Great Performances

The weeks between the Golden Globes and Oscar night are filled with awards. But statues or no, these actors are winners

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The two men in Closer couldn't be starker, more lethal opposites--Dan, the shabby-genteel journalist, fickle in his passions, quick to fall into love or loathing, and Larry, the working-class doctor, solid and constant, who shows a slow-fuse brutal streak when he feels wronged. Yet Clive Owen has played both roles--Dan in Patrick Marber's original stage production at London's Royal National Theater in 1997, Larry in Mike Nichols' new film version--and slipped into each like a second skin.

His three co-stars in the film--Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Natalie Portman--have a fame that shuttles from movie pages to gossip columns. Owen is just your basic, semirecognizable, fabulous actor whose gift for exploding out of victim status into ferocity gives Larry a scalding menace. "I've never done a movie where I was looking forward to doing every single scene so much," he says. "The whole experience felt like a gift."

This working-class lad from Coventry, England, is a steady fellow with a 10-year marriage, two daughters and a lifelong acting vocation. "I did a school play when I was 12 or 13," he says, "and I knew then that this was what I wanted to do. I've never wanted to do anything else."

In a 20-year career, Owen, 40, has acquired his fans methodically. Two different audiences revere him as a cheeky stud in the car game--the putative savior of an auto company in the BBC series Chancer (1990-91) and the cool-blooded chauffeur in The Hire (2001-02), BMW's series of Internet films directed by top auteurs. In 2000, America's art-house habitu??s got to know him as the existential casino worker in Croupier. He can play it stalwart (his title role in King Arthur) or predatory (Matt Damon's would-be assassin in The Bourne Identity), but he's always dominant, with a touch of the domineering.

His rugged features, voluptuous mouth and aura of sexual threat suggest a young Sean Connery. So, naturally, he's being talked up as the next James Bond. But Owen wants his career choices to be instinctive. "I've never wanted to get trapped in one type of thing or one type of character. It's much more interesting if you're able to explore." Perhaps in the next Bond film, Owen could play 007--and the supervillain. --R.C. Reported by D.P./Los Angeles

Imelda Staunton | Vera Drake

Imelda Staunton, 49, was getting ready to attend the Golden Globe Awards ceremony for the first time as a nominee, but she didn't spend too long fretting over what to wear. "I've got a [store-bought] top, and Jim Broadbent's wife has lent me a skirt," she told TIME briskly. "I know what I like, and I just put it on."

That's not quite the way this veteran of the London stage donned the character of Vera Drake, the title role in Mike Leigh's wonderfully real and curiously moving story about a chipper abortionist in 1950s London.

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