Awards Watch -- The Contenders

 Clockwise from top Left: Screen Gems; Sony Pictures Classics; Summit Entertainment; Warner Bros. Pictures


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 HawkinsMade 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 KidmanRabbit 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 LaneSecretariat

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 LawrenceWinter'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 ManvilleAnother 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 MirrenThe 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 MooreThe 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 PaltrowCountry 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 PortmanBlack 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 CryMillion 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 WilliamsBlue 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.' "

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