Awards Watch -- The Contenders

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

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.


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 CarterThe King's SpeechAlice 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 EliseFor 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 JonesYou 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 KnightleyNever 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 MulliganNever 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 RichardsonMade 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 ThomasNowhere 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 SteinfeldTrue 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 WilliamsThe 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."

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