Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and Helena Bonham Carter are among this year's hopefuls

Melissa Leo
*The Frontrunner
The Fighter
Age 50
Role Alice Ward, the tough-love, manipulative mother of boxing half brothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).
Oscar History Nominated for Best Actress for 2008’s bleak indie Frozen River.

Mama Grizzly ”Her character, Alice, was an amazingly powerful woman,” says costar Amy Adams of Leo’s real-life alter ego. ”She gave birth to nine kids, raised them, and managed these boys’ careers. She was a real force. And Melissa’s a force too. She fought for her character with such strength and compassion and commitment — she made sure you saw all sides to this woman. It was such a great lesson to me.”

Very Superstitious Leo is sensitive to comparisons between Alice and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. ”That’s a play that we actors are not supposed to mention, it’s bad luck,” says the actress. ”But I honestly don’t see Alice as that kind of villainess myself. I’m not sure about the audience. All I know is that it wasn’t easy to walk in her shoes.”

Up Next Leo just wrapped a part in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, which debuts March 27, and is currently shooting the second season of the same network’s New Orleans drama Treme. —Chris Nashawaty

Amy Adams
The Fighter
Age 36
Role Charlene, the brassy bartender girlfriend of Mark Wahlberg’s blue-collar boxer Micky Ward.
Oscar History Adams has two previous Supporting Actress nominations (for 2005’s Junebug and 2008’s Doubt) but has yet to win a golden boy.

A Walk On The Wild Side Charlene downs shots with her hard-drinking Boston townie customers, wears clothes that leave precious little to the imagination, and isn’t afraid to throw a punch when provoked. In other words, she’s worlds away from the Goody Two-shoes characters Adams portrayed in films like Enchanted and Doubt. ”I’m an actress,” she says. ”I love to create, and it’s great that I had an opportunity to move in a direction I hadn’t moved in before. I felt really comfortable in Charlene. She had power and strength, and she’s a fighter, too. Once I keyed into her spirit, I loved it.”

Up Next Adams appears in The Muppets (Nov. 23) and Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, due later this year. Then she further tarnishes her good-girl image as fast-living singer Janis Joplin in the 2012 biopic Get It While You Can. —Chris Nashawaty

Helena Bonham Carter
The King’s Speech
Age 44
Role Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI (Colin Firth), who seeks a speech therapist for her stuttering husband.
Oscar HistoryShe was nominated for Best Actress for 1997’s The Wings of the Dove.

Witch Queen Bonham Carter shot her role as the buttoned-down future Queen Mum on weekends while acting as the wild and wicked Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows during the week — a decision the actress made at the last minute. ”I just had to get [my character] right pretty quickly,” she says. ”Most of the time when I was doing Bellatrix, I was reading Queen Mum biographies, doing all my homework.” In fact, her biggest scene — in which she first approaches speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) — was also the first one she shot. ”It’s always helpful starting with the big scene,” she says, ” ’cause then you get into it.”

Keep It Moving While Bonham Carter was impressed by Firth’s ability to stammer, her patience sometimes wore thin. ”A lot of the time I was like, ‘Oh, get a move on, mate, how long is this film going to be?”’ she laughs. ”Sometimes he’d look at me, and I was just yawning and looking at my watch.”

Up Next She plays Bellatrix in July 15’s Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsPart 2. —Adam B. Vary

Hailee Steinfeld
True Grit
Age 14
Role Mattie Ross, who hires a lawman to track down the killer of her rancher father.
Oscar HistoryFirst nomination.

The Golden Ticket Steinfeld, whose biggest previous role was in a Kmart commercial, was one of 15,000 girls who auditioned for the pivotal and challenging role. ”I was just another girl,” says the L.A. native of her multiple auditions for the film, which was written and directed by the Oscar-winning Coen brothers. ”Honestly, if I didn’t get it I would have been thrilled to have been able to meet those guys.”

The Importance Of Being Mattie ”We were uncertain whether there was even a 13-year-old out there who could play the part,” says Joel Coen. ”It’s like Beethoven writing choral music that human voices can’t sing,” adds brother Ethan. ”We knew there was an interesting part there and you could see it in your head, but is there a human who could do it?”

Kids Will Be Kids ”Child actors come off as work being their life and doing it 24/7, but I still have those days where it’s totally, like, whatever: shopping, movies, adventures,” says Steinfeld. ”Facebook is my life.”

Up Next She has yet to line up her next role.

Jacki Weaver
Animal Kingdom
Age 63
Role Janine ”Smurf” Cody, the terrifying matriarch of a family of Australian criminals.
Oscar HistoryFirst nomination.

An Acting Wizard, From Oz Weaver began acting as a teenager and won the Australian Film Institute’s Best Actress prize for the 1971 film Stork. ”I’ve been around for so long in Australia — I’ve been a professional actor for 48 years!—and people think of me like an old piece of furniture.”

Not-Your-Type Casting Writer-director David Michôd wrote the part of Smurf with the deceptively diminutive Weaver in mind. ”She’s horrible! She’s dreadful! She’s a true sociopathic creature,” Weaver says of her character. ”But it’s always fun to get into someone else’s skin, especially when they’re so different than you. Sociopaths are very good at hiding their true nature, turning on the charm when they need to get what they want.”

Male Carrier Weaver says she didn’t mind being one of the few women in the cast. ”It was an amazing experience being on the set with all those alpha males,” she says. ”It was testosterone city.”

Up Next Weaver just finished a stage run of Uncle Vanya, costarring Cate Blanchett, at Australia’s Sydney Theatre. —Sara Vilkomerson