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Assessing Bullock's chances for an Oscar

Susan King

HOLLYWOOD If Sandra Bullock is going to win a best actress Oscar for her role in "The Blind Side" she may have one major obstacle to overcome: She's too popular.

In the 82-year history of the Academy Awards, it's been difficult for mainstream actresses (and yes, actors) to win acting Oscars. Included in that list are some of Hollywood's greatest female stars -- Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Rosalind Russell, Marlene Dietrich.

Even among Bullock's contemporaries, big box-office attractions like Meg Ryan, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz have yet to attract Oscar attention. Which is to say Bullock, who had two blockbuster hits in 2009 — "Blind Side" and "The Proposal" — is in good company.

But that may all change for Bullock, a bankable comedy and action star since 1994's "Speed," who until now hasn't had to worry much about making the rounds on the award circuit. Now she's nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama and a Screen Actors Guild best actress award for "The Blind Side," which has already grossed close to $200 million. (The SAG nomination in particular is seen as a reliable indicator of an Oscar nod).

To be sure, Bullock has received award — and critical — attention in the past. She's been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards — she's also nominated in the comedy/musical category this year for "The Proposal" — and earned a SAG award as a member of the best ensemble for the 2005 drama "Crash," which also won the best picture Oscar. She also earned kudos from critics for her performance as novelist Harper Lee in the 2006 independent drama "Infamous." But her work on "The Blind Side" has given the 45-year-old Bullock a new level of recognition.

"Blind Side's" true inspirational tale revolves around Baltimore Ravens player Michael Oher, a victim of the Memphis ghetto and a drug-addicted mother who was adopted and given an education by a wealthy white family — Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Bullock's performance as the take-charge spitfire Leigh Anne is a marked change from her more comedic roles in such hits as "Miss Congeniality" and "While You Were Sleeping." Academy voters often reward stars who go outside their comfort zones.

Take Ginger Rogers, for example. After tripping the light fantastic in musicals with Fred Astaire in the 1930s, she darkened her blond locks to play an unwed mother in 1940's melodrama "Kitty Foyle" and won the best actress Oscar.

Vivacious Grace Kelly frumped it up in 1954's "The Country Girl" and picked up the golden statuette. And more recently, Charlize Theron packed on the pounds to play murderess Aileen Wuornos in 2003's "Monster," winning a best actress Academy Award for her effort.

Oscar nominations or Oscars often arrive later in one's career for well-liked performers.

Shirley MacLaine won her only Academy Award on her fifth acting nomination for 1983's "Terms of Endearment," nearly 30 years after her film debut. Lauren Bacall had to wait even longer — more than a half century after her movie bow -- for her first Oscar nomination for 1996's "The Mirror Has Two Faces."

So why is it so difficult for a popular performer to earn accolades?

"I think that people don't take seriously a performance in a mainstream type of movie," says film critic and historian Stephen Farber.

"Of course with Sandra Bullock that has been her mainstay — that type of movie that is not really taken seriously," Farber says. "There is an assumption that there can't be much acting involved in doing a light comedy or formulaic inspirational drama, so they get overlooked and undervalued. That's why Marilyn Monroe was never nominated. Rarely do people get nominated playing their familiar persona even though they may do it so well."

Although popular and attractive performers including Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Sidney Poitier and Gwyneth Paltrow have won Oscars, Farber believes the academy generally doesn't take "pretty boys or beautiful women seriously," he says.

An exception to the rule, he says, is Julia Roberts, who earned a supporting actress and best actress nomination early in her career for 1989's "Steel Magnolias" and 1990's "Pretty Woman" before winning best actress for her dramatic turn in 2000's "Erin Brockovich."

And now, Bullock is becoming another exception. With her accolades for "The Blind Side," Farber says, "finally there's a belated recognition that she is very good at what she does."