Why the most coveted role in Hollywood today is in a sci-fi film

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

Natalie Portman is really, really close to landing the lead role in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity -- beating out almost every other actress in the business. So what makes this role so friggin' special?

Traditionally, science fiction movies get little respect in Hollywood. Oh, they'll make tons of money and grease the wheels so studios can afford to make the sorts of films that "people" "care about." But by the only quality-yardstick that matters in Hollywood -- the Oscars -- science fiction might as well not exist. Especially if you're an actor, and double-especially if you're an actress.

In the history of the Oscars, only a handful of women have been nominated for roles in science fiction films: Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich, Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, the only Best Actress nomination. Not that good work hasn't been done, it's just gone unrecognized.

All of which makes the fact that the most sought-after role in Hollywood is the lead of a sci-fi flick that much more amazing.

As we understand it, the lead in Cuaron's Gravity is a woman stranded in outer space in the middle of a deadly debris storm. Even though the male lead is Robert Downey Jr., most of the film is a solo piece -- as he'll be disappearing mid-production to shoot Sherlock Holmes 2. Much like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, whichever actress gets this role will have an unparalleled performance showcase. Angelina Jolie passed on the role twice and almost scuttled the $80 million flick when she left; actresses as varied and talented as Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, Sandra Bullock, Carey Mulligan and Olivia Wilde have all been considered -- Portman is the front-runner based on early raves about her performance in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan.

It's a plum role, to be sure, and Cuaron is one of cinema's foremost craftsmen. And the role isn't hot because it promises to raise one's profile or reap a queen's ransom in merchandising revenue, like Princess Amidala or Lara Croft -- it's hot because it's gonna get someone an Oscar nomination.

Wouldn't that be something.