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By Stephen Farber

Feb 17, 2010, 06:53 PM ET

Meryl or Sandra?

The race for best actress is proving to be one of the tightest and most interesting head-to-head matchups in recent Oscar history. Will the Academy embrace Meryl Streep, whose record 16th nomination comes for her remarkable portrayal of chef Julia Child in “Julie & Julia”? Or will voters prefer Sandra Bullock, who garnered her very first nom for channeling real-life Good Samaritan Leigh Anne Tuohy?

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Early in the season, Streep was the front-runner to nab her third Oscar and her first since 1983 (when she won for “Sophie’s Choice”). Her performance as Child delighted audiences and critics, and she won the best actress prize from the New York Film Critics and Broadcast Film Critics.

Bullock, by contrast, came from, well, the blind side. She was not included on any early lists of contenders and did not win any awards from major critics’ groups.

“No one was talking about ‘The Blind Side’ — or about ‘Crazy Heart,’ either,” says Bonnie Arnold, producer of “The Last Station,” which features best actress nominee Helen Mirren. “Those movies were completely under the radar.”

But the double-whammy of “The Blind Side” becoming a huge boxoffice success ($240 million and counting) and Bullock scoring a Golden Globe nomination in December quickly turned her into a serious contender.

The battle heated up when both Bullock and Streep won best actress trophies at the Globes, for drama and comedy/musical, respectively. The race at that point was too close to call.

Bullock, who has always been a well-liked figure in Hollywood, has since been gamely supporting the film and her performance at several awards season events. Streep, on the other hand, rarely does press or attends industry functions. When Bullock took home the SAG Award and “The Blind Side” scored a surprise best picture Oscar nomination, Bullock became a slight front-runner for the Oscar, though Streep cannot be counted out.

Among the other nominees, Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) was an early strong contender when the National Board of Review named her best actress. But since then, she has been upstaged by her more senior colleagues.

Mirren in “The Last Station” arguably gave the best performance of any of the nominees, but the movie hasn’t been widely seen, and she won just three years ago. And while Gabourey Sidibe, the lead actress in “Precious,” made a striking impression in her film debut, she has so far been overshadowed by co-star Mo’Nique.

Speaking of Mo’Nique, she is a lock to win best supporting actress. One of her competitors, Anna Kendrick, who was named best supporting actress by the National Board of Review for her portrayal of a young corporate climber in “Up in the Air,” put it best: “I think we know what’s going to happen in the end.” Kendrick went on to praise Mo’Nique’s unflinching portrayal and said, “Honestly, I couldn’t ask for a more deserving performance to lose to.”

Vera Farmiga, the other nominee from “Up in the Air,” will likely split votes with Kendrick.

And Penelope Cruz, the lone nominee from “Nine,” seems to have benefited from goodwill for her Oscar-winning performance last year in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” The Academy has a long tradition of nominating Oscar winners from the previous year. Marlon Brando followed his “Godfather” victory with a nomination for “Last Tango in Paris,” and William Hurt was nominated two years in a row after winning for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Academy members showed little love for “Nine,” but they were apparently still feeling warm and fuzzy toward Cruz.

The supporting actress category features the only real surprise among the 20 acting nominations. Most observers believed Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nom for her performance as a single mom in “Crazy Heart” would to go to Julianne Moore for “A Single Man.”

Since Gyllenhaal received no recognition from other groups, she likely will have to settle for just the nomination. She’ll be cheering for Mo’Nique with everyone else.