Follow her lead

The best actress race is packed with so many front-runners it doesn't seem possible that a longshot could sneak through. There are only five slots to accommodate seven solid contenders -- Annette Bening ("Running With Scissors"), Cate Blanchett ("The Good German"), Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal"), Helen Mirren ("The Queen"), Meryl Streep ("The Devil Wears Prada") and Kate Winslet ("Little Children"). This year, Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls") could cause major mayhem. Voters love ingenues, and Hudson is this year's breakout rookie. She's campaigning in the supporting actress category but academy members may declare the obvious: Hudson is the heart, soul and engine of "Dreamgirls" even though Beyonce Knowles gets top billing. If they put Hudson in the lead category and there's a "Dreamgirls" stampede, she could be swept to a best-actress victory.

-- Tom O'Neil

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