Bridges won a year ago but faces tough challenge

Two upstarts join three vets in this year’s lead actor race, and one of those rookies could be the main challenger to the thesp many consider the heir apparent to the Oscar throne.

Last year, the groundswell of support for Jeff Bridges, who had four previous Academy noms over 30 years and finally snagged an Oscar for “Crazy Heart,” was too much to overcome for Colin Firth, despite his acclaimed performance in “A Single Man.” In “True Grit,” repeat nominee Bridges made the character Rooster Cogburn, for which John Wayne won an Oscar, his growly, iconic own.

Jesse Eisenberg, most recognized as Woody Harrelson’s neurotic sidekick in “Zombieland” and indie dramedies “Adventureland” and “Squid and the Whale,” picked up BAFTA, Golden Globe and BFCA nominations, in addition to a National Board of Review Award, for his portrayal of Facebook founder — or co-founder — Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” The two recently appeared side by side on “SNL,” which adds buzz.

Yet it could be James Franco battling for the statuette. Franco spends much of “127 Hours” on his own trapped in a claustrophobic crevice, carrying off more than just a much-talked-about, squirm-inducing feat. This is the first Oscar try for the actor, who nabbed BAFTA and Broadcast Film Critics Assn. noms and could get a boost from the film’s wider rollout.

The arguable surprise nominee was Bardem, for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s tearjerker “Biutiful.” The Spaniard has been down this road before, nominated as lead actor for “Before Night Falls” and winning supporting actor for playing killer Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” Although it was also nominated for foreign-language film, “Biutiful” has a low profile that could stand in the way of Bardem’s Oscar success.

It could well be Firth making a kingly speech come Oscar night. Firth’s role in “King’s Speech” as Britain’s George VI, who must overcome a debilitating speech impediment, has many things Oscar seems to love — British, period piece, playing a character with a disability — but the performance speaks for itself.

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