Try to name five actors you'd nominate for an Oscar this year. You can't. Don't argue. There are only two real contenders: Jack (Prizzi's Honor) Nicholson and William (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Hurt, and Hurt did most of his role in drag.

The glory belongs to the ladies. It's been ages since Oscar's had such a richly varied bunch. Remember last year, when almost every American actress, including winner Sally (Places in the Heart) Field, played a farm wife?

This year there are an astonishing 23 legitimate contenders, 17 of whom are homegrown. Don't look to the critics for help. The L.A. mob picked Meryl Streep, New York took Norma Aleandro, the National Board of Review had eyes for Whoopi Goldberg, the French flipped for Cher, the British for Maggie Smith, and who knows who your Aunt Ida has her money on.

Getting this formidable list down to the requisite five will take the wisdom of a Solomon or perhaps the vengeance of a Sheba. Keep in mind that though all 4,262 voting Academy members cast ballots in the Best Actress category, they do not choose the five nominees. That task falls to the Academy's acting branch, numbering 1,202. And actors can show bias just like the rest of us. Maybe some are tired of Streep getting first dibs on every part. Others may think having Sam Shepard is reward enough for Jessica Lange, or that pop singers like Cher or Madonna have no business doing drama.

Academy prejudices are a matter of record. Of the 277 Best Actress nominees in the past, only four were black (Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Dorothy Dandridge) and none won—sorry, Whoopi. Wearing a nun's habit has never worked either (take note, Anne Bancroft). Only one actress—Sophia Loren in Two Women—has triumphed in a foreign-language film (a setback for Argentina's Aleandro). And only Katharine Hepburn and Marie Dressier cadged the prize after reaching 60 (bad news for Coral Browne, 72, and Geraldine Page, 61).

On these pages, we'll offer predictions about who will make the final cut when the Academy announces its five nominees on Feb. 5 and the leader of the pack on Oscar night, Mar. 24.