All Oscarologists know that voters are suckers for actors who portray real-life characters (Forest Whittaker in "Last King of Scotland," Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote"), especially ones with handicaps (Jamie Foxx in "Ray," Geoffrey Rush in "Shine"). In "The King's Speech," Firth portrays Britain's monarch George VI struggling to overcome a stammer while rallying his countrymen to fight World War II.
Firth has something else going for him — the old Oscar Makeup Rule: If you lose one year, don't worry, you'll win the next. All of these stars (plus many others) won an Academy Award one year after being a losing nominee: Russell Crowe (triumphed for "Gladiator" after losing for "The Insider"), Jack Nicholson (won for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" after losing for "Chinatown"), Nicole Kidman (won for "The Hours" after losing for "Moulin Rouge!"), etc. Last year Firth lost for "A Single Man."
In addition, "The King's Speech" is a top contender for best picture, possibly even the front-runner to win. Academy voters love to give away an acting Oscar along with best picture (Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty").
But that's also true of James Franco in "127 Hours," which will certainly be nominated for best picture. Arguably, he portrays a handicapped person too, since he chops off his arm while stuck in a canyon, and a real-life one at that (based on the ordeal of hiker Aron Ralston). He benefits a bit from the Oscar Makeup Rule as well, not as a past nominee, but as someone who should've nabbed the supporting slot for "Milk" in 2008, but got snubbed.
There's a third serious contender in this race: Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers' "True Grit," which probably will be nommed for best picture. It's also a proven vehicle for Oscar glory since John Wayne triumphed in the role in 1969. Having won last year for "Crazy Heart," he wouldn't benefit from the Oscar Makeup Rule, but from the Oscar Bandwagon Effect that earned Tom Hanks ("Philadelphia," "Forrest Gump") and Spencer Tracy ("Captains Courageous," "Boys Town") consecutive victories.
Jeff Bridges, "True Grit"
Colin Firth, "The King's Speech"
James Franco, "127 Hours"
Ben Affleck, "The Town"
Javier Bardem, "Biutiful"
Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "Inception"
Michael Douglas, "Solitary Man"
Robert Duvall, "Get Low"
Ryan Gosling, "Blue Valentine"
Mark Wahlberg, "The Fighter"
Casey Affleck, "The Killer Inside Me"
Ben Affleck, "The Company Men"
Jim Broadbent, "Another Year"
Jim Carrey, "I Love You, Phillip Morris"
Kevin Costner, "The Company Men"
Russell Crowe, "The Next Three Days"
Matt Damon, "Hereafter"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "Shutter Island"
Aaron Eckhart, "Rabbit Hole"
Paul Giamatti, "Barney's Version"
Jake Gyllenhaal, "Love and Other Drugs"
Paul Rudd, "How Do You Know"
Kevin Spacey, "Casino Jack"
Jim Sturgess, "The Way Back"
Photos: Colin Firth in "The King's Speech" (Weinstein Co.), James Franco in "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight)