Front-runner Natalie Portman up against veteran Annette Bening and past winner Nicole Kidman

Natalie Portman
*The Frontrunner
Black Swan
Age 29
Role Nina Sayers, a prima ballerina who has a nervous breakdown after getting the lead in Swan Lake.
Oscar History She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2004’s Closer.

Once Is Enough Black Swan is a bona fide box office hit, drawing both art-house and mainstream moviegoers. But there’s one person who isn’t eager to see it anytime soon: Portman herself. ”I watched it once, and it was so painful,” says the actress, who met her fiancé, dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied, on the set (the couple are expecting a child later this year). ”I’m pretty hard on myself in general.”

Critical Masses Despite the accolades she’s been racking up for her performance as Nina, Portman insists her post-Black Swan life is hardly a constant chorus of praise. ”I’ll be at the drugstore getting an extra toothpaste, and some girls come in and are like, ‘You SUUUCK!”’ she laughs.

Up Next Don Roos’ marital drama The Other Woman (available now on IFC on demand, in theaters Feb. 4); the stoner comedy Your Highness (April 8), costarring James Franco and Danny McBride; and a big-screen version of the Marvel comic Thor (May 6), directed by Kenneth Branagh. —Adam Markovitz

Annette Bening
The Kids Are All Right
Age 52
Role Nic, a hard-drinking lesbian doctor whose wife (Julianne Moore) has an affair with their kids’ sperm-donor dad.
Oscar History Three nominations (1990’s The Grifters, 1999’s American Beauty, 2004’s Being Julia), no wins.

Ready Or Not After 24 years in the business, Bening says she’s finally found the key to preparing for a role: Don’t do too much. ”I didn’t overthink what I was doing,” she says of her work on last summer’s indie darling The Kids Are All Right. ”And that’s something that’s taken me a long time to learn how to do. If I have a strong response to something — I don’t know how to describe it except that there’s something in my gut that’s getting it — then I don’t play around too much with it. I try to stay away from it intellectually and trust that.”

This Old Spouse Bening says she and Moore looked to their own marriages — Bening’s husband is Hollywood legend Warren Beatty; Moore is married to director Bart Freundlich — to add depth to their characters’ two-decade relationship. ”Knowing what it’s like to have been with someone for a long time,” says Bening, ”it was intuitive: ‘Oh, yeah, okay, I get it, these people have a history.”’

Up Next She is looking for her next project. —Adam Markovitz

Nicole Kidman
Rabbit Hole
Age 43
Role Becca Corbett, a stay-at-home mom whose life has been shattered by her young son’s death in a car accident.
Oscar History Kidman won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in 2002’s The Hours. She also received a Best Actress nom for the 2001 musical Moulin Rouge!

A Mother’s Grief As the mother of four children, Kidman has said, ”The loss of a child is the most terrifying place for me to go.” Still, the producer and star of Rabbit Hole never flinched from the emotionally wrenching material. ”My respect and admiration for Nicole has been compounded by the harder days and the harder scenes,” says costar Aaron Eckhart, who plays Becca’s husband. ”We’ve been through it together.”

Through The Wringer The toughest scene to shoot, Eckhart says, was a painful, tear-filled fight between the two devastated parents. ”We did that all day,” says the actor. ”We did it 20 or 30 times, easy. We did it different ways, and Nicole always changed it up and fine-tuned things. That was a kick in the pants.”

Up Next Kidman has a small role in Just Go With It (Feb. 11). She just finished Trespass, opposite Nicolas Cage, and is about to shoot Hemingway & Gellhorn, to air on HBO in 2012. —Josh Rottenberg

Jennifer Lawremce
Winter’s Bone
Age 20
Role Ree Dolly, a wise-beyond-her-years Missouri teen searching for her missing father while protecting her two younger siblings.
Oscar History First nomination.

Character Study Lawrence, who appeared on the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show before landing the low-budget indie, says she grew to admire the tenacious Ree, who stands up to scary community elders: ”She won’t take no for an answer. She’s the kind of person we wish we had inside of us.”

Away From Home For the Kentucky-born Lawrence, the film’s rural shoot was often challenging. ”Anytime you’re away from your home filming, it messes with your head,” she says. ”I got very, very homesick. It wasn’t a fun, easy movie to make by any means. But I didn’t do it to have fun.”

Animal Magnetism In one of Lawrence’s most memorable scenes, Ree skins a squirrel to feed herself and her siblings. ”I wanted to be a doctor when I was little,” she says, ”so I’m okay with blood and guts.”

Up Next She costars with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in the dark comedy The Beaver (March 23), then appears as a young Mystique in X-Men First Class (June 3). Her Sundance hit Like Crazy, just acquired by Paramount, is due in theaters later this year. —Dave Karger

Michelle Williams
Blue Valentine
Age 30
Role Cindy, once optimistic, now disenchanted by her early marriage to Dean (Ryan Gosling).
Oscar History Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing another long-suffering wife, in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain.

Back To The Future (Room) For the scene in which Dean and Cindy try to rekindle the spark in an outer-space-themed motel room, director Derek Cianfrance wouldn’t allow the actors to see the small room until he could film their initial reactions. ”I can’t even describe just how…oh, yeah, that room,” laughs Williams. ”And that room exists! Like, people actually do check in to that room for a romantic evening. Or maybe not so romantic.”

Child’s Play ”When my daughter asks, ‘What do you do?’ every movie I have a different answer,” says Williams of Matilda, her 5-year-old daughter with the late Heath Ledger. ”As she grows, she wants more explanations. With [Blue Valentine], I said, ‘Well, honey, I play. I play all day long.”’

Up Next She portrays a pioneer woman in Meek’s Cutoff (April 8) and Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, due later this year, then stars in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. —Sara Vilkomerson