Pete Hammond badgeA quick look at how the Best Actress race is shaping up this year reveals one of the clearest divides between young and veteran stars ever. What’s more, this contest is rivaling the Best Actor race for a change, offering some of the stiffest competition the category has ever had. Usually voters are struggling to find even five women to fill out the list of nominees, but this year the choices include several intriguing possibilities. On top of all this is the fact that there also are several past Best Actress Oscar winners vying to compete again.

Perhaps at the head of this class is Jennifer Lawrence, who is looking for her fourth nomination for Joy. I say “perhaps” because, as of press time, the film still is just now starting to screen for the industry and the verdict is still out. Lawrence took home the Oscar in 2013 for Silver Linings Playbook; her latest role as the title character—a highly successful businesswoman—is pure Oscar material, a very strong female role and a rare big studio film these days centered around a woman with power. Add in the fact that she is once again working with director David O. Russell (responsible for two of her three previous nominations) and you have the recipe for success. Unless, at age 25, Lawrence might be considered too young to own two Oscars.

Brie Larson and Jacob TremblayAlso vying from a perch at the head of this impressive class of women is Room’s Brie Larson. She turned in a powerful and emotional performance that is winning raves as Ma, a young mother held captive who, under dire circumstances, tries to make a beautiful life for her 5-year-old son.

Add to the mix of front-runners Saoirse Ronan, who earned a Supporting Actress nomination when she was just 13 for Atonement. Now, at 21, she looks to break into the big race with the lovely romantic drama Brooklyn. 

Also not to be overlooked among this list of young stars trying to woo Oscar is former Best Actress nominee and BAFTA winner (for An EducationCarey Mulligan, who this time is a rock-solid reason to see the period women’s rights drama Suffragette. 

Complicating the race is another pair of young stars looking to crash the party: Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl and Rooney Mara in Carol. Mara won the Best Actress award in Cannes over her co-star Cate Blanchett, and the Swedish sensation Vikander is an equal partner to Eddie Redmayne in her film. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has ruled both women as contenders for the Lead Actress in a Drama category for this year’s Golden Globes, but there’s a problem: their respective studios instead are campaigning both in the Supporting Actress race. This could cause confusion for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters, who could split their votes and thus knock Mara and Vikander out in both categories.

On the other hand, Cate Blanchett has her own problem, albeit a nice one. She has two lead roles, in Carol and Truth, and is excellent in both films, which are being campaigned equally by their distributors. However, Academy rules state that she only can be nominated for one role in the Best Actress category. It is a dumb rule that has outlived its time, especially since the restriction doesn’t apply in any other category. Nevertheless, voters will have to make a Solomon-like choice between these two fine Blanchett turns, and, by splitting votes between them, the great Cate could be left with nothing. Except the two Oscars she already has, of course.

45 Years

Now here is where it really gets sticky. There are several deserving veteran stars, with performances of a lifetime, that could trigger the sentimental factor. Charlotte Rampling really is drumming up serious Oscar talk for her transcendent performance in 45 Years, as a woman celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary just as a dark secret from her husband’s past emerges. She won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale and is nominated in the Best Actress category at the European Film Awards. The incredible fact that Rampling never has been nominated for an Oscar probably will help her gain further traction.

But she has to deal with the situation of having so many deserving vets in the running, including two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith, highly amusing in the true story The Lady In The Van; Blythe Danner in her first-ever leading role in the indie hit I’ll See You In My Dreams; the irresistible Lily Tomlin as the irascible title character in Grandma, looking for her second Oscar nomination 40 years after her first for Nashville; and Helen Mirren, hoping to add another Oscar to her mantle as an Austrian looking to reclaim a famous painting the Nazis stole from her family. Her film, Woman In Gold, requires some memory-jogging on the part of voters—the film opened way back in April, but remains the top independently released movie so far this year.

But we’re not done yet. The list of Best Actress possibilities goes on in this banner year for women, old and young. If voters are in the mood for comedy—which they rarely seem to be—then look out for Amy Schumer from the summer hit Trainwreck. A comedy actress Golden Globe win could boost her chances considerably, but Schumer more likely could land a writing nom instead for her screenplay.

sicarioEmily Blunt is looking for her first Oscar nomination as the idealistic FBI agent introduced to the horrors of the drug wars in Sicario. It’s one of the more physically challenging roles in the category this year, but it might be no match in that department for previous Best Actress winner Charlize Theron’s explosive work in Mad Max: Fury Road. Theron kicks ass—and more—in this summer hit that brilliantly revived the Mad Max series. It might be her best role since grabbing that Oscar, and every other award in sight, for Monster. 

Another former winner, Sandra Bullock, is looking for a third nomination for her complex, funny and right-on political consultant in Our Brand Is Crisis. Sadly, the fact is that this passion project was a box office bust not helped by mediocre critical response. That could dim Bullock’s chances.

In a less competitive year, being a blip at the box office might not matter, but it just makes the mountain a little steeper to climb. Also on that uphill battle: Sarah Silverman as a depressed suburban housewife in I Smile Back; Jennifer Connelly as a homeless woman encountering romance and personal troubles in Shelter; the terrific Patricia Clarkson as a newly divorced woman learning life lessons from Ben Kingsley in the lilting Learning To Drive; and the wonderful Brazilian star Regina Case as a live-in housekeeper whose daughter suddenly shows up to complicate her life and job in The Second Mother. The latter’s foreign-language status is not something that has traditionally hurt actresses from being nominated here. Consultants just have to make sure voters pop that screener into their DVD players.

In fact, that is exactly what happened last year when past Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) picked up a surprise nom for the Belgian film Two Days, One Night. The popular French star is back in contention this year for Macbeth, playing opposite Michael Fassbender. The combination of a great Shakesperean role like Lady Macbeth and the Academy’s demonstrated admiration for Cotillard could produce yet another surprise in a race promising much more suspense than usual.