vendetta.”  No mean feat.  Portman also has the advantage of being young and gorgeous, which is never an advantage to be overlooked.  Oh, and pregnant.  Nothing ropes in a sympathy vote like a parasitic fetus sucking up your food supply all tapeworm-like.

Both women played lesbians in their respective parts (or at least Portman went to town on a ravishing Mila Kunis, so… that’s kinda lesbian?), but Bening undeniably portrayed lesbianism in the way that the majority of the gay community can get behind.  Unless of course you take the stance that most lesbians like seeing their most intimate acts reduced to weapons of Machiavellian psycho-drama.  So, major points for Bening there.

Portman might also take some minor hits for her classless Golden Globes acceptance speech (Yeah, Natalie, EVERYONE wants to sleep with you… You don’t have to brag about it), and the recent release of her why-god-why romantic comedy No Strings Attached.  But can that knock her down enough?  Does the negative of ‘slutty doctor’ outweight the positive of ‘pregnant, adorable heartthrob?’

What it may very well come down to is genre. Black Swan is fairly dripping with the torrid dramatic breast milk that the Academy feeds upon daily, while The Kids Are All Right, as a movie where people sometimes actually smile, isn’t really Oscar fare.

It seems that Bening’s only hope is to pull a Denzel… That is, to appeal to the Academy’s sense of nostalgia and win not for her performance in this one movie, but symbolically for all her past movies (like Denzel Washington did with his win for Training Day).  The sad fact is that, despite how grand of an actress she is and how wonderful her performance was, Bening just has too many cards stacked against her this time.

Fight on, Annette.  You deserve this one.