Awards Watch -- The Contenders

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


Christian BaleThe 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 BrolinTrue GritWall Street: Money Never SleepsYou 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 BrosnanThe 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 DouglasWall 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 MurrayGet 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 PennFair 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 RennerThe 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 RockwellConviction

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 RuffaloThe 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 RushThe 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 TimberlakeThe 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
the film.

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.”

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