Oscars Best Actress Race: Meryl Streep, Viola Davis

PHOTO: The Iron Lady is a biographical film about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, portrayed by Meryl Streep.
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There are five women vying for the best actress Oscar, but the race comes down to two: Meryl Streep and Viola Davis.

Sorry Glenn Close, Rooney Mara and Michelle Williams, Streep and Davis have been racking up the prizes this awards season, and one of them will likely take home the Academy Award Sunday.

"The real contest this whole Oscars race is between Meryl and Viola," Peter Travers, Rolling Stone film critic and host of ABC News Now's "Popcorn," told ABCNews.com. "That's the most interesting race."

It appeared Streep had the edge for her role as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" up until recently, when leading U.K. bookmaker William Hill tipped the odds in favor of Davis for playing Southern maid Aibileen Clark in "The Help."

"It reminds me of the Super Bowl, which went to the very end," Hollywood.com's Paul Dergarabedian told ABCNews.com. "I think it's going to be a nail-biter until they open that envelope."

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Even the critics and fellow actors are divided about who's best. In case you haven't been keeping a tally: Streep won the Golden Globe, the British BAFTA and the New York Film Critics Award for her role as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Davis claimed the Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Film Critics awards

So what will the race come down to?

"The issue is how much people love 'The Help' versus 'The Iron Lady,'" Yahoo! Movies contributing editor Thelma Adams told ABCNews.com. "'Iron Lady' isn't a favorite movie going in, but sometimes the actor can be the one representing the movie."

Meryl Streep as Thatcher and Viola Davis as Aibileen

Travers agreed that Davis has an edge because "she's in the only movie of the nine nominated that people actually saw." "The Help" grossed close to $170 million at the U.S. box office.

Then there are the roles, themselves, which couldn't be more different.

Streep donned a lifelike silicone mask, a fake set of teeth, 20 full neck pieces, 20 sets of cheeks and 40 sets of noses to portray Thatcher through the years. Travers called the role "King Lear for girls," and said Streep "captured it very movingly."

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Davis' role in "The Help" was much quieter. Her co-star Octavia Spencer, the favorite to win best supporting actress, had the "showy part," Traver said, "but Viola is the soul of the film. We see everything register on her face. It's a tougher kind of acting."

Then again, it could turn on Academy voters wanting to give the (relative) newcomer a chance.

"Meryl likes to say she hasn't won since the Pleistocene era, even though that's only since 1982. But she does have two Oscars already," Travers said, referring to Streep's best actress Oscar for "Sophie's Choice," which followed her 1979 best supporting actress Oscar for "Kramer vs. Kramer." She has also received a record 17 nominations.

Davis has been nominated before, for best supporting actress for "Doubt," but she has never won an Oscar.

"That can factor in Academy voters minds," Dergarabedian said.

Then, there's always the off-chance that Streep and Davis could split the vote -- and Michelle Williams could emerge the winner for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn."

"There are some people feeling that Michelle Williams can emerge from behind," Travers said. "She's the dark horse because so many Academy members are contemporaries of Marilyn Monroe."

A recent report by the Los Angeles Times showed that the nearly 6,000 Academy members deciding Sunday's winners were overwhelmingly white and male, with a median age of 62.

Travers said Williams' name had come up among older Academy members more in recent weeks. "There's a feeling that she captured the essence of Marilyn. People just love what she did."

On ABC News' Oscars Stock Market Index, a collaboration with Bluefin Labs, which provides a real-time snapshot of social sentiment, what's trending and the collective assessment of entertainment industry experts, Williams was gaining on Streep and virtually tied with Davis.

"I don't think anyone can dispute the winner, if any of those three gets it," Dergarabedian said.

There seems to be no disputes among front-runners Streep and Davis either

"No matter who wins, I don't think you're going to see any bitterness. Other races are really competitive, but not them -- it's a genuine mutual admiration society," Travers said.

Davis told CNN's "Showbiz Tonight that she texted Streep after her Golden Globe win, "I love you more than anyone could ever love another human being."

Streep sang Davis' praises on "Popcorn." "She kept saying, 'Viola Davis is the best,'" Travers said.

Others Davis fans include hourly-wage earners who overwhelmingly voted her role in "The Help" as the best on-screen portrayal of an hourly worker, according to job website Snagajob, which conducted the survey.

Domestic workers are also cheering on Davis. Some, like New York nanny Barbara Young, will be converging on Los Angeles over the weekend for a special Oscar watch party.

"I am so excited that the film is receiving recognition," said Young, a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. "After working as a domestic worker for 18 years, it feels like our stories are finally being heard."

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