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Nicole nose vs Renee legs

Los Angeles, March 13 (Reuters): Nicole did it by hiding herself behind a false nose and a dowdy hairdo. Renee got there by showing off her legs plus her previously unknown talents as a singer and dancer.

Both women defied expectations and both are now front-runners in the race for one of Hollywood’s most prestigious prizes, the Oscar for best performance by an actress — an honour neither has won before. “I think the best actress Oscar race this year is a classic Hollywood cliffhanger,” said Oscar pundit Tom O’Neil, who runs fan website http://www.goldderby.com.

“While it appeared that Nicole Kidman had been literally in front by a nose, there was a wake-up call from Renee Zellweger at the Screen Actors Guild awards, and a scary one,” O’Neil said.

Zellweger, 33, pulled off a surprise on Sunday by winning the SAG best actress award for her role as a high-kicking murderess in the musical Chicago, despite having no formal training as a dancer and no singing experience other than in the privacy of her own shower.

“She plays against type. She is somebody who sang and danced surprisingly well, and this is a Renee we have never seen before. Renee has two things going for her — the Chicago bandwagon and the SAG win,” said O’Neil.

Yet with 10 days to go before the March 23 Oscar ceremony, no-one is writing off Kidman, whose searing performance as the suicidal English writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours has already won her a Golden Globe and a British Bafta award.

Kidman, 35, earned sympathy for the dignity she displayed during an agonising divorce from actor Tom Cruise. Now she is riding a wave of support that started with the 2001 thriller The Others, soared after fantasy musical Moulin Rouge and culminated in The Hours where she is unrecognisable as the glamorous redhead who has become a fashion and box-office icon.

Kidman narrowly missed out on an Oscar last year when Halle Berry made history as the first African-American to win the best actress statuette.

“I do think it is Nicole’s year in Academy terms. My feeling is that Nicole will be a sentimental favourite with the Academy at large,” said Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel.

“Oscar loves actors who do one of two things — and she hit both of them. They like it when you play crazy or disturbed, and they love it when you put on a bunch of make-up. It looks like real acting,” said Schickel.

Julianne Moore, 42, has also had a banner year and looked a hot favourite after being nominated both as best actress (Far From Heaven) and best supporting actress (The Hours). Yet despite picking up a slew of awards from movie critics, Moore’s star, at least in the best actress category, appears to have faded over the home stretch.

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