Front-runner Sandra Bullock up against past winners Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep

By EW Staff
Updated February 05, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

Sandra Bullock
*The Frontrunner
The Blind Side
Age 45
Role Leigh Anne Tuohy, the real-life adoptive mom of football star Michael Oher. Oscar History First nomination.

Getting into character Bullock had her doubts when she first slipped on the frosted blond wig and sassy Memphis twang to play Tuohy. ”I kept questioning [director] John Lee Hancock: ‘Why me? This isn’t a good pairing!”’ she says. ”It was probably one of the worst [first] days of shooting I’ve ever had.”

What women really want The star says that there’s no huge secret as to why The Blind Side connected with audiences more accustomed to seeing her in romantic comedies like The Proposal. ”As I tell everyone, ‘When you say you’re going to make a movie for women, don’t think of us as light. We like the dark, we like the struggle, we like something with balls.”’

Career high At an age when Hollywood too often benches its actresses, Bullock is enjoying the best box office of her career. ”How many years have I been in this business?” she marvels. ”And I’m doing more stuff now than ever.”

Up next Bullock is happily uncommitted to a new project. ”There’s not a lot worth leaving home for,” she explains. — Karen Valby

Meryl Streep
Julie & Julia
Age 60
Role Julia Child, the exuberant chef who introduced Americans to French gastronomy in the 1960s.
Oscar history Uh…Streep kind of is Oscar history: She keeps breaking her own records. Over the past four decades, she’s scored 16 nods and has won twice, first in 1980 for Kramer vs. Kramer (Best Supporting Actress) and then in 1983 for Sophie’s Choice (Best Actress).

Getting into character Streep captured Child’s famed mannerisms with uncanny precision, but the actress never intended to be a replica of the culinary icon — simply because in the film, she plays a Julia imagined by Amy Adams’ character. ”I wanted to have a caption in the credits: ‘Inspired by Julia Child,”’ says Streep. ”I was an idea of Julia Child. So I felt some freedom to do whatever I wanted.”

Inspirations One model for Streep’s performance was a no-brainer. ”I was channeling a spirit I was very familiar with: my mother’s,” she says. ”Maybe it’s that postwar generation — they have a can-do attitude. Some people always see the problem, but Julia always thought, ‘Well, here’s a solution to that!’ My mother had that quality too.”

Up next After making 12 movies in four years, Streep is taking a well-deserved break before choosing her next project. — Missy Schwartz

Helen Mirren
The Last Station
Age 64
Role Countess Sofya, a fearless, seductive woman coping with the impending death of her husband, Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
Oscar history She won Best Actress for 2006’s The Queen, and earned additional nods for 1994’s The Madness of King George and 2001’s Gosford Park.

Getting into character Though film footage of Sofya exists, Mirren has said she didn’t feel the need to mimic the countess as she so famously did Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Instead, the actress let the script inspire her: ”I [could’ve] muddied the waters by going back and saying, ‘Oh, she didn’t look like this. She wouldn’t have done that. She didn’t do that,”’ Mirren has said. ”Sofya was not a well-enough-known character in the way she looked and the way she sounded, as the way the Queen is, for example. I didn’t feel I had to do some kind of impersonation.”

Up next Mirren stars in a remake of the 1947 drama Brighton Rock, Julie Taymor’s take on Shakespeare’s comedy The Tempest, director husband Taylor Hackford’s drama Love Ranch, and an adaptation of Warren Ellis’ comic-book series Red. — Kate Ward

Gabourey Sidibe
Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire
Age 26
Role Claireece ”Precious” Jones, an overweight, illiterate teenager trying to find meaning in her life after being repeatedly raped by her father and abused by her mother (Best Supporting Actress nominee Mo’Nique).
Oscar history First nomination.

Getting into character In person, Sidibe is as sunny as Precious is withdrawn. But that doesn’t mean she can’t relate to Precious. ”While it’s not me, it’s been me at some point,” she says. ”I’ve had weird teenage years where I thought I was ‘less than.’ So it was hard to go back there.”

Inspirations What motivated Sidibe while crafting her indelible character? Real-life Preciouses everywhere. ”I’ve walked past this girl a million times over,” she says. ”And I’ve ignored her. So I felt a lot of responsibility. I had to redeem myself. I felt a lot of guilt. I had to go there for this person who can’t.”

Up next She’ll costar in another gritty New York City film, Yelling to the Sky, and will appear opposite Laura Linney in the Showtime drama series The Big C. — Dave Karger

Carey Mulligan
An Education
Age 24
Role Jenny, a 16-year-old schoolgirl in early-1960s suburban London who falls for a charming and mysterious older man (Peter Sarsgaard) and soon finds herself in over her head socially and emotionally.
Oscar history First nomination.

Getting into character Mulligan may be eight years older than her onscreen alter ego, but she was still inspired by Jenny. ”What I loved about her is that she has this amazing thirst for knowledge and culture, and she really wants to live life properly,” says the actress, who tackled her first-ever leading film role in An Education. ”I came away from it wanting to be a little bit more like her in that respect.”

Up next Mulligan will play Michael Douglas’ daughter (and real-life boyfriend Shia LaBeouf’s love interest) in this spring’s much-anticipated sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The coming year also brings the British drama Never Let Me Go, co-starring Keira Knightley, due out this fall.