Old against young, establishment against upstart, familiar faces against fresh ones. Hollywood has laid out a battle of the ages at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Among the 10 best-picture nominees, the show comes down to just two: "The King’s Speech," a costume drama that oozes Oscar tradition with its British accents, aristocratic pageantry and triumph over disability; and "The Social Network," the Facebook chronicle that’s all about today’s crude, rude world of getting yours at the expense of others, whether online or in real life.
The theme of past and present, traditional and topical, runs all through the Oscars. For best actress, the front-runner is 29-year-old Natalie Portman in "Black Swan," with 52-year-old Annette Bening — an industry favorite but three-time loser at the Oscars — a sentimental favorite for "The Kids Are All Right."
For supporting actress, 50-year-old Melissa Leo, whose career caught fire in middle age, is favored for "The Fighter," with 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a potential underdog winner for her film debut in "True Grit."
For best director, the favorites are Hollywood veteran David Fincher for "The Social Network" and British filmmaker Tom Hooper, a relative big-screen novice known mainly for television work, for "The King’s Speech."
Long before nominations came out, the show’s organizers settled on a duo of youthful hosts — Anne Hathaway and James Franco — and promised a brisk, breezy ceremony that would be fun and funny while paying respect to Hollywood’s rich past.
"I think there’s a little bit of the old, a little bit of the new," said Franco, also a first-time nominee for best actor for "127 Hours." "A lot of the show will definitely be about bringing in a fresh crop of movie viewers. But also, one of the backbones or arcs of the show is to appreciate the history of film. So Anne and I, as hosts, are to kind of bridge the gap between the older generation and the newer, younger generation."
The mix of youth and experience, familiarity and novelty permeates the key categories. Past Oscar winners Nicole Kidman ("Rabbit Hole"), Javier Bardem ("Biutiful"), Jeff Bridges ("True Grit") and Geoffrey Rush ("The King’s Speech") are nominated alongside such relative unknowns as first-timer Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network"), longtime Australian performer Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom"), and 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence and veteran character actor John Hawkes, both in the running for "Winter’s Bone."
Though there are clear favorites in the top categories, the outcome of the male-acting honors appear almost certain. Colin Firth is considered a lock to win best actor as stammering monarch George VI in "The King’s Speech," while Christian Bale is expected to earn the supporting-actor prize as boxer-turned-drug-abuser Dicky Eklund in "The Fighter."
Portman as a ballerina slipping into delusion in "Black Swan" and Leo as Eklund and half brother Micky Ward’s autocratic mom in "The Fighter" are the anticipated winners in the actress categories.
Yet Bening, nominated three times before without winning, is considered Hollywood royalty without a title (she’s married to Warren Beatty, the Oscar-winning director of "Reds"). Oscar voters are just looking for a reason to give her a trophy, and they could finally do it for her role as a stern but loving lesbian mom in "The Kids Are All Right."
They also would love to give the supporting honor to Leo, who after moderate success on TV’s "Homicide: Life on the Streets" in the 1990s has leaped to big-screen stardom the last few years with a best-actress nomination two years ago for "Frozen River" and now front-runner status for "The Fighter."
Leo said she does not pay too close attention to Oscar analysts but that "I do hear enough to hear that I’m in pretty good stead. So then that makes me go, Oh, well, then there’ll definitely be an upset.’"
That upset could come from Steinfeld, whose only professional experience had been some student films before landing the role in "True Grit" as a teen who hits the trail with a boozy old lawman to hunt down her father’s killer.
The supporting-actress category has been good to child actors (winners include 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal for "Paper Moon" and 11-year-old Anna Paquin for "The Piano"). And while Steinfeld’s a newcomer, she already is learning the art of Oscar humility that can help endear a nominee to voters.
"Being cast in such an incredible film to me was a big-enough award," Steinfeld said.
The main suspense comes at the end of Sunday’s show. Can "The Social Network" make good on its early reception as the year’s critical darling and win best picture over "The King’s Speech," which steamrolled its way through directors, actors and producers guild honors late in the awards season?
With 12 nominations, "The King’s Speech" goes into the Oscars as the top contender.
"The movie is as good as it is because it’s a jigsaw of so many people’s talents, and most of them have been nominated, so it’s fantastic," said Helena Bonham Carter, a supporting-actress nominee as the monarch’s devoted queen in "The King’s Speech."
If "The King’s Speech" is the classic, sumptuous Oscar candidate, "The Social Network" is the snarky upstart. Starring best-actor nominee Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the film presents a haughty, unlikable computer genius in a world of back-stabbing dot-com opportunists.
That has not kept audiences or awards voters from embracing the film, which has had a triumphant ride through Oscar season.
"It’s been very nice," Eisenberg said. "I guess the alternative is worse, where no one likes your movie. I’ve experienced that, and this is better."