By Lisa Schwarzbaum
January 06, 2011 at 11:19 PM EST

Image Credit: Jojo WhildenI have no problem telling you right now that I’d like Annette Bening to win this year’s Oscar for Best Actress, and I’d like to give the award for Best Actor to Colin Firth. But hey, if your favorite candidate wins instead of mine, I’ve got no hard feelings. Once we get down to the nominees — or even down to that list of finalists most likely to be nominees — we’re talking about good actors, all of them. At which point, what distinguishes one worthy candidate from another, for me, isn’t so much a calibration of goodness as a calibration of size.

The way I see it, some actors are built for big performance, no matter the size of the role. Among grand-scale players, I think of Angelina Jolie, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Hopkins, Julia Roberts, and — in this Oscar season — Christian Bale. Other actors, though, are built to blend, an observation that in no way diminishes the distinction of their performance or even the dominance of the character they play in any given movie, but rather observes innate temperament. Here I’d include Jeff Bridges, Annette Bening, Matt Damon, and Julianne Moore. And Colin Firth, too: He plays a stuttering monarch in The King’s Speech, he’s the focus of every scene he’s in, and yet Firth always maintains a modesty of scale. Of course, as the speech therapist who frees the king to find his speech, Geoffrey Rush shares most of those crucial scenes with Firth. Rush, by contrast, is built for bigness.

Consider Christian Bale and Jeff Bridges: With the mesmerizing energy Bale puts into his role of the crack-shattered boxing brother in The Fighter, his big performance is, for his audience, its own theatrical reward. Yet while Bridges plays an equally outsized character in True Grit (Rooster Cogburn is, I’ll wager, even more amazing a character than Dicky Eklund), his performance slips into the bigger story with a moderation that veils the technical work involved in becoming a fat, drunken, one-eyed, 19th-century bounty hunter.

I, as a moviegoer, can’t possibly know how directorial style and preference affected these differences in performance; I wasn’t there at the creation. But as a moviegoer, I feel free to declare that when it comes to Oscar-contender performances, I am temperamentally more suited to blended acting than to big acting. How about you?