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Oscars 2010: Best Actor nominees

Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, and Colin Firth are among the five hopefuls

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Jeff Bridges
*The Frontrunner
Crazy Heart
Age 60
Role Boozy country-music balladeer Bad Blake.
Oscar history Bridges has four previous acting nominations (1971’s The Last Picture Show, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1984’s Starman, and 2000’s The Contender) but has yet to walk away with a golden boy.

Bad influences, part 1 ”I wrote the part for him,” says Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper. ”He’s not only one of the finest screen actors, he’s a terrific musician and a great singer. He’s got such range, and he’s so fearless. And I needed all of that to portray a man who’s one part Waylon Jennings, one part Merle Haggard, and one part Kris Kristofferson.”

Bad influences, part 2 Bridges may have packed on 25 pounds of flab to play a man who’s given up on everyone (including himself). But the actor says the most helpful trick for getting into a character’s head is latching onto a few small physical items. In the movie, he plays a guitar belonging to country legend Buddy Miller and wears a necklace of elk’s teeth. ”I like all of those juju power objects,” he says. ”Acting is filled with that kind of thing.”

Up next The big-budget, F/X-driven sci-fi sequel TRON: LEGACY and the Coen brothers remake of True Grit. — Chris Nashawaty

Morgan Freeman
Age 72
Role South African president Nelson Mandela.
Oscar history He won Best Supporting Actor for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby and has three additional nods (for 1987’s Street Smart, 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, and 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption).

The chosen one In the mid-’90s, Mandela himself said Freeman would be the ideal actor to play him on the big screen, and over the years people have told Freeman he resembled the Nobel Peace Prize winner. ”I heard that a lot,” Freeman says.

His no.1 fan (and costar) Matt Damon, who plays the captain of the South African rugby team in director Clint Eastwood’s uplifting historical drama, had long aspired to work with Freeman. ”I had an assistant about 12 years ago who’d heard me talking about how much I admired Morgan Freeman so many times that she actually arranged for us to have dinner together as a Christmas present to me,” he says. ”You remember [Saturday Night Live‘s] The Chris Farley Show, where he’s like, ‘Remember that scene where you did that thing? That was awesome!’ It was like that. Morgan tolerated it for a couple of hours and was a really dignified gentleman.”

Up next Freeman stars opposite Bruce Willis in the thriller Red, due this fall. — Josh Rottenberg

George Clooney
Up in the Air
Age 48
Role Ryan Bingham, a high-flying corporate hatchet man who reevaluates his connection-free lifestyle after falling for a fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga).
Oscar history Four previous nominations: two for acting, one for directing, one for writing. He’s won once: Best Supporting Actor for 2005’s Syriana.

He always had it in him Though Clooney’s turn in Up in the Air has several surprisingly emotional moments near the end, it’s the breezy feel of most of the performance that’s won praise from critics and audiences alike. ”Laurence Olivier disappeared into roles and you never could recognize him,” Clooney says. ”Then there was Spencer Tracy, and he was always sort of…Spencer Tracy. I don’t know where I fit in. There’s always some element of me in there. So if it feels effortless, then I did my job. I mean, I am a professional. I know what I’m doing.”

Up next He’ll star as a hitman completing one last assignment in Italy in The American (out Sept. 1), based on Martin Booth’s 2004 novel A Very Private Gentleman. — Dave Karger

Colin Firth
A Single Man
Age 49
Role George, a British college professor mourning the loss of his longtime lover.
Oscar history First nomination.

Less is more In fashion designer Tom Ford’s elegiac feature debut, the most powerful scene may be the one in which Firth’s character answers a phone, expecting to hear the cheery voice of his boyfriend (Matthew Goode), only to receive news of his death. The earth moves in the subtle tremors of Firth’s face and the catch of his throat, the slow clicking of his eyeglasses folding as he processes the end of his happiness. ”There’s something very moving and quite unique, actually, about seeing a broken man operate with dignity,” explains Firth.

Spellbound The British actor is known for playing rather mopey men awakened by love?Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary?but it is the character of wounded George that will live long within him. ”It happens sometimes with fictional characters where they cast a spell on you, and you imagine they’re real, and you want to take care of them and run into them again.”

Up next Firth tackles George VI in The King’s Speech, a drama due later this year costarring Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. — Karen Valby

Jeremy Renner
The Hurt Locker
Age 39
Role Staff Sgt. William James, an unflappable bomb-defusion expert.
Oscar history First nomination.

It’s not the bomb that’ll kill you While working with real bomb defusers at Fort Irwin in California before production began, Renner wasn’t as interested in the mechanics of the job as he was in what frightened the seemingly fearless soldiers. The answer? Not IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but plain ol’ bullets. ”They just don’t want to get shot at.”

Getting into character Renner credits director Kathryn Bigelow with making the nail-biting combat sequences feel so authentic. ”We just had to react,” he says. ”We really didn’t have to try hard to keep it tense.” Bigelow also built tension on set by shooting some scenes (like James’ first bomb-defusing run) in single takes lasting as long as 15 minutes.

Up next He stars opposite Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, and Blake Lively in the September crime drama The Town, co-written and directed by Affleck. — Adam B. Vary