Oscar Preview: Will Natalie Portman Fly High? Can Colin Firth Be Stopped?

Annette Bening might pose a threat to the 'Black Swan' star, but Firth seems to be on a one-way track to Oscar glory.

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences coalesced around two ideas in the lead acting categories: for Best Actor, it was time to anoint a man whose time had come; for Best Actress, a populist favorite deserved the career thumbs-up that only a small golden statue can deliver.

And so five-time nominee Jeff Bridges finally triumphed for his unfettered turn in “Crazy Heart” and Sandra Bullock , long an American sweetheart but hardly an enduring critical fave, took home the win for her uplifting and cheesiness-eluding performance in “The Blind Side.” Oscar, of course, is as fickle a gentleman as you’ll find in Hollywood.

So this year, we find in Annette Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”) a four-time nominee who’s never managed to create a voting-community consensus that, shoot, this is my year, dammit! Thus, she finds herself trailing Natalie Portman (“The Black Swan”) for Best Actress, though the winner in that category is hardly clear-cut at this point. The same cannot be said for Best Actor, in which Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) staked out an early lead that he hasn’t relinquished all awards season.

As MTV News continues its week-long Oscar preview — ahead of the big show Sunday, February 27, when MTV News will be live-streaming from the red carpet at 6 p.m. ET — let’s take a closer look at the two lead acting categories.

Best Actress
It’s not Bening’s fault. No one can take away anything from what she accomplished onscreen in a warts-and-all portrait of a lesbian couple struggling to keep their family together; 2011 just isn’t her year. But hey, Al Pacino lost six times — including for the first two “Godfather” films and “Dog Day Afternoon” — before nabbing Oscar glory for “Scent of a Woman.” Bening will eventually get her Academy win.

The trouble for the 52-year-old actress is that she’s facing off against Portman, who trained as a ballerina for 10 months, displayed a ripped physique onscreen and delivered a gutting portrayal of one woman’s psychological disintegration in “Black Swan.” It’s a far showier performance than Bening’s, and the fact of the matter is that subtlety doesn’t often pay off when it comes to awards.

That’s not to say it never does, and several influential Oscar prognosticators are picking Bening to pull off one of the evening’s biggest upsets. Either woman would be deserving. And don’t even get us started about why Michelle Williams isn’t at least in the running after a “Blue Valentine” performance so depressingly unnerving she should be standing outside theaters giving out free hugs. That’s just not the way the world works, and we’re going to go ahead and say a very pregnant Natalie Portman will be up onstage Sunday accepting the Best Actress win.

Best Actor
Bridges is back again, and you could even say his “True Grit” performance is finer and tighter than his turn in “Crazy Heart.” But Tom Hanks, he ain’t (Hanks is one of only two actors to take the category in consecutive years, following wins for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”), especially not in a year when Firth learned to stutter and went on to dominate awards season.

Seriously, the guy has barely lost even an obscure critics association award, winning at the Golden Globe Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards and, oh, six dozen other ceremonies. Like Portman’s performance, Firth as the eventual King George VI is a flashier performance than any other in the category, save perhaps for James Franco’s (who, hey, didn’t actually lop off his arm for “127 Hours” and nixed any miniscule chance he had at an upset when he accepted a job as Oscar co-host).

While we welcome Jesse Eisenberg to the ranks of the critically lauded — he’s been on our radar since a pitch-perfect debut as an anxious teen in 2002′s “Roger Dodger” — the 27-year-old actor never really had a shot to unseat Firth once the Brit’s awards-season supremacy became clear early on. What’s more, “The Social Network” peaked too early and now doesn’t have the momentum to pick up Eisenberg’s turn as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and carry it toward victory.

Best Actor, then, is an easy pick — perhaps the easiest of the major categories. Say hello to Colin Firth, your Best Actor in these 83rd Academy Awards.

Will it be a regal evening for “The King’s Speech”? Can “The Social Network” dial up Oscar gold? Don’t miss MTV News’ “2011 Oscars Live” at 6:00 p.m. Sunday, February 27, when we’ll be chatting with your favorite Hollywood stars live from the red carpet on MTVNews.com, and stick with us all Oscar night for winners, interviews, photos and more!