One of the last pieces of this year’s increasingly hot Best Actress race puzzle fell into place this week as The Weinstein Company unveiled Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady at an exclusive media screening Tuesday night at the Warner Bros Screening Room in New York and Thursday morning for a handful of journalists at the 10-seat Weinstein Co. screening room at their new offices in Beverly Hills. Deadline was represented on both coasts. If there was any question about Streep’s viability as a major Oscar contender again this year, her performance as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will erase all doubts. Again she is extraordinary, absolutely capturing the essence of Thatcher in every way, but is particularly powerful in those scenes depicting her enveloping dementia. She shows a poignant side, not really known about this woman who rose to the top of an exclusive men’s club and triumphed for nearly 12 years in the top job in her country. Jim Broadbent as her husband Dennis also has his moments but the film, expertly directed by Mamma Mia’s Phyllida Lloyd, belongs to Meryl. Even in England where Thatcher is sooooo well known and dissected, both early reviews in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph are singing her praises.

Her unbelievable 17th Oscar nomination is assured and perhaps the only thing standing between her and a third Oscar is well, Streep herself. The problem is everyone expects her to be brilliant and we almost take it for granted that she will deliver. The other problem is that most recent Oscars in this category have gone to younger contenders — some call it the “babe factor” that appeals particularly to older male Academy members. One exception in recent years was Helen Mirren for playing another iconic British figure in The Queen (2006). There’s also the feeling that Meryl has already won multiple Oscars, but in reality she has two, one in support in ’79 for Kramer vs. Kramer and one for lead in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice. 29 years have passed since she got to make an acceptance speech at the Oscars and with those 14 other nominations she likes to point out she has lost more than any other actor in Academy history.

It’s ironic that perhaps the biggest threat to a Streep victory also comes from The Weinstein Company  whose My Week With Marilyn is surging due to highly enthusiastic Academy and SAG screenings.  After Sunday night’s LA Academy screening, Angie Dickinson was overheard saying she knew Marilyn Monroe very well and that Michelle Williams simply nails her. With Streep and Williams playing such well-known figures neither gets the biopic advantage that has brought so many actors Oscars in recent times. Should they duel to a draw The Help’s Viola Davis (and Streep’s Doubt co-star) could squeeze past both and take it.  Davis will also be helped by her role in the late December release, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

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Another major player has to be Glenn Close , a five-time nominee who hasn’t been in the running since Dangerous Liaisons (1988).  Her portrayal in Albert Nobbs as a woman disguised as a man in order to simply work is a model of restraint, a very repressed character indeed. It should have great appeal to the actors branch because Close, who also co-wrote and co-produced struggled for 15 years to bring it to the screen after playing the same role off-Broadway 30 years ago. That she can still pull it off all these years later in the harsh closeups of a movie camera is hard to overlook.

Ever since Paramount began showing Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Young Adult earlier this month, buzz has been building for Charlize Theron’s performance as a woman who has trouble growing up and this Oscar winner should be a formidable contender to grab her third nomination.

There are very few questions lingering in the lineup but one that remains unanswered is Rooney Mara in the title role of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Dec 21). Music Box Films launched a campaign last year for the Swedish original’s Noomi Rapace but it didn’t result in a nomination and Mara could suffer the same fate.  But Mara’s got a much bigger distributor in Sony backing her efforts to make the cut in the top five.

Other than Mara the field is fairly well known at this point, but could a surprise contender be lurking in the shadows? If there is it would have to be Bosnian actress Zana Marjanovic, who is said to be brilliant in Angelina Jolie’s still-under-wraps directorial debut, In The Land of Blood and Honey (Dec 23). Adding to the authenticity of her portrayal, the film will be released in its original native language with subtitles.

Should any of the above falter, there are a slew of indie players itching to get into the golden circle but most of them seem more likely to fill out the slate of Independent Spirit Award nominees the day before the Oscars.  They include Felicity Jones for Like Crazy, Mia Wasikowska for Jane Eyre, Tilda Swinton for We Need To Talk About Kevin, Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene, Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia and Michelle Yeoh for The Lady (not to be confused with the Iron Lady). All have been dutifully working the Q&A circuit to build exposure and interest in their performances.

And then there’s the long shot, dark-horse never-nominated-but-why-the-hell-not Ellen Barkin whose startlingly well-acted Sundance winner, Another Happy Day struggles to get seen starting Friday in small theatres in LA and NY.  Barkin has also been doing the SAG Q&As but at a CAA screening of the film last week told me they have already used up their quota allowed by SAG. Barkin, an actor’s actor, has never been better and produced the film herself. It was shot on a 23-day schedule in Michigan by 26-year-old wunderkind director Sam Levinson (yes, Barry’s son) but was written when he was just 22. It was completed in September 2010 and rushed to be completed in time for its Sundance competition slot where it won Levinson the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Since then Barkin told me she has been “carrying it up a hill, but it’s starting to get pretty heavy.” Tiny Canadian distributor Phase 4 Films picked it up, mostly for its VOD possibilities which it starts in two weeks after its initial awards-qualifying theatrical runs. They plan to send screeners to the Academy and if the actors branch watches it could have great appeal, not only for Barkin’s career-high turn but as a major big screen return for Ellen Burstyn as her mother who has one scene in particular that is the kind that wins Oscar nominations. Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, Kate Bosworth, Ezra Miller, George Kennedy and Jeffrey De Munn are also all standouts in this very dysfunctional family drama set at a weekend wedding.

The one person who doesn’t really play the Q&A game is Streep and even forgoing the personal appearances or the career tributes and pre-honors so prevalent for potential nominees (she will be getting a Kennedy Center Honor in December though) could this race still be Streep’s to lose. Time will tell  . The Iron Lady doesn’t hit theatres until December 30,  the last major release of the year.