Front-runner Colin Firth is up against past winners Jeff Bridges and Javier Bardem

Colin Firth
*The Frontrunner
The King’s Speech
Age 50
Role King George VI, the often quick-tempered monarch who struggled with an embarrassing stammer while attempting to inspire his subjects at the dawn of World War II.
Oscar History One previous Best Actor nomination, for 2009’s A Single Man.

Up Close And Personal Since director Tom Hooper decided to use wide-angle lenses throughout The King’s Speech, Firth believes he doesn’t always look his best. ”This is a film where vanity had to go out of the window,” says the actor. ”Tom’s lenses are merciless. It was the most unforgiving. And it’s not lit to bathe your jawline in glory. But it’s one of those cases where the big picture is more important.”

Feeling The Pain Playing the stuttering king resulted in a few bizarre side effects. ”It would give me headaches,” he says. ”And it created a strange sensation in my left arm, a pinched nerve or something. I found I couldn’t use it properly for a couple days. My left arm was slightly paralyzed and numb.”

Up Next He’s wrapped a pivotal and mysterious role opposite Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy in the British thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is awaiting a distribution deal. —Dave Karger

James Franco
127 Hours
Age 32
Role Aron Ralston, the ill-fated hiker trapped by a boulder for five full days and then forced to self-amputate his arm.
Oscar History First nomination.

Take Your Time And Time Your Takes Director Danny Boyle’s hyperkinetic style belies a painstaking process of very long takes. ”We did one take that was 22 minutes long,” says Franco. ”When he said, ‘Cut,’ I was exhausted. Even though he’s cut it up and put it into smaller pieces, you get a sense of a longer kind of experience and real exhaustion.”

No. 1 Priority With only a little water left in his canteen, Ralston was forced to, well, recycle. Though the film doesn’t shy away from showing this, Franco didn’t have to go Method for those scenes. ”The prop department had all these tests to find the best fake urine,” Franco recalls, ”and they ended up with apple juice.”

Up Next Franco reteams with Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green for the raunchy fantasy-comedy Your Highness (April 8), then experiments on some damn dirty primates in Rise of the Apes (Nov. 23). —Keith Staskiewicz

Jeff Bridges
True Grit
Age 61
Role Rooster Cogburn, a mumbling gunslinger hired by a young girl (Hailee Steinfeld) to avenge her father’s murder.
Oscar History Before winning Best Actor last year for Crazy Heart, he earned Best Supporting Actor nominations for 1971’s The Last Picture Show, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and 2000’s The Contender, as well as a Best Actor nod for 1984’s Starman.

Like Father, Like Son Bridges has said he was inspired to shoot the Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 John Wayne Western by boyhood memories of seeing his dad, actor Lloyd Bridges, come home from movie sets dressed as a cowboy. But Bridges’ approach to the material is uniquely his own. In fact, True Grit producer Scott Rudin has described Bridges’ Cogburn as the Western version of the Dude, the character the actor played in his last Coen brothers film, The Big Lebowski.

Going For Gold Bridges downplays his chances of becoming the first actor since Tom Hanks in 1995 to pick up two Best Actor Oscars in a row. ”I’m not counting any chickens,” he recently told EW. ”If it happens, great. But I’m a presenter this year. I get to present Best Actress. That’s my job.”

Up Next Bridges is currently in the studio recording an album with T Bone Burnett. He’ll be narrating Pablo, a doc about Cuban-born opening-credits designer Pablo Ferro, but is still mulling his next project. —Benjamin Svetkey

Javier Bardem
Age 41
Role Uxbal, a terminally ill Barcelona father struggling to keep his family together amid unspeakable personal and professional tragedies.
Oscar History He won Best Supporting Actor for 2007’s No Country for Old Men and was previously nominated for Best Actor for 2000’s Before Night Falls.

Fear Factor When Bardem first read Mexican director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s script for Biutiful, the star says, ”I was emotionally and psychologically punched in my stomach. This is not a place where you go and deliver the lines and then you come back. It’s kind of a life-changing experience. But it can’t get better than this for any actor — this is like an opera.”

Photo Realism To prepare for one of the film’s most powerful moments, when Uxbal encounters a room filled with dead Chinese sweatshop workers, Bardem asked his assistant to find pictures of a recent attack in Gaza. ”He brought these pictures of real people being killed: kids, women,” the actor remembers. ”I couldn’t stop feeling a lot of emotions that can connect to what it’s like to be there. This movie took me to the dark side.”

Up Next He plays a priest in Terrence Malick’s recently shot, still-untitled project with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. —Dave Karger

Jesse Eisenberg
The Social Network
Age 27
Role Mark Zuckerberg, the back-stabbing — or backstabbed, depending on your take — founder of Facebook.
Oscar History First nomination.

Due West To protect the secrecy of the Social Network script during casting, the movie’s producers asked Eisenberg to audition with scenes from The West Wing. ”But I didn’t want to do that because I thought I could do the role [of Mark Zuckerberg] well,” says Eisenberg. So he took a risk, making a tape of himself reading from a leaked copy of The Social Network provided by his agent. The gambit paid off.

Family Secret Eisenberg never met the real Mark Zuckerberg, but he got scoop on him from an inside source: the actor’s cousin Eric, who works as a product designer at Facebook. ”Eric has the greatest things to say about [Mark] personally and professionally,” says Eisenberg. ”It made me feel good that my cousin spoke so highly of him, because I spent five months playing him, and by virtue of playing him, defending him. So it was nice to hear that he is as brilliant and as capable as one would suspect.”

Up Next Eisenberg voices a macaw who’s afraid to fly in the animated Rio (April 15), then plays a pizza delivery guy in the comedy 30 Minutes or Less (Aug. 12). —Adam Markovitz