Bushel of first-timers sprout up among contenders

For the 20 actors and actresses nominated for an Academy Award, it was a good year to have been an Oscar newbie.

Twelve first-timers made their way into the running, an unusually high percentage for a voting membership that likes to bring back favorites, as evidenced by perennial contender Meryl Streep’s record 16th nomination, for “Julie and Julia.” With each nod Streep earns, second-place thesps Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson (12 each) find the gap widening.

What’s remarkable among the first-timers is the breadth of experience they represent as well, from lead actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe — who made her screen debut in “Precious” — all the way to 80-year-old supporting actor nominee Christopher Plummer (“The Last Station”), a veteran of stage, television and screen since the 1950s.

The range of characters portrayed by noms, meanwhile, ran on the men’s side from suave (George Clooney in “Up in the Air”) to self-destructive (Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”), and on the women’s side from motherly generosity (Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”) to parental monstrosity (Mo’Nique in “Precious”).

Although portrayals of real-life people made another strong showing, they weren’t tied to the usual lengthy birth-to-death Oscar-bait biopics. Plummer’s Leo Tolstoy, Streep’s Julia Child, Helen Mirren’s Countess Sofya Tolstoy and Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela (“Invictus”) were rendered only in a story-specific period of their lives. In the case of Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy and Matt Damon’s Francois Pienaar (“Invictus”), the films highlighted the events that gave these lesser-known names larger renown.

War figures were in force, both on the battlefield (Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”) and at home (Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger”), and in an only-at-the-movies World War II (Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”). Waltz also joins Stanley Tucci (“The Lovely Bones”) and Mo’Nique in giving unexpected three-dimensionality to villainous, hateful characters. And “Up in the Air” gave three distinctive portrayals of the modern, on-the-go businessperson, thanks to nominees Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

In matters of versatility, meanwhile, Bridges and Penelope Cruz (“Nine”) showed off their musical chops by singing in their respective roles.

North Americans made the largest showing among the acting nominees, with only Spanish actress Cruz, Austria’s Waltz and U.K. thesps Mirren, Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) and Colin Firth (“A Single Man”) coming from overseas. And of them, only Mulligan, as a teenage Londoner, and Firth as an English professor living in L.A., played their nationalities.

Cruz’s temptress in “Nine,” on the other hand, was Italian, Waltz’s Nazi was German and Mirren’s character was Russian (though played, like the other Russians in “The Last Station,” with a British accent).Americans took on the accents this year, too, from the Southern drawls emanating from Bridges and Harrelson to the purposeful twang of Bullock’s Tennessee mom. Freeman and Damon, on the other hand, took on South African dialects, Freeman’s coming from Mandela’s Xhosa background, and Damon re-creating an Afrikaaners lilt. Streep had to tackle the most recognizably eccentric of any of the nominees’ tongues: Julia Child’s high-register, upperclass, cheery siren.

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