Awards Watch -- The Contenders
Who are the frontrunners in this year's awards race? We offer brief profiles of some of the leading above-the-line contenders for picture, director, actor and actress -- as well as supporting actor and supporting actress -- that have emerged early on in this year's award season. But don't rule out the surprises yet to come.
Another Year, Sony Pictures Classics
Opens: Dec. 29
Why it's a contender: The Academy frequently taps Mike Leigh's films for some kind of recognition,though he hasn't had a best picture nomination since 1996's Secrets & Lies. A modest reception at the Festival de Cannes might make Another Year a tough sell, but in a race with few actor-oriented films, this could make it to the final 10.
Georgina Lowe (producer): "When we knew the four seasons were going to feature so strongly in the film [broken into four parts, according to the time of year], we knew we would need the weather to be on our side. We were lucky: The last day of our shoot was in November, and we needed it to be summer. Fortunately, we had a beautiful blue sky."
Black Swan, Fox Searchlight
Opens: Dec. 1
Why it's a contender: Buzz began after Black Swan's Venice Film Festival premiere and it has only grown louder for director Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler. Although the creepy psychological thriller might lean too dark for some Academy voters, Natalie Portman's performance will garner their attention.
Scott Franklin (producer):"We kept preproduction together with duct tape -- not even duct tape: scotch tape and rubber bands. Then about a week before we started shooting, the deals were finally closed, and we were a fully greenlit and bonded picture. It was very touch-and-go there for a while."
The Fighter, Paramount
Opens: Dec. 10
Why it's a contender: Few people had seen David O. Russell's boxing movie at press time, but those who had were adamant it's a worthy successor to Raging Bull, Rocky andMillion Dollar Baby. The film will be helped by star Mark Wahlberg's utter commitment to promoting the movie that he also produced.
David Hoberman (producer): "This was a $70 million movie. Then we got David, Christian [Bale] and Mark [Wahlberg]. But by then we only had $25 million, but it was still made exactly how it should be."
Hereafter, Warner Bros.
Opened: Oct. 22
Why it's a contender: Clint Eastwood is arguably the most beloved filmmaker among Academy members, and his late-career resurgence makes each new film a must-see. A terrific tsunami scene and strong performances might make voters overlook an ending that has left many dissatisfied.
How Do You Know, Sony
Opens: Dec. 17
Why it's a contender: Ever since winning the Oscar for Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks has been a must-consider for Oscar voters. That said, he was unsure whether a film his colleagues described as commercial would play with awards voters and was holding off until the film's release before granting interviews. At worst, the movie is likely to contend for a Golden Globe/comedy; at best, it could be in the run for an Oscar.
Laurence Mark (producer): "Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson ... a delicious cast."
How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks Animation
Opened: March 26
Why it's a contender: DreamWorks thought it had a fizzler when Dragon opened to tepid box office. But word-of-mouth, a terrific promotional campaign and the ready availability of its two likeable directors will keep this front and center of voters' minds -- even if Pixar has won the past three animated movie Oscars in a row.
Bonnie Arnold (producer): "Probably six months before the movie came out, Jeffrey [Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation] said, 'You really have to do something different.' It had to be more than the young guy defeating the monster, unscathed. [Helmers] Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders suggested this thing about [losing his] leg. And I said, 'Gosh! I love it.' [But] we were nervous because our audience is mostly kids."
Inception, Warner Bros.
Opened: July 17
Why it's a contender: Christopher Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight is no Avatar -- and that's a good thing. Voters will appreciate how the dreamscape drama eschewed 3D gimmickry and still managed to pull off the most complex intersection of sci-fi and fantasy.
Leonardo DiCaprio: "Ninety-five percent of the locations were not green screens. We really were in Paris ... reacting to stuff blowing up around us. Chris takes real cities and redresses them. The fantasy feels more tangible."
The Kids Are All Right, Focus Features
Opened: July 30
Why it's a contender: Strong performances always resonate with the Academy's actors' branch. Plus, the indie hit never moralizes on same-sex marriage, instead offering a humorous and heartfelt take on two mothers, two teenage kids and a cool biological father. The family may not be typical, but the movie's themes -- parenting, adolescent rebellion and forgiveness -- are universal.
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (producer): "The film was originally going to be set in Maplewood, N.J., or Red Hook, Brooklyn. Late in the game, Annette [Bening] said she couldn't travel and we hit a low point because Julianne [Moore] said the same. Julianne then changed her mind, which turned into a blessing because [director] Lisa Cholodenko was born and raised in L.A. and could then tell the story in her own world."
The King's Speech, The Weinstein Co.
Opens: Nov. 26
Why it's a contender: The Weinsteins are masters at taking British period pieces and turning them into Oscar winners -- think The English Patientand Shakespeare in Love. Add to that an actor who seems a lock for a nomination, Colin Firth, and it's hard to imagine a stronger entry.
Geoffrey Rush: "Initially, in doing research, I Googled Lionel Logue [the king's speech therapist] and only found the slimmest of information. A few weeks before production started, we found Logue's diaries, which had a hit list of detail that no Hollywood writer would ever dream of coming up with."
127 Hours, Fox Searchlight
Opened: Nov. 5
Why it's a contender: Two years after winning the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, nobody can ignore Danny Boyle's new film, especially one that takes a claustrophobic subject and explodes it with cinematic skill. Raves at the Toronto International Film Festival make it a lock for a nomination, though the severing-arm scene might prevent it from going further.
Christian Colson (producer): "When Danny gave me his short treatment, the thing that most struck me was how the use of the camera and editing [were] embedded in the story. The document had an obsession with detail; this story would achieve an epic effect through an accumulation of tiny observances, like the dropping of a knife and the passing over of a raven. Tiny things [would] take on a monumental impact."
Shutter Island, Paramount
Opened: Feb. 19
Why it's a contender: The Martin Scorsese thriller was meant to be a contender last year, only for Paramount to switch its release at the last minute from late 2009 to February -- but don't count it out. Each previous collaboration between the helmer and Leonardo DiCaprio – Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed -- has garnered a best picture nomination.
Brad Fischer (producer): "I'd long been a Dennis Lehane fan, but I just happened to randomly pick up the book at a bookstore. It was fantastic. The rights had been spoken for, so I waited for them to be available again. The shoot was grueling – the weather was especially difficult, but not for the usual reasons: We needed bad weather; it was constantly sunny. We filmed outside Boston at Medfield State Hospital and we desperately needed clouds. I mean, the film takes place during a storm."
The Social Network, Sony
Opened: Oct. 1
Why it's a contender: After a lukewarm opening weekend,Networkhas soared, fueled by the controversy over its accuracy but also by stellar reviews. With Scott Rudin behind it, Networkis probably the strongest front-runner alongside Harvey Weinstein's The King's Speech.
Scott Rudin (producer): "Facebook continues to say the movie is fiction, but they have never said that anything in it is specifically fiction. Everything in the movie is true and vetted. You can have issues of interpretation, but you can have issues of interpretation about Hamlet."
The Town, Warner Bros.
Opened: Sept. 17
Why it's a contender: Ben Affleck said he was so stressed making Gone Baby Gonethat he felt sick almost every day. That didn't prevent him from taking on a triple-threat challenge as writer-director-star and pulling it off with fantastic box office and reviews. Now he's as much in demand to direct as to act.
Basil Iwanyk (producer): "The hardest thing to figure out was the meeting between Ben and [actress] Rebecca Hall after she finds out he's a bad guy. Ben wrote different versions, and then on the day of the shoot, he allowed Rebecca to have a major voice in how she wanted the scene to play. What do you say to someone you love when it's just been revealed [he's] not only a bank robber, [but he] also kidnapped [you]?"
Toy Story 3, Disney/Pixar
Opened: June 18
Why it's a contender: Pixar has won best animated feature three years in a row; now it's aiming for best picture, period. Even though only two animated movies have been nominated in this category before, the rave reviews and expansion by the Academy to 10 nominee slots gives it a good chance.
Darla Anderson (producer): "Pixar's John Lasseter had been pitching this idea for many years, so we all knew what the idea was and I thought we would roll up our sleeves and just get down to it. [Then] everybody sat down and talked and were like, 'Nah.' That's the exact opposite of how I thought this was going to go. And we started 100% from scratch."
True Grit, Paramount
Opens: Dec. 22
Why it's a contender: At press time, the Coen brothers were still editing their version of Charles Portis' novel, said to be substantially different from the John Wayne film. But when you're the guys who made Oscar winnerNo Country for Old Men, teaming with last year's best actor winner Jeff Bridges, how can you not be in contention?
Josh Brolin: "I haven't seen the film, but I've seen certain takes 40 or 50 times and it looks incredible. Everybody was talking, 'Oh, True Grit?That's the last movie I want to see remade.' But now that the trailer's out, everybody's like, 'God, I can't wait!' The Coens know better than any of us: you can't please everybody, so you may as well do you own thing."
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Sony Pictures Classics
Opened: Sept. 22
Why it's a contender: Woody Allen has had ups and downs with the Academy ever since he failed to appear in person when winning Oscars for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. This charmer, though it played to mixed reviews in Cannes, is seen by many as his best film since Vicky Cristina Barcelonaand has Sony Classics' Tom Barker and Michael Barker in full campaign mode -- with or without Allen's cooperation.
Josh Brolin (co-star): "Everybody gets really nervous on a Woody film. For this movie, he needed a challenge, somebody who wasn't afraid of him. And I fit that bill for that moment. I had a blast. He's the funniest, smartest, wittiest person I've ever known -- Howard Zinn and Anthony Zerbe being the other two. And it makes sense because they're all around the same age. I have no interest in hanging around people my age. It gets boring."
Ben Affleck, The Town
Why he's a contender: Affleck escaped the sophomore jinx with this follow-up to Gone Baby Gone, but more important still, Oscar voters like honoring actors doubling as directors -- think Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Robert Redford's Ordinary People, Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves -- almost as much as they love a comeback. Affleck's skilled helming and performance complete his resurrection from a mire of tabloid headlines.
>Affleck: "We would run the scene twice without cutting and then sit and talk about it while the camera was rolling. Really, you can only change 10%-15% on the day with actors, but you're making huge decisions in the editing room. I knew I'd be able to cut everything that I hated out of my performance."
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Why he's a contender: Aronofsky has yet to earn an Oscar nomination -- The Wrestler was more a showpiece for star Mickey Rourke -- but core filmmakers admire his risk-taking and there's not much of that this season. Question is, will the dark horse vote go to him or Danny Boyle for 127 Hours?
Aronofsky: "Ballet is all about the sacrifice of the body for the moment, and when we started to work on Black Swan, we realized there were a lot of connections to The Wrestler. I was never afraid of it. That's kind of the magic of cinema, because as long as the character is a thinking, feeling human, it doesn't matter if they're a down-on-his-luck wrestler or an up-and-coming ballerina."
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Why he's a contender: After Slumdog Millionaire, nobody expected Boyle to opt for what seemed like an exercise in claustrophobia, when he could have taken on the next James Bond film instead. His bold leap of imagination, applying a kinetic style and frequently splitting his frame into different images, dazzles by being so unexpected.
Boyle: "I was aware that, at times, [actor] James Franco was near the limit. Sometimes, there would be technical stuff, like a sequence where he rigs the rope to lift the boulder. That's one-handed rigging and I wouldn't allow anyone in to help him. Even when we said 'cut,' I made sure no one touched it so that he'd have to work it out himself. He would be doing it and cursing -- and I'm sure he was saying things about me."
Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine
Why he's a contender: Arguably the most demanding and heavyweight film of the season -- it won the 2010 Sundance jury prize for drama -- Cianfrance's Valentine is a surefire contender for indie awards, but can he cross over to the Academy?
"When I was kid, I had two recurring nightmares. One was about nuclear war, and the other was that my parents would divorce. When I was 20, they split up and it was so confusing and bewildering to me that I had to confront it artistically. This [also] became Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams' film; I'd be so inspired, I'd go home and rewrite it based on our conversations. I stopped counting at 66 drafts."
Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right
Why she's a contender: It took Cholodenko years to find backing for this film, which was almost made with Robin Wright in Annette Bening's role. Her efforts paid off, helped by the fact that the final work has a much lighter touch than her original, somewhat darker screenplay.
Cholodenko: "All of us felt that, if there was anything politically correct or sanctimonious, it needed to be taken out. I didn't want to make a righteous-rainbow-flag, pro-gay-rights movie. Instead of trying to appeal in a zeitgeisty way, I thought people could handle seeing a good family film."
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
Why they're contenders: The Coen brothers had their biggest success with adapted material, No Country for Old Men. Now the writer-director-producers are returning to adapted work with this rethinking of Charles Portis' novel.
Josh Brolin: "They have a great system: They have perpendicular desks that touch. Ethan usually looks at the preferred takes for whatever scene they're looking at, and Joel is sitting there doing the timeline. Ethan [finds] the best moment, drags it over to the corner of Joel's screen and then hits a bell -- 'ding!' -- and Joel looks to the upper left of his screen and drags it down to the timeline. It's such a bizarre Coens-esque moment. They do it every single time."
Clint Eastwood, Hereafter
Why he's a contender: Nowhere is Eastwood's work better than in the astonishing tsunami scene that opens his movie. Any other director would have made it big and loud; Eastwood gives it a haunting quiet that makes it all the more terrifyingly real.
David Fincher, The Social Network
Why he's a contender: Fincher has long been admired by film buffs but spurned by the Academy. Seven and Fight Club, two semi-classics, were snubbed. Now, after the disappointment of seeing 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earn 11 nominations and pick up only three below-the-line wins, he's gotten universal acclaim for the perfect blend of helmer and theme.
Cean Chaffin (producer): "David's very involved in the schedule, and he will go over it with us ad nauseam, which is good. He doesn't ask for a trailer, he doesn't ask for bells and whistles, but he asks for the shooting days because he wants that time for the actors. He wants that time for the mistake. So he does fewer setups, more takes."
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Why he's a contender: Hooper (John Adams, The Damned United) should thank his mother that he's in contention. She first saw Speech as a play in Melbourne and kept nagging him to read it. When he did, plucking it from the 30 other scripts on his desk, he knew he had a winner.
Hooper: "One of the best lines in the film came from my dad. Early on, we were talking about therapy and he said the most important thing he had been told was, 'You don't have to be afraid of things that you were afraid of when you were 5 years old.' There is a lot of me in the characters."
Christopher Nolan, Inception (also contender for original screenplay).
Why he's a contender: Nolan earned his only nomination to date for screenplay (2000's Memento), so he might be overdue for Oscar love. Still, with only five director slots compared with the best picture category's 10 -- and with Nolan's aversion to campaigning -- this might be an uphill battle.
Leonardo DiCaprio: "When I saw the film for the first time, I was amazed by the intensity. The way Chris created tension -- even in the scene with the van falling off this bridge, the tension of not knowing where you really were was exhilarating. There aren't many directors who could come up with such an outlandish concept and do it this big.
David O. Russell, The Fighter
Why he's a contender: Russell is a fighter at heart -- just ask George Clooney, who notoriously had a falling out with him on Three Kings. A passionate boxing fan, Russell's take on the real-life story of "Irish" Micky Ward could get the never-nominated director establishment recognition after earning indie cred with Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees.
Russell: "What drew me to the material was the rawness of the people, the realness of these amazing colorful characters, and I did a lot of work to put my voice into it, a lot of collaborating with the script."
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Why he's a contender: There are few actors more admired than Bardem, who won a supporting actor Oscar for No Country for Old Men. His biggest drawback here is a movie that hasn't gained commercial appeal and that might alienate voters with its darkness.
Bardem: "The most challenging thing was [acting] with the kids. We tried our best to make the kids see that this was fiction, and not believe it was real because it was so intense. On set, I would play with them, be a kid with them, and then they said, 'Action,' and yell, 'Cut,' and we would go back to playing with toys. It was very tough because, unlike the kids, I couldn't detach myself from the fiction. When I was shooting, I started to have this deep need of finishing things in my life. We all have aspects of our lives that aren't closed; I felt the need to resolve some."
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Why he's a contender: Now that he finally has an Oscar (Crazy Heart),Bridges will inevitably be compared to John Wayne, who initiated the role of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film. A reimagining by the Coen brothers makes this version and its popular leading man a pair of award-worthy aces.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island and Inception
Why he's a contender:The thrice-nominated DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond) has said Shutter Island is some of his best work. But it's tricky when you're in contention with yourself, especially when two separate studios (Paramount and Warner Bros.) are pushing you for a lead acting award.
DiCaprio: "Both of these films were incredibly exhausting. In Shutter, Teddy was a very extreme character. But I love having that type of complexity to think about on set every day. Equally with Inception, the challenge of keeping this character's emotional journey locked into this insane world was challenging as well. You work as intensely as you possibly can for that limited time. You send it out to the world and [the perfomances are] no longer yours, in that respect."
Michael Douglas, Solitary Man
Why he's a contender: It's ironic that Douglas gives one of his most nuanced performances as a man facing his own mortality just as the press has been full of stories about the actor's own battle with cancer. Too bad this has prevented him from giving the kind of press push the role deserves, a striking depiction of a once-successful developer whose life is on the brink of collapse.
Robert Duvall, Get Low
Why he's a contender: Duvall was instrumental in getting this low-budget indie off the ground, and voters may be unable to resist the six-time nominee and one-time winner (Tender Mercies) as an eccentric 1930s-era hermit who plans his own funeral.
Duvall: "I did the final speech in one take. When I gave the speech, before the hearse comes with the coffin that I really built, my real wife was off camera -- and got a message that Horton Foote, the great Texas playwright, had died. I'd told Horton that I wanted him to see this film because it reminded me of his work; we had just talked about it. It was like coming full circle, because [the Foote-scripted] To Kill a Mockingbird was my first film. It was almost spooky."
Aaron Eckhart, Rabbit Hole
Why he's a contender: Nicole Kidman had to persuade Eckhart to play her husband in this movie she also produced, and the never-nominated leading man shows impressive range as a grieving father. Having Oscar-winner Kidman as his partner can't hurt.
Eckhart: "I took [the set] over. I went in there and spent time to make it mine. I touched everything. I opened the refrigerator. I knew where the cups and the silverware were. I feel like that's important because you can't find those subtle moments unless you own a space. If you take the time to do that, then the audience will believe that you live there or belong there, and they'll believe what you're saying."
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Why he's a contender: In his first big-budget lead role, Eisenberg manages to create empathy for Facebook punk/CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That might detract from another performance also in contention, in which he plays a supporting role to Michael Douglas' lead in Solitary Man, but The Social Network's buzz can't be denied.
Eisenberg: "I would watch interviews with Zuckerberg or videos of him, and I would want to put my hands in hoodie pockets the same way he does it. But instead of just copying it, I wondered why he does it and when he does it. I was able to open my mind."
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Why he's a contender: Firth had major doubts about how sympathetic audiences might find his King George VI, and feared they might consider him too self-pitying -- until he got a hold of speech therapist Lionel Logue's diaries just before shooting and discovered the monarch was anything but. After losing out last year for A Single Man, Firth is this year's clear front-runner.
Firth: "This is the third film I've played a character with a stutter, so I thought it would be the same. It wasn't. We went through an agonizing rehearsal process. There were all sorts of considerations, including whether the stammer would interfere with the pace of the film or alienate the audience by being too extreme."
James Franco, 127 Hours
Why he's a contender: His supporting performance in 2008's Milk provided Franco a bridge from pretty-boy sidekick to critically acclaimed dramatic actor. And being sealed under a rock in 127 Hours -- with grips often told they couldn't help him get out -- may have been more dramatic than even Franco intended. The experience is ripe for acting recognition by the Academy (and a perfect subject if Franco ever does a sequel to his current book of short stories).
Franco: "I felt after our first meeting, 'OK, he didn't think I was right.' So I wrote Danny [Boyle] an e-mail saying, 'I'd be happy to work with you on anything, anytime' and he wrote back a nice e-mail. He's a very nice guy. Then two days later I got a call from my manager. 'Danny wants you to go to L.A. now. He wants you to read.' "
Paul Giamatti, Barney's Version
Why he's a contender: With a knack for playing vulnerable men in various stages of crisis, Giamatti, who was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for Cinderella Manin 2005, nails the 30-year trajectory of long-suffering schlub Barney Panofsky. Chewing the scenery with co-star Dustin Hoffman, who plays his father, will no doubt help his cause.
Giamatti: "I remember shooting a scene where Dustin and I are in a graveyard and we're visiting my mother's grave. We started shooting, and after we shot it once, producer Robert Lantos stepped forward and said, 'Shouldn't you guys be wearing yarmulkes?' It turned into a huge debate where actually we ended up getting rabbis all over the world -- Dustin got his rabbi, Robert got one of his rabbis -- into this religious debate. But I knew Barney wouldn't wear one -- even though Robert threatened to CGI in yarmulkes later."
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
Why he's a contender: Gosling, who's shunned major stardom for challenging, noncommercial roles, was Oscar-nominated for the indie drama Half Nelson and received Golden Globe and SAG nominations for Lars and the Real Girl. But no role has been quite as heartbreaking as his turn as a beleaguered husband and father in Blue Valentine.
Michelle Williams (co-star): "Ryan is best in the moment; coming up with the best stuff I've ever seen in my life. It's kind of frightening. [Director] Derek Cianfrance would leave the room and first I would have to pick a fight and then Ryan would have to pick a fight and then there'd be a fight that Derek could watch. It got to the point where Ryan and I really couldn't say the right thing to each other as Ryan and Michelle. It was like trial by fire, but now [improv] is my favorite thing in the world."
Ewan McGregor, The Ghost Writer
Why he's a contender: A staple actor for visionary directors like Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), McGregor's first partnership with Oscar-winning helmer Roman Polanski bore a fascinating incarnation of a nameless writer assigned to decipher the mystery of a thinly disguised version of Tony Blair. The role could put him on the awards map for the first time in years.
McGregor: "The first day on set, we were shooting the scene in the publisher's office, the standoff between the ghost, his agent and the ex-prime minister's lawyer. We shot for over 20 hours. That in itself is quite unusual. But Polanski was completely in his own time frame, and we rehearsed and rehearsed until he was absolutely satisfied we'd got it right. To take that amount of time on Day 1 out of a four-month shoot, you think: 'Oh dear, here we go.' "
Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter
Why he's a contender: Wahlberg trained every day for four years to play real-life-boxer "Irish" Micky Ward -- and fought, too, to get the movie made, despite numerous changes in cast and crew. Matt Damon and Brad Pitt were both attached at one point, as was director Darren Aronofsky. The actor-producer is poised for his first shot at lead actor attention.
David O. Russell: "This is Mark's passion project. He was willing to do whatever it took to get this film done, and everyone followed his attitude on the set. There was no room for ego. Mark wanted the fights to be as real as possible and did all the training at his house with Micky [Ward] and [Micky's half-brother] Dickie [Eklund]. He had those guys staying with him and his three kids -- and then Mark had a fourth kid [while we were shooting]."
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Why she's a contender: Bening found out about this project when writer-director Lisa Cholodenko "accidentally" bumped into her at the local grocery store. She pushed the helmer to make it less earnest, then almost dropped out when the shoot was meant to take place in New York. Luckily for Bening, the movie relocated: She's earned her best plaudits since her last Oscar-nominated role in Being Julia.
Bening: "I usually don't have lingering feelings about the characters I play, but I often think about this one, even now. Nic was unique, and I would like to play her more. If there was a sequel, I'd be interested."
Sally Hawkins, Made in Dagenham
Why she's a contender: The actress was snubbed in 2009 when everyone thought she was a lock for Happy-Go-Lucky. A nomination this year, for a role in which she plays an amalgam of two real-life strikers who pioneered women's rights in the U.K., could cover both films.
Hawkins: "I was lucky that the script came to me quite early in the process, so I was able to do my own research. I made sure that I had a sewing machine and took lessons. I went to Dagenham and met three of the women [strikers], and that was invaluable. If I hadn't, there wouldn't have been time to fit it in."
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Why she's a contender: The Academy adores a labor of love, and Oscar winner Kidman (The Hours) both stars in and produced this drama about grieving parents.
Kidman: "We didn't have trailers, so we were essentially living together in that house [where the characters live]. That led us to talk about things that are really intimate. A lot of my preparation was just trying to become extremely comfortable with Aaron [Eckhart] so that we could actually feel married."
Diane Lane, Secretariat
Why she's a contender: Lane overshadows the equine hero of this feel-good Disney movie. A 2003 Oscar nominee for Unfaithful, she could benefit from Sandra Bullock's win last year for playing another impassioned take-charge woman.
Lane: "In the scene where Scott Glenn, who portrays Penny's father, is dying, that's a timeless reality that I experienced myself. I was portraying a truth where I could pass a lie detector test."
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Why she's a contender: The newcomer is this year's indie darling for her gut-wrenching portrayal of a poor Ozarks teenager defending her family's honor.
Lawrence: "I would have done anything [for this part]. I auditioned, and they said I didn't have the right look [without meeting her]. They were in New York, and I'm a crazy person, so I got on a plane and flew [there] to say, 'Hire me or die!' I didn't shower: I flew in on a red eye and didn't brush my teeth or my hair. I ended up convincing them -- or scaring them."
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Why she's a contender: Mike Leigh turned Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) into nominated leading ladies, and Manville seems a likely next candidate. Cannes loved her turn as a boozy hospital worker -- recognition long overdue for the actress, who started acting when she was a child.
Manville: "[The final scene] was very technical because the camera had to sit between the backs of our chairs. The power of that moment is so much about her loneliness, and I knew the scene had to end on me. During the pauses, I had to focus especially on keeping that level of feeling."
Helen Mirren, The Tempest
Why she's a contender: An Oscar winner for The Queenand a nominee for The Last Station, Mirren plays a female version of Prospero in this adaptation of Shakespeare's playand is being given credit the film itself has somehow eluded.
Mirren: "If you're working with a visionary like Julie [Taymor], you put yourself happily into her vision. You also have great artistic freedom. It's your job is to make the words understandable and poetic. The development of the character and all of those things, she very much leaves up to the actor."
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Why she's a contender: Moore almost fell out of the film when co-star Annette Bening needed to shoot in Los Angeles, instead of on the East Coast, which had been part of Moore's deal. Surprisingly overlooked for last year's A Single Man, the four-time nominee --The End of the Affair, Far From Heaven, The Hours and Boogie Nights -- is nonetheless an Academy favorite.
Moore: "The most challenging thing was the big speech [given after her character cheats on her partner]. It was beautifully written, but it can be easy to make it too maudlin, too woe-is-me. I had to realize that my character doesn't articulate very well; she's all about emotions."
Gwyneth Paltrow, Country Strong
Why she's a contender: The Oscar winner (Shakespeare in Love) flexes her indie -- and vocal -- muscles as a down-and-out country singer, mirroring Jeff Bridges' winning role in last year's Crazy Heart.
Shana Feste (director): "On the day she had to sing in front of thousands of extras, she was more nervous than I had ever seen her before. You think of Gwyneth as this mythical figure; then you see her backstage shaking before she has to go on and reading an encouraging e-mail from her mother. It was very humanizing."
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Why she's a contender: Portman had to wait nine years after she was offered the part before Darren Aronofsky found the money to shoot his film. She then shed 20 pounds and trained for nearly a year -- just the kind of backstory the Academy loves.
Portman: "In the fight scene with [co-star] Mila Kunis, she worked with a double, and I worked with a double almost the whole time. That was really hard because it was a big emotional scene, and I wasn't working with the actual actor."
Hilary Swank, Conviction
Why she's a contender: Swank has two Oscars for playing outcast underdogs (Boys Don't Cry, Million Dollar Baby). As Betty Anne Waters, the real-life blue-collar Massachusetts woman who became a lawyer to free her imprisoned brother, she exhibits the same believable grit and vulnerability.
Swank: "In the scene where they find [her brother] guilty, it wasn't written, 'Betty Anne breaks down,' but it hit me so hard in that moment: They were about to be separated for life. It was a discovery to go from the shocked disbelief to the realization of 'I'm losing my lifeline.'"
Tilda Swinton, I Am Love
Why she's a contender: Swinton first talked to director Luca Guadagnino about making a film together 20 years ago, and about making this film 11 years ago.
Swinton: "The idea came out of a short film we made together, The Love Factory, an interview with him asking me questions about the universe and cinema, and at some point I start talking about an ethic of love as I see it -- a concept which is very different from the romantic idea we get sold."
Naomi Watts, Fair Game
Why she's a contender: The Academy favors real-life heroines, from Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovichto Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side -- and is likely to look kindly on one who took on the Bush administration. But Watts is also up for supporting for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, potentially a distraction from this role.
Watts: "The timing could not have been worse. I was breast-feeding my baby every two hours and was at my most feminine, [while I was] told I had to be this strong, bad-ass thing. [Director] Doug Liman was nervous. He sent me off to boot camp. It's not that the movie has massive physical content; he wanted to know that I was capable [of it]. Every scene, everywhere we went, my baby was within arm's reach."
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Why she's a contender: The 2006 Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain gives what is arguably her best performance in a role she had to wait years to play while financing and logistics fell into place. Her commitment to raising the money also earned her and co-star Ryan Gosling executive producer credits.
Williams: "I wanted to make [this film] more than I ever wanted to make anything. Last winter, Derek [Cianfrance, the director] called and said, 'Ryan's ready to go, I'm ready to go. Pack your bags, we're going to California in February.' And I wasn't ready to work. I was taking a year off and February would infringe on my [time] that I was spending with my daughter. I called back the next day, sobbing, and said, 'I can't. You're going to have to cast somebody else.' He asked, 'Damn, can you think of anyone else?' I started crying even harder because the thought of somebody else playing her was too much for me to take. He said, 'We'll wait and we'll come to you.' "
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Fighter
Why he's a contender: As he famously did for The Machinist, the never-nominated Bale dropped serious weight for his role as Dickie Eklund -- and in good Method style, remained in character for the duration of the 33-day shoot.
David O. Russell (director): "It was amazing to see this colorful, gregarious character, so different from others Christian has played -- maybe different from his own quieter nature as well. He'd walk around the set making people laugh, completely transformed. He was actually a fun guy to have around."
Josh Brolin, True Grit, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Why he's a contender: Brolin earned wide acclaim for his work in the Coen brothers Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, namely with a best supporting actor nomination from the Academy. Now he has not one but three potential roles through which the Academy could possibly make up for not awarding him the gold.
Brolin: "It's easy to get depressed on a Woody [Allen] film if you lend yourself to the idea that you're replacing Woody, but I can't imagine anyone more diametrically opposed from Woody than me. We both acknowledged that immediately when we worked on Melinda and Melinda. After W., he wrote me: 'Dear Josh, I had to drop you a quick note to say how fabulous you were in W. You may remember me from Melinda and Melinda. I was the director.' "
Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer
Why he's a contender: The classically trained erstwhile Bond is long overdue for Academy kudos. And unlike The Matador, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, Ghost Writer gave Brosnan the opportunity show off his dramatic chops as a slippery politician, slyly like Tony Blair.
Brosnan: "When we shot the scene in which I got clogged, as the prime minister, it was my dear mother's birthday. I'd said, 'Why don't you come over from London?' So she came over. Of course, I never really put the two together -- that she was going to come on set the night I get shot. Luckily, my mother's a very hardy Irishwoman. I said, 'Happy birthday. Now it is going to be me getting my brains blown out.' We started at 5:30 in the evening and we finished at 7 in the morning, and she stayed throughout the night. [Director] Roman Polanski got all the cast and crew and sang 'Happy Birthday.'"
Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; also a best actor contender for Solitary Man
Why he's a contender: It's ironic that one of Douglas' most nuanced performances is as a man facing his own mortality just as the press has been full of stories about the actor's own battle with cancer. This might prevent him from giving the kind of press push the Solitary Man role deserves. He won an Oscar the last time he played Gordon Gekko and he may be back in contention this time, making Gekko a more -- if not entirely -- sympathetic figure.
Ed Pressman (producer, Wall Street): "Michael does his homework. On the first film, it was about him learning the vernacular of this world. But this one was more complex, more depth. Michael met with Sam Waksal from Imclone to really understand the experience of being on top, and how it felt when he wasn't there anymore. Oliver [Stone] and Michael are very familiar with each other – they know how to push each other's buttons. There's always been a warmth, but a contentiousness too; testing each other's resolve, pushing each other to be their best."
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Why he's a contender: The actor drawing a flurry of press for being the next Spider-Man originally read for the role of Mark Zuckerberg, which, he says, paradoxically gave him the empathy to play the friend Zuckerberg spurned, Eduardo Saverin. He's also doing double-duty with a buzzed-about role in Fox Searchlight's coming-of-age drama, Never Let Me Go.
Garfield: "Usually actors get four or five takes to get it right, but with Social Network we had 50 takes to get it wrong. As soon as an actor is given that opportunity, it becomes a much more joyful process because the control is being taken out of your hands and you can just surrender to whatever moment you’re in.”
Bill Murray, Get Low
Why he’s a contender: Murray’s modern-day reinvention as quirky art-house character actor has served him well, especially in 2003’s Lost in Translation, for which he received his first and only Oscar nomination. His turn as a mellow caretaker plays nicely against Robert Duvall’s crazy old coot.
Robert Duvall: “Bill is a character! He played music in between shots, crazy music. I don’t know where he got it, but just to keep the spirits up on the set. He’s a hell of an unpredictable guy — one of the few to come out of Saturday Night Live a legitimate actor, you know?”
Sean Penn, Fair Game
Why he’s a contender: After taking home the actor prize for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in 2009, Penn takes on a second real-life politician, Joseph Wilson, and pulls it off with enough conviction he could earn his sixth nomination.
Joseph Wilson: “Sean had just won the Oscar for Milk, and literally within 10 days he flew to Albuquerque, drove up to my house, knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m your new babysitter. And I have just one question: Do you like the script?’ We said, ‘Yes,’ and he stepped outside and called his agent, and said, ‘I’m in.’ From that time on, we spent an awful lot of time together. He did everything he could to try to figure out everything about me. He even knows the brand of boxer shorts I wear!”
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Why he’s a contender: After giving Renner a nomination — but no statuette — for his career-making turn in The Hurt Locker, voters could be inclined to recognize his Cagney-esque performance as a dead-end career criminal from the bad streets of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood.
Renner: “[Director] Ben Affleck said, ‘No accent coaches,’ and I was like, ‘How do you expect me to do this?’ So he e-mailed me recordings of [local criminal types] reading some of the lines and telling stories. But once I got there and was able to hang out with these guys, I realized that, even with the accent as specific as it is, they all had different attitudes. It gave me a lot more freedom.”
Sam Rockwell, Conviction
Why he’s a contender: Indie king Rockwell is top-notch as a man wrongly convicted of murder, balancing rage with winning humor. He’s been on the fringe for a while, so this beat-the-system true-story drama may widen his appeal.
Rockwell: “I wanted the guy to be soulful and buoyant, even as an older guy, even when he’d been in [prison] for years. It was a way to [let audiences] empathize with the character. You had to have that juxtaposition or people wouldn’t have been receptive to him. It would have been easy for them to make up their minds right away.”
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Why he’s a contender: Ruffalo arrived on set driving a motorbike, and that authenticity permeates every aspect of his carefree character — even though in real life he was anything but carefree at the time.
Ruffalo: “When I showed up to the film, it was a heavy time for me. I had just lost my brother [who was murdered]. Sometimes being an actor is a great escape. I could never be as self-assured as this character, but it was definitely a very fun character to play. The chance to walk around in his shoes was very liberating.”
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Why he’s a contender:The 1997 best actor winner for Shine was back in his native Melbourne when an unwanted manuscript showed up on his doorstep for a play that was being produced locally. Luckily, he overcame his initial irritation, read it and signed on as an executive producer as well as co-star, delivering one of his most memorable performances in years.
Rush: “[Speech therapist Lionel] Logue is a failed Shakespearean actor. The first scene for the film we shot was Logue acting bad Shakespeare, which was actually a real thrill to do. Getting up in front of an audience to perform Richard III in front of a roomful of stuffy Brits, I felt a residue of colonial inadequacy. It was perfect!”
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
Why he’s a contender:Although Timberlake has being popping up in indie films for years, his portrayal of Napster co-founder Sean Parker is his first foray into serious awards territory. He dominates the later part of
Timberlake: “The way [screenwriter] Aaron Sorkin wrote this character, I saw some of the darker parts of him. He had a lot of similarities to Mark [Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook]: The same insecurities, the same fears, which caused them both to have the same drive. They’ve just taken a different aesthetic as their armor.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Why she's a contender: While only a few insiders had seen the film at press time, they were raving about the twice-nominated actress' turn away from bright-and-sunny roles as "Irish" Micky Ward's working-class girlfriend, Charlene.
Melissa Leo (co-star): "I knew Amy as this wonderfully sweet, warm girl. [Director] David O. Russell saw this rougher edge. It was extraordinary to see her reaching for something she has not done thus far. She has a very strong backbone and a light, ethereal quality. That strong backbone is what lands hard in this film."
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech, Alice in Wonderland
Why she's a contender: Bonham Carter doesn't come from British royalty, but she is descended from a former prime minister, which may have given her the insight she needed to play two queens: a real one in King's Speech and a fake in Alice. Both presented challenges: For Alice, it meant working with partner Tim Burton after a difficult shoot on Sweeney Todd; for King's, it meant shuttling between her role as the future Queen Mother and the latest Harry Potter. She's drawn raves for both.
Bonham Carter: "I know what it's like to support a man under pressure and stress. But I wanted to do [Queen Elizabeth] justice. Not just make her the archetypical woman behind the man in the background, but through small gestures, some authority."
Kimberly Elise, For Colored Girls
Why she's a contender: In her second collaboration with Tyler Perry, Elise again tackles gritty material -- this time, caring for a PTSD-rattled husband -- with the kind of rawness that's kept her on the Academy's radar since her breakout role in 1998's Beloved.
Elise: "I don't take choosing roles lightly. People say, 'You should work more, you should work more! Believe me, you could see me all the time. But I don't think you'd feel very good about it. I know I wouldn't. All I know is, I went to this movie with about five gray hairs, I came back with about 50. I'm not kidding. That's your body thinking it actually went through these experiences. I had my first dye job a few weeks ago. I had to surrender to the bottle."
Elle Fanning, Somewhere
Why she's a contender: Only 11 when she made the movie, Fanning is quite believable as a kid trying to befriend her estranged father.
Fanning: "Whenever it looks like she's having a good time, she's also living with this thing about feeling abandoned. You don't really have to think about it much. If you just remember she's thinking about the stuff with her mom and dad, it comes through."
Gemma Jones, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Why she's a contender: The never-nominated British veteran aces her first Woody Allen film as a jilted wife seeking comfort through psychic readings. Voters, who've frequently recognized Woody Allen's stars even when they've spurned him, could be taken with a performance that treads the perfect line between tragedy and farce.
Jones: "I consider myself a novice film actor, actually. I had to trust myself that I didn't need to be patted on the back. Woody doesn't flatter at all. The little girl in me quite wanted him to say, 'You're doing really well!' He very, very rarely does that, but I came to appreciate his approach and to trust my instincts. He did, after all, cast me because he trusted me."
Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go
Why she's a contender: One-time nominee Knightley (Pride & Prejudice) plays a spoiled brat who evolves into a regret-addled martyr. Her performance -- anchored by an extended death scene that sees her quietly accepting her fate as a forced organ donor -- is marked by how she almost dares us to dislike her.
Knightley: "We spoke about the concept of somebody coming to terms with dying and wanting to die, and I thought that was a really interesting psychological perspective, of somebody who's tired of fighting. I've had friends who were in accidents and it helped [Knightley plays an organ donor] to talk to them about how they felt."
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Why she's a contender: With her 2008 nomination for Frozen Riverstill in voters' minds, the suddenly everywhere Leo (HBO's Treme, Conviction, Welcome to the Rileys) could continue her Oscar momentum with this role as "Irish" Micky Ward's no-nonsense mother Alice.
Leo: "When I got dressed up like Alice Ward -- oh my, literally, I could feel the heads turning. That's not something me, as Melissa, does to people, believe me. What drew me [to the film] really was David O. Russell. He wanted me to play this part that I couldn't completely suss out. I had read the script and thought, 'I don't quite see it.' I am usually much more immediately attached to the women I play. I didn't know I had Alice Ward in me."
Juliette Lewis, Conviction
Why she's a contender: For many critics, Lewis, a 1992 nominee for Cape Fear, steals the show as a drug-addled misfit whose perjury gets her ex-boyfriend convicted of murder -- all done in just two scenes, wearing fake teeth.
Lewis: "It became exciting to me to try to tell the story of her last 18 years in one scene. She's a substance abuser, so her movements and the way she speaks have this specific, physical element. She never has people over, and suddenly she has guests, which brings this level of nervous energy. I was thinking about all that."
Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go
Why she's a contender: Mulligan broke out in An Educationand is also seen this year in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Her authenticity in this role may have been helped by her longtime friendship with co-star Keira Knightley, with whom she first appeared in Pride & Prejudice.
Mulligan: "In the scene where Andrew [Garfield] breaks down, we were on a wet street, and I fell down with him. It ripped my tights and I had bloody knees, but I didn't feel anything because I was just lost in what he was doing. It was like we went into this weird little world together, and it never failed to work."
Miranda Richardson, Made in Dagenham
Why she's a contender: As Barbara Castle, the British labor secretary who helped a group of female autoworkers strike for equal pay, Richardson is fiery but friendly, noble but fun. With two nominations under her belt (Damage, Tom & Viv) she's Academy-friendly, too.
Richardson: "When she learns about the strike, she says, 'You're assuming the girls will do what they're told.' I thought, '[That line] is not a slam. It doesn't need to be delivered like a slam. I thought it was interesting that she said 'girls,' not 'women,' but I decided she didn't mean it in a derogatory way. It was an expression of camaraderie."
Kristin Scott Thomas, Nowhere Boy
Why she's a contender: Scott Thomas' tough caretaker aunt to wayward teenager John Lennon is the actress' most multidimensional English-speaking role in years.
Scott Thomas: "I didn't go mad doing research on Mimi. At some point, you have to give up and say, 'We're going to tell a story and leave the facts behind.' The information has to come from inside you; it can't just sort of be stuck on top of a character. What I loved most about working with [director] Sam Taylor-Wood was how much I became part of the physical shape of the scene. It's the first time I've really understood the power of a frame, the power of an angle of the camera. Being a good actress isn't about just getting the emotions right. It's also being able to understand the power of an image."
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Why she's a contender: A 12-year-old who can hold her own with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and the Coen brothers -- and in her first dramatic feature part -- is worthy of buzz. It remains to be seen if she can reinvent a classic role.
Steinfeld: "I worked with a private coach and did a lot of breaking down of the character. It was all new to me because I've never done that before with an entire script. I'm so used to doing it off of five or six pages for an audition. But to go over the whole script was amazing. There was a lot to know about her. Getting on set and putting on the wardrobe makes a huge difference. Just to put on the shoes! It makes all the difference in the performance."
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
Why she's a contender: Williams was so impressive as a woman loosely modeled on ex-premier's wife Cherie Blair, she blew away Summit Entertainment chief Patrick Wachsberger, not to mention director Roman Polanski. Question is, will voters overlook her simply because she's too real?
Williams: "The book was written obviously with Cherie in mind, although [writer] Robert Harris will hotly deny it, but there are some aspects that were important just to maintain the plot. I retained those to honor the mechanics of the story -- the fact that she had political ambitions of her own, but that her general lack of appeal curtailed her political ambition, and [so] she hooked up with a charismatic man. That was necessary to the plot."
Woody Allen, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Why he's a contender: Arguably the most admired screenwriter currently working in American film, Allen has had countless nominations -- though few actual Oscars, perhaps indicating that the writers who nominate are better disposed to him than the Academy at large. In a category with a dearth of strong contenders, Allen at his best is always one to bank on.
Gemma Jones (actress):"I was warned in advance about the possibility of not getting [to read] the whole script [in advance]. When I got the role, the casting director said, 'It's a fantastic part,' but I'd only read the two scenes I'd done in my tests. I asked, 'Are there more scenes than just those two?' She said, 'Oh yes, there are tons more!' And I thought, 'Oh my God, how will I know my lines if I don't get the script?' In the end, I did actually get the whole script. I was very privileged. Lots of people only just get their pages. Lots of fine actors would come up and ask, 'So, what is this film about?' "
James L. Brooks, How Do You Know
Why he's a contender: Brooks ranks right up there among the best writers in the world, and one who spans television as easily as film. It's been a while since his work drew universal plaudits, but maybe this one -- unseen at press time -- will change that.
Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right
Why they're contenders:Cholodenko stumbled on Blumberg in a local coffee shop and the two very different writers collaborated for years on the script. After many studios had passed and the film lost its original funding, they regrouped, making their work lighter and brighter to give it more commercial appeal.
Blumberg: "Writing partnerships can work in different ways. I'm currently doing one with a partner where we never see each other. It's via Skype. With Lisa, we were together sitting at a keyboard and hashing over scenes. We had to learn how to work together: I have more of a straight-ahead male mind; Lisa is more discursive. We'd start to write, and then she'd stop because she wanted to know how my weekend went."
Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine
Why he's a contender: Arguably the most demanding and heavyweight film of the season,Valentineis a surefire contender for indie awards, but can it crossover to the Academy? The film won the 2010 Sundance jury prize for drama and writers tend to admire challenging work even more than their fellow Academy members.
Cianfrance: "When I was kid, I had two recurring nightmares. One was about nuclear war, and the other was that my parents would divorce. When I was 20, they split up and it was so confusing and bewildering to me that I had to confront it artistically. After the first 12 drafts, I still felt the film was one-sided from the male point of view. So I worked with my friend Kami. It was great to have the female perspective. This [also] became Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams' film; I'd be so inspired, I'd go home and rewrite it based on our conversations. I stopped counting at 66 drafts."
Sofia Coppola, Somewhere
Why she's a contender: Coppola's film about a movie star reconnecting with his estranged daughter took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. It marks a return for the writer-director to the lyrical ache of Lost In Translation, which nabbed her a screenplay Oscar in 2004.
Coppola: "The scene where they have the tea party in the swimming pool was one [where], when I was writing the script, I thought, 'Oh, it's too corny, but I'll leave it in and cut it out later.' You have to push yourself to almost being sappy or else you can't really find the moments that are sweet. You can't be closed and cool all the time."
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, Black Swan
Why they're contenders: McLaughlin took Heinz's original script, a murder mystery set in an off-Broadway theater company, and reset it in the world of ballet. Heyman further refined it when he decided to base it on the Swan Lake story line.
Heyman: "One thing that was very clear about the world of ballet is how insanely focused and dedicated and disciplined the people are. It's that level of obsession -- that there's a really perfect and right way to do it -- that I tried to incorporate."
Mike Leigh, Another Year
Why he's a contender: Leigh already has four screenplay nominations, and since this bowed at Cannes, it has gotten a strong response for its depiction of aging and lonely Brits.
Leigh: "Those first scenes were written because Imelda [Staunton, who plays a bitter insomniac] wasn't available for more than a few days. I said, 'Come in and I'll make use of the fact that I've only got you for a bit.' I regard it as a prologue. It's a kind of emotional boot camp. It prepares you for that which follows because if you didn't have that, you'd start with the nice couple at home."
Peter Morgan, Hereafter
Why he's a contender: The British playwright and screenwriter, whose previous Oscar nominations include ones for Frost/Nixon and The Queen, takes audiences on a journey toward the afterlife without going too New Agey on us. Having Clint Eastwood direct probably helped.
Morgan: "I was always prepared for, 'Well, Peter, this is a charming story, but can we lose the tsunami and replace it with her drowning or being hit by a car?' But Clint wanted to shoot it without changing a word. He said, 'I don't want you to start over-thinking this. I don't want it to become self-conscious.' "
Todd Phillips, Due Date
Why he's a contender: With a 2007 Oscar nomination for original screenplay for Borat, and all the acclaim after last year's Hangover, Phillips has emerged as one of the most original comic auteurs in America, making him a top contender for a Golden Globe nomination at the minimum, whether in the best comedy or writing arena.
David Seidler, The King's Speech
Why he's a contender: Seidler grew up with a stutter, just like the hero of his film -- only in his case it started at age 3 when he moved from England to America. That back story, and his late-in-life acclaim (he's now 73) make him a frontrunner for this year's Oscars.
Seidler: "Just before my third birthday, I came over on a ship from Britain to the U.S. We left the country to get away from imminent invasion and we were followed by German U-boats. One of my first memories was seeing the Statue of Liberty on the ship. It was also the start of a severe stutter. [A] glimmering hope I had as a child was that the king had been a bad stutterer, but he had gotten over it."
Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig, The Town
Adapted from the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves
Why they're contenders: Voters have already shown their love for Affleck's writing, giving him an Oscar for 1998's Good Will Hunting. Better still, they have a predilection for classy crime thrillers -- think The Departed.
Stockard: "The first thing we did was talk to the FBI's taskforce on armed robbery in Boston. They were able to fill in all these details that really opened our eyes a bit about this neighborhood that neither of us had spent any time in growing up -- even though it was a stone's throw away from us. At first we were like, 'People don't really jump out with AK-47s on the streets of the North End of Boston.' But in fact, they really do."
Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3
Why he's a contender: Arndt proved his appeal with Academy voters when he won an Oscar for his first produced script, 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. Delivering an acclaimed third outing in this Pixar franchise only furthers his standing.
Arndt: "At Pixar, the feedback cycle is almost immediate. You write something and then, the next day, artists start sketching those characters; it comes to life almost immediately. Writing a screenplay on your own is like trying to cross the ocean on a little homemade raft; getting hired by Pixar is like having a giant ocean liner come along and pick you up. They've done this 10 or 11 times before, so you feel like you're in good hands."
Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Adapted from Aron Ralston's nonfiction book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Why they're contenders: Oscar voters love a triumphant true story, as this one labels itself, but it also benefits from being unique, relying on a kaleidoscopic structure and heart-stopping moments. Beaufoy has been nominated (The Full Monty) and won (Slumdog Millionaire), making him a force to reckon with.
Beaufoy: "I was really hoping [Boyle's first draft] would be bad. Danny always said he's such a bad writer, and he continues to say that. I was hoping that it would be poor. But I read it and thought, 'He found a way into an impossible story.' It was a really compelling 40 pages."
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone
Adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell
Why they're contenders:The film about an Ozark girl looking for her deadbeat father took the jury and screenplay awards at Sundance. Fellow scribes should be impressed with the mythical undertones in the realistic dialogue.
Granik: "Daniel Woodrell's novel was the blueprint, and then our actual trips to Missouri fleshed things out. I remember the interactions we saw between high schoolers and military recruiters were much more textured and emotional than our East Coast bias had prepared us for."
David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole
Adapted from his play
Why he's a contender: The play won Lindsay-Abaire a Pulitzer Prize -- and that classy pedigree will remind voters to look carefully at the writing here.
Lindsay-Abaire: "There's so much off-stage action in the play that it really leant itself to adaptation. I thought, 'I can finally see all the scenes and meet all these people.' With Gaby [a grief support group member], there are maybe four lines about her in the play, but I always knew who she was."
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Adapted from the nonfiction book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebookby Ben Mezrich
Why he's a contender: Arguably the best dialogue writer in the business, Sorkin has earned three Golden Globe nominations for his film work and multiple Emmys for The West Wing. Without him, voters may have relegated the film to teenybopper land.
Sorkin: "There were three different versions of the truth. Instead of picking one and deciding, 'That's the truth,' or picking another one and deciding, 'That's the sexiest,' I liked that there were three. Suddenly it felt like a courtroom drama and I wanted to embrace that."
Alex Garland, Never Let Me Go
Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel
Why he's a contender: Garland's script captures the patrician reserve and melancholy of Ishiguro's book, which follows the dark paths traveled by British youngsters raised to have their organs harvested. History may be on Garland's side: Voters awarded the Ishiguro adaptation The Remains of the Day with eight nominations, included adapted screenplay.
Garland: "There was a point about halfway through the second day of rehearsal where I just relaxed, and I thought, 'These guys get it.' It was hearing them talk about what their characters were thinking in a particular scene. There was this slow relief that spread through the day."
Reported by Taylor Antrim, Mark Blankenship, Stephen Galloway, Eriq Gardner, Christy Grosz, Todd Longwell, Tom McLean, Carita Rizzo, Tom Roston, Scott Timberg and Stacey Wilson