Portraits of the Class 2oo7 (Oscar Nominees)

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    In Volver, a tragi-dramedy about mothers, daughters, and some not-so-nice men who try to come between them, Penélope Cruz proves that her wondrous turn in Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother was no fluke, and that despite all those Hollywood misfires, she is, in fact, a splendidly gifted actress. Throughout the movie, she juggles a dizzying range of emotions — fear, exhilaration, fierce maternal love — often in the space of a single scene. With her hair swept into a tousled updo, her eyes lined heavily in black kohl, and her svelte frame made curvier by much-discussed bum cushioning, the Madrid native radiates a womanly sexiness reminiscent of such great European actresses as Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani. —Missy Schwartz

    The Academy has a soft spot for people portraying addicts, but Ryan Gosling's work in Half Nelson — in which he plays Dan Dunne, a high school teacher and barely functioning crack addict — carries none of the grandstanding that plagues the form. Instead, he turns Dunne into an exhausted shell, hollowed out by hangovers and barely able to muster a facial expression. The actor's greatest success comes in finding the balance between competence and collapse: The character still has to go to work, coach girls' basketball, function around his family. Wiping his nose on his collar, clapping his hands constantly in an effort to stay awake, Gosling adopts a dry, recalcitrant demeanor that's both seductive and heartbreaking — Dunne may be disappearing, but it's impossible to let him go. —Whitney Pastorek

    There are many words that spring to mind when you think of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II — crown, throne, corgis — but sexy is not among them. Unless, that is, you happen to be Helen Mirren. ''As a young woman she was sexy,'' insists the actress, 61, who plays the monarch in The Queen. ''She had a gorgeous figure, beautiful skin, and much better legs than I've got. Still does. I think there's something genuinely seductive about her.''
    While the movie finds Mirren's figure swaddled in padding and rather matronly attire, there is a hint of the seductress about her characterization, not least in Elizabeth's dealings with Michael Sheen's Tony Blair. ''They do say that all of her prime ministers kind of fall in love with her,'' smiles Mirren. That seductiveness is just one way Mirren manages to make flesh and blood a woman whose private life we know little about. —Clark Collis
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    From a childhood spent shuttling between football scrimmages and opera recitals to an acting career playing both gentle giants and lethal villains, everything in Forest Whitaker's life, it seems, was pointing toward his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. After all, he presents the notorious Ugandan dictator as a man obsessed with art as much as warfare, a savvy strongman with charm to counterbalance his ruthlessness. A fellow of great stature himself, Whitaker embodies the outsize role. ''I kept trying to find all of his emotions and feelings inside myself,'' says the actor, 45. ''That's how he came to life.'' We should be glad he found the key, for it provides a long-overdue opportunity to recognize one of Hollywood's most consistent talents. —Joshua Rich

    The wonder of Kate Winslet is her ability to move audiences even when she's playing a mess of a woman. As Sarah, the desperately flawed heart of Little Children, Winslet is rumpled and bored, a smart housewife stuck in a bad marriage, dragging her young daughter behind her like luggage. It's a risky role, playing a lousy, adulterous mother, and Winslet never shrinks from her character's complexity. ''I've had the opportunity to play so many great parts,'' says Winslet, who has been nominated for four Oscars previously but has never won. ''The only aspiration I've ever had — it was never to be a famous movie star — is to be able to do this work for as long as I can.'' So her fans need not fret if her name isn't called this year: With her track record, there's always next year. And the next, and the next after that... —Karen Valby
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    One of the first things you notice about Leonardo DiCaprio while watching Blood Diamond — besides that nasal accent — is his familiar, youthful face. Where the hell is it? As Danny Archer, a greedy Zimbabwean diamond smuggler with a murky military history, the 32-year-old actor is all filled out, ruddy, and feral. The character is both personally damaged and unapologetically corrupt. And, as such, DiCaprio's portrayal is pitch-perfect — flinty, virile, and unfazed by even his own emotions. —Neil Drumming

    Though her chosen weapons are a barbed tongue and imperious stare rather than a chain saw or butcher's knife, there's no doubt that Meryl Streep has created one of the great monsters of cinema in Miranda Priestly, the fashion-magazine overlord she plays in The Devil Wears Prada. But in the third act, the double Oscar winner really earns her money — and breaks her own record with her 14th nomination — by revealing a stark vulnerability that makes you understand there's more to this woman than mere sadism. Streep's ability to bring souls alive — even those belonging to tyrannical fashion mavens — is something that will never go out of style. —Clark Collis

    Will Smith has successfully played a living person before — he received an Oscar nod for 2001's Ali — but he has never portrayed anyone in such desperate straits as Chris Gardner. For a year, Gardner lived practically penniless on the streets of San Francisco with his young son, parlaying a lowly internship at a brokerage house into a life-revitalizing career. In preparing for The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith studied Gardner obsessively. But it's not mere mimicry that makes this portrayal so moving. Smith, accustomed to saving the earth from aliens and killer robots on screen, here bundles his physical prowess behind hunched shoulders and world-weary eyes. When Gardner finally begins to reverse his fortunes, the effort is as heroic as anything Smith has ever accomplished from the cockpit of a spaceship. —Neil Drumming
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    For five of the last eight years, Judi Dench, 72, has received an acting nomination (winning once). It's an impressive string of somewhat predictable roles — queens and other noble, older women — but this year, the Dame tries something new on for size: being way evil. In Notes on a Scandal, she's Barbara Covett, a brittle teacher drawn to a vibrant colleague named Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett); when she learns Sheba is having an affair with a teenage student, Barbara wields that knowledge like a blade. Snapping instructions and threatening disaster, Dench's regal face transforms into something snakelike, sinister; even in pleasant moments, her dark motives pierce from behind black, beady eyes. In a role that could easily have been a one-note torrent of bitterness and anger, Dench plays a symphony. —Whitney Pastorek

    Peter O'Toole initially demurred when the Academy offered to give him an honorary Oscar in 2003, writing back he was ''still in the game, and might win the lovely bugger outright.'' He did relent, allowing Hollywood a chance to both thank him and apologize for not having given him a real one despite seven nominations. One couldn't help but think the Academy was also saying goodbye. Ha. Along came Venus, the story of a passionate thespian and his not strictly platonic relationship with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. O'Toole, 74, invests his role with great vulnerability. He may look like a fun-house version of the incredibly handsome young man who played Lawrence of Arabia in 1963, but the acting chops have never been better. It's worth the price of admission just to see him slap himself in the morning and shout, ''Come on, old man.'' —Steve Wulf
  5. i think they all look wonderful