No matter who wins Best Supporting Actress at this year's Oscars, it'll be a category notable for its varied - and colorful - characters.
Take nominee Kathy Bates. In her role as a bohemian artist in "About Schmidt," the 54-year-old has a nude scene in a hot tub with Jack Nicholson, a more talked-about moment than any Jacuzzi encounter in "The Bachelorette."
In "Adaptation," Meryl Streep's Zelig-like talent of blending into a role was tapped to portray real-life author Susan Orlean. The zany comedy finds the character waist-deep in a Floridian swamp looking for a rare orchid - and the meaning of life.
In "Chicago," Catherine Zeta-Jones sports bobbed hair and fishnet stockings to play a murderous jazz singer.
In a male-dominated medium that often relegates actresses to the part of the "love interest" or some other one-dimensional role, this year's Oscar nominees reveal an industry willing to explore riskier and more diverse female protagonists.
To be sure, women have always played strong roles throughout cinematic history.
Just think of Katharine Hepburn in the romantic comedies of the 1940s, up through Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in "Thelma and Louise" in 1991.
But this year is somewhat different because of the variety of characters and the number of women who are dominating many key Oscar categories. The buzz leading up to Tuesday's Academy Award nominations wasn't so much about one more creepy character played by Christopher Walken. It was about Meryl Streep's record 13th nomination and about Nicole Kidman, again.
"There's been more of a trend in portraying women in a number of different ways," says Linda Holtzman, author of "Media Messages." "What could be more different than Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Halle Berry in James Bond, and Nia Vardalos in 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding?' "
Indeed, Tuesday's nominations for the 75th Academy Awards reflect, in great measure, the impact of a few women-powered films in Hollywood. Take two front-runners in the Best Picture category. "The Hours" and "Chicago" are both dominated by strong leading ladies with men playing more subsidiary roles.
In "The Hours," Ms. Kidman was nominated for best actress for her role as Virginia Woolf, in which she donned a prosthetic nose and Gingham dress. Rounding out the female nominations were Salma Hayek in "Frida," Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven," Renée Zellweger in "Chicago," and Diane Lane in "Unfaithful."
Proving that there are still good parts for women over 40, Ms. Streep is vying for her first Oscar in 20 years for "Adaptation." The two-time winner has now surpassed Ms. Hepburn for receiving the most nominations. "I think you have to go back to 1996 [as] ... the last year we saw this many rich roles for women that let them shoot off their fireworks this way," says Tom O'Neil, author of "Movie Awards."
But beyond the productions selected for Oscar nominations, other movies released in 2002 spun interesting story lines around women. No, we're not talking about "Crossroads," the film debut of Britney Spears. Ratherthese include a spate of independent films - "The Good Girl," "Personal Velocity," "Frida," "Real Women Have Curves" - that received critical acclaim. "On a lot of these independent films - like 'Secretary' and 'Igby Goes Down' and 'Roger Dodger,' you have male directors who are really interested in women and have insights into women," says Molly Haskell, film critic and author of "From Reverence to Rape," a critique of women in film in the '70s.
Mainstream Hollywood has been more tepid about producing films dealing with substantive themes about women, preferring to leave such fare to the arthouse divisions of studios. Given the rise of female executives in the industry, such as Sherry Lansing Paramount Pictures, that may seem surprising.
Yet, more and more, Hollywood is realizing that, in the right vehicle, female stars can fill theater seats. Testament to that was the supersize success of Nia Vardalos's "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. (The only unknown is whether Ms. Vardalos, if she wins, will clean her statuette with Windex.)
"It was a wake-up call to Hollywood that this little 'indie' movie proved to be the Cinderella story of American cinema this past year," says Mr. O'Neil.
For several actresses, romantic comedies are funding their second beach homes. Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Sandra Bullock can all open films, something virtually no woman could do in '70s or '80s.
This year may change all that. In 2003, women will gain a fisthold in a typically male-dominated genre: action films. From the upcoming "Daredevil," starring Jennifer Garner, to "X-Men 2" to "The Matrix" sequels, women will float like a butterfly, sting like a B-movie action star. Even Meg Ryan, goddess of romantic comedies, will get in touch with her inner Mike Tyson in the boxing film "Against the Ropes."
These action and superhero films "were influenced by the surprise success of Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger,' which featured what in China is the longstanding tradition of featuring as many powerful, kick-boxing women in their action films as men," says Denise Mann, cochair of the UCLA Producers Program.
Though women are doing better, cultural critics say there's still room for progress. Negative associations like "the chick flick" stigma still need to be overcome.
"A more interesting way to develop things would be to see roles that challenge conventions more ..." says Jeffrey Hyson, who teaches at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"Chicago" received a leading 13 Oscar nominations Tuesday including one for Best Picture.
"Gangs of New York"
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
Salma Hayek, "Frida"
Nicole Kidman, "The Hours"
Diane Lane, "Unfaithful"
Julianne Moore, "Far From Heaven"
Renée Zellweger, "Chicago"
Kathy Bates, "About Schmidt"
Julianne Moore, "The Hours"
Queen Latifah, "Chicago"
Meryl Streep, "Adaptation"
Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Chicago"
Pedro Almodóvar, "Talk to Her"
Stephen Daldry, "The Hours"
Rob Marshall, "Chicago"
Roman Polanski, "The Pianist"
Martin Scorsese, "Gangs of New York"
Adrien Brody, "The Pianist"
Nicolas Cage, "Adaptation"
Michael Caine, "The Quiet American"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "Gangs of New York"
Jack Nicholson, "About Schmidt"
Chris Cooper, "Adaptation"
Ed Harris, "The Hours"
Paul Newman, "Road to Perdition"
John C. Reilly, "Chicago"
Christopher Walken, "Catch Me If You Can"
SOURCE: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences AP