Winning an Academy Award isn’t always about delivering the best performance. Consciously or not, Oscar voters also take into account other extracurricular factors regarding the nominees before casting their votes, and awards publicists try to anticipate that by creating a narrative around their nominees that will hopefully propel them to the podium. The Oscar narrative can be as simple as “He should have won last year,” or “She worked the hardest,” but it can also involve a lot of outside factors, including age, personality, and adversity overcome in real life. Sandra Bullock’s Oscar narrative last year? “This may be your only chance to reward one of our biggest, most-liked actresses.” How about Jeff Bridges? “He’s never won an Oscar before, so consider this his lifetime achievement award.” What will be the careful narratives carved for the nominees in this year’s major categories? Read on, and get ready for these messages to be repeated often over the next month.
127 Hours: Best Director ‘09 teams with Hollywood’s busiest young actor to make inspiration out of the seemingly unfilmable. Seriously, this is way more than just a movie about that one awful thing.
Black Swan: The argument-starting psychosexual ballet thriller that danced out of the art house on the back of one huge performance.
The Fighter: It’s this year’s Rocky! A crowd-pleaser, about an unlikely, come-from-behind boxing victory, that just might come from behind.
Inception: The $300 million grosser that proved summer blockbusters can be cerebral, from the makers of the snubbed 2008 Batman movie that necessitated doubling the number of Best Picture nominees in the first place.
The Kids Are All Right: The sleeper hit about a two-mom family that broke ground by seeming ordinary.
The King’s Speech: A thirteen-times-nominated Oscar contender just like they used to make. For voters wary of this whole Internet fad.
The Social Network: It’s this year’s zeitgeist-capturing, generation-defining, conversation-dominating front-runner. Vote for another movie at the risk of your own relevancy!
Toy Story 3: Pixar’s eleventh masterpiece in a row is the year’s best-reviewed, top-grossing, and most tear-jerking movie. If the Academy is looking for the movie for which to finally break tradition and reward animation, it could do a lot worse.
True Grit: The surprise smash that re-invigorated the Western as a genre.
Winter’s Bone: This year’s really, really little movie that could.
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan: He’s the director responsible for history’s most balls-out ballet thriller and 2011’s most acting-filled performance.
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit: They shot straight, for once, and wound up with the biggest hit of their careers.
David Fincher, The Social Network: He’s this season’s most overdue helmer, a heretofore underappreciated perfectionist who made 2010’s most discussed movie.
Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech: A first-time film director knocks it out of the park with the year’s most nominated movie.
David O. Russell, The Fighter: A famously combative loudmouth finally sits back and lets the combative loudmouths in one of his movies do the talking.
Javier Bardem, Biutiful: Hey, how often can you root for somebody this handsome as an underdog?
Jeff Bridges, True Grit: It’s Jeff Bridges as the Academy likes him best — totally shitfaced!
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network: A promising young talent firmly establishes himself by playing one of the world’s most famous living people, mastering the delivery of Aaron Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue and surviving David Fincher’s exacting direction.
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech: He should have won last year for A Single Man — but now he’s back to give Oscar voters a second chance.
James Franco, 127 Hours: See? He’s more than just a grad student, soap opera star, Internet meme, and compulsive masturbator — he can act, too!
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right: The veteran of this field, she’s due after all those other nominations came to naught. Natalie Portman will have plenty of other chances, but this ought to be Bening’s moment.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole: if you want to see Nicole Kidman back in independent films instead of misbegotten studio pictures, this is your chance to send her a message.
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone: You want to appreciate her performance even more? Look how beautiful and glamorous this girl is in real life!
Natalie Portman, Black Swan: Annette Bening got to drink wine and sing Joni Mitchell songs, but Natalie had to suffer. Starvation, dance lessons, physical injuries … she deserves it for hazard pay alone.
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine: Heath Ledger passed away before he could accept his Academy Award, but wouldn’t it be a nice full-circle thing to see the hardworking, sympathetic Williams up there? (And imagine the tears when she’d reference him at the podium.)
Christian Bale, The Fighter: Almost as amazing as his transformation into Dicky Eklund was his ability to go from angry, serious actor to charming awards show speech-maker.
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone: Hey, where did this guy come from? It’s kind of exciting to have someone new in the race … maybe he’s got some forward momentum?
Jeremy Renner, The Town: Back-to-back Oscar nominations mean something, right? You know you were secretly rooting for him last year in The Hurt Locker…now’s your chance to make good.
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right: He had never been nominated for anything until this year, which is awfully criminal considering his stellar work in You Can Count on Me. Who wouldn’t love to see the well-liked Ruffalo collect an Oscar by quoting his character’s favorite expression of disbelief: “Shut the front door”?
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech: Remember Christian Bale’s Terminator shit fit? Can you ever imagine a nice guy like Geoffrey Rush doing that? (Also, the statute of awards limitations has expired for 1997 winner Rush, so it’s okay to give him another Oscar now.)
Amy Adams, The Fighter: Who knew that the princess could get down and dirty? Oscar loves a star willing to play against type.
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech: Look, she managed to tone down her famous eccentricity! If you give her this Oscar, maybe she’ll brush her hair a little more.
Melissa Leo, The Fighter: If they gave an award for Most Acting, she’d definitely win. Fortunately for Melissa, they often do.
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit: Imagine a kid delivering that tricky dialogue, and doing it so well! And now that the nomination is secured, it’s time to say what’s obvious: This is her story, not Rooster’s.
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom: Remember last year, when Mo’Nique’s bad mom won? Jacki Weaver’s terrifying matriarch is the only one who could possibly measure up.