Can Annette Bening beat out Natalie Portman? Does 'The King's Speech' have the edge over 'The Social Network?' Here's the latest on all the races -- and what to expect in the nail-biting weeks to come

By Dave Karger
Updated January 28, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

Remember back when this year’s Oscar race was a sure thing? When the two hours of crackling celluloid zeitgeist known as The Social Network racked up critics’ prize after critics’ prize before mopping the floor with all its competitors at the Golden Globes?

Well, those days are over. On Jan. 25, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Tom Sherak and reigning Best Supporting Actress Mo’Nique leveled the playing field in five minutes flat when they read aloud the nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards. The King’s Speech snagged 12 nominations; The Social Network earned eight. And with that, a bona fide Oscar race was born.

The sudden shift in awards-season momentum hasn’t gone unnoticed by the day’s major players. ”I hope that people are excited about the race and that it’s opened up,” says Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams, whose scrappy boxing drama The Fighter earned seven nods. ”Sometimes it can seem so predictable, but I think that this is a year where anything can happen. And the nominations show it.”

The impressive showing by The King’s Speech came three days after the charming British historical drama won top honors at the Producers Guild of America Awards, a prize that has presaged the eventual Oscar winner the last three years running. ”It’s completely overwhelming,” says King’s Speech director Tom Hooper of the acclaim. ”I’m just kind of in a state of joyful shock.” For other nominees, the announcement was a happy remedy for an acute case of awards-circuit stress. ”All the campaigning stuff sucks you in,” says David O. Russell, who garnered his first nod for directing The Fighter. ”You feel like you’re going to get hurt. It’s just the biggest deal in the world to me to get an Oscar nomination.”

For the brainy Facebook saga The Social Network, meanwhile, scoring eight nods elicited fewer shrieks of elation than sighs of relief. ”We were not, frankly, the underdog movie in this season,” understates Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. ”The movie has experienced a nice response that’s been so sustained, it really kind of puts you in an almost vulnerable place of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. And you were hoping it wasn’t today.”

Though the acting nominees were largely composed of the season’s usual suspects — The King’s Speech‘s Colin Firth, 127 Hours‘ James Franco, The Fighter‘s Melissa Leo and Christian Bale — a few names were a bit of a surprise. Winter’s Bone costar John Hawkes earned a Supporting Actor nod over The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield, while Blue Valentine‘s Michelle Williams landed a Best Actress nom over The Kids Are All Right‘s Julianne Moore. And after being overlooked by the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice awards, Biutiful star Javier Bardem, whose campaign shifted into high gear after Julia Roberts and Sean Penn publicly praised his performance, became the first-ever Best Actor nominee for a fully Spanish-language role. ”Honestly, I was confident about it, because Javier’s performance is undeniable,” says the film’s director/co-writer, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who also earned a Best Foreign Language Film nod. ”I never lost faith.”

Of course, not every contender woke up to entirely good news. Christopher Nolan was glaringly absent from the list of Best Director finalists, though his mind-bending summer hit Inception scored eight noms. Apart from Supporting Actor nominee Jeremy Renner, the crowd-pleasing heist thriller The Town was overlooked, as were presumed documentary front-runner Waiting for ”Superman” and animated also-rans Despicable Me and Tangled, which lost out to the French entry The Illusionist. Missing the cut in the acting races were Blue Valentine‘s Ryan Gosling, Get Low‘s Robert Duvall, and Another Year‘s Lesley Manville. And after earning 12 nominations for the U.K.’s BAFTA Awards (behind only The King’s Speech), Black Swan managed to pick up just five — it’s the only Best Picture nominee that failed to score a screenplay nod.

Given the underperformance of Black Swan, Best Actress no longer seems like such a done deal for star Natalie Portman. Though Portman has taken home the majority of the critics’ prizes, Swan scored only one more overall nomination than The Kids Are All Right — meaning Kids star Annette Bening is well within striking distance. ”The one thing that I think is exceptional about Annette — it’s such a pure acting performance,” says Kids producer Celine Rattray. ”I would highlight one scene, when she realizes Julianne Moore was cheating on her, and that scene is completely uninterrupted on her face. It’s not cutting from take to take, and it’s her glory as a performer.” Still, Portman remains the favorite to take home the statuette, and some of her competitors don’t even seem to mind. ”I reeeaaally don’t care,” 20-year-old Winter’s Bone nominee Jennifer Lawrence says of her likely loss on the big night. ”I’m going to the Oscars! I think Natalie Portman was incredible. I’d probably vote for her too.”

In another notable milestone, Toy Story 3, the year’s top-grossing movie, is now also the third animated film ever to earn a spot in the Best Picture race. Not that the team behind the Best Animated Feature favorite is expecting matching statuettes. ”This is all a very complicated, political process, one that we don’t have any control over,” says director Lee Unkrich. ”The nomination is the thrill for me.”

The crew behind 127 Hours, which secured a Best Picture nod over The Town, is content to hang back in the Oscar derby as well. ”We’re very happy with being underdogs,” says nominated screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who won two years ago for Slumdog Millionaire. ”We’ll have a much better evening, actually. With Slumdog, there was a lot of pressure on us to win. And this time we’re not the front-runner, and we’ll watch everyone else get very tense.”

The makers of The King’s Speech and The Social Network will be doing the lion’s share of the nail-biting between now and Feb. 27. The knock on Speech is that it’s an old-fashioned Oscar movie — even though its director is the youngest to helm a Best Picture nominee this year. ”The film breaks a tremendous number of rules,” says Hooper, 38. ”You show me a film that’s had this kind of commercial success that uses music so sparingly, that uses silence so eloquently — a film that’s had this kind of success that has 10-minute two-handers between actors. It’s full of me actually challenging what you’d expect from this kind of film. All I can say is my obsession making it was to subvert, to be unconventional, to find a new way of telling this story.”

In the end, the Best Picture contest may come down to whether the Academy votes with its head or its heart. Says Hooper, captain of Team Heart: ”I’m incredibly pleased that I’ve made a piece of work that connects in this way to people and does make them feel better about themselves and does have them waking up in the morning and still thinking about it and does move them and make them laugh in this way. I definitely have faith that that’s something that’s going to be in people’s minds when they vote.”

Social Network producer Scott Rudin, meanwhile, believes Oscar voters will take a more rational approach to their decision. ”I’m very happy to have the movie that engages with the culture right here and now — a smart, contemporary, morally complicated look at a cultural phenomenon,” says Rudin. ”I’m a voter. Last year I had a better time at Avatar; I voted for The Hurt Locker. I thought it was the more important movie. I think people look at their ballot and they think, ‘What do I want to represent this year?’ There was a time when they voted the cuddly movie over the more difficult movie, but in a time in which No Country for Old Men, The Departed, and The Hurt Locker won, I don’t think we’re there anymore. I really don’t.”

Still, Rudin is looking out for his competition, and not just The King’s Speech. ”I’m not at all convinced it’s just a two-horse race,” says Rudin, who also produced the Coen brothers Western True Grit, which scored 10 nominations. ”And if The Fighter wins at the SAG Awards, it’s entirely possible that it could have some life in it.” In other words, it’s not over until the final envelope is opened at the Kodak Theatre. ”There’s four weeks left,” says Rudin. ”There’s a long way to go.”

BEST PICTURE NOMINEES

The Frontrunner: The King’s Speech
12 nominations
$57.9 million

127 Hours
6 nominations
$11.3 million

Black Swan
5 nominations
$83.7 million

The Fighter
7 nominations
$73 million

Inception
8 nominations
$292.6 million

The Kids Are All Right
4 nominations
$20.8 million

The Social Network
8 nominations
$95.4 million

Toy Story 3
5 nominations
$415 million

True Grit
10 nominations
$138.5 million

Winter’s Bone
4 nominations
$6.3 million

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