Before They Were Nominated

Christian Bale was a singing-and-dancing Disney actor, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld showed her “blingatude,” and Jeremy Renner was music-video eye candy. See the Oscar nominees before they made it big.

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Natalie Portman

Now: Nina Sayers, Black Swan
Then: Mathilda, a hit-girl, in Léon (The Professional)
Natalie was 12 when she made her feature film debut in the French action film Léon (The Professional), where she played—disturbingly—a 12-year-old protégé of a solitary New York City hit-man. Though it was generally well-received, the movie set off a debate about, as one critic put it, its “would-be sexy portrayal of a pre-teenage girl.” Portman’s breakout role was as the expressionless Padmé in George Lucas’ widely derided Star Wars prequels. Portman is still best at playing virginal characters, but just like the feverish dancer she portrayed in Black Swan, for which she earned a Best Actress nomination, she has learned to show her dark side.

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Michelle Williams

Now: Cindy, Blue Valentine
Then: Jen Lindley on Dawson’s Creek
San Diego-raised Michelle Williams was not a far cry from the character that brought her into the spotlight. The young actress emancipated herself from her parents at 15, the same year she landed on the hit teen drama Dawson’s Creek. Through the series’ six seasons, Williams’ character was on the periphery of a legendary TV love triangle, allowing her the opportunity to appear in projects from the Watergate satire Dick to the acclaimed HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2. “Being on Dawson's Creek was kind of like being a mobster,” the now-30-year-old mom told PopEater. “You set up a shop selling pizza, but in the back you're laundering money. You're doing one thing in plain sight and secretly plotting something else. I was plotting my tastes, my interests, my beliefs and hopes for what I could be.” It didn’t take long for the independent-film industry to recognize Williams’ talent and in 2006, she earned her first Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Brokeback Mountain, where she met Heath Ledger.

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Nicole Kidman

Now: Becca, Rabbit Hole
Then: Rae Ingram, Dead Calm
Just a year before her ill-fated marriage to Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman starred in Dead Calm, a violent horror film about a young couple that happens upon a murderous sociopath during a sailing trip. In one famous scene, Kidman has sex with the murderer to distract him. But even amid the gore of her first big movie, there were sparks of her later critical acclaim: Variety said her performance was “excellent.”

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Jeff Bridges

Now: Rooster Cogburn, True Grit
Then: Dave Melkin, The Lloyd Bridges Show
Growing up in an acting family, Jeff Bridges was exposed to the Hollywood life at a very young age. He made appearances on his father’s shows, Sea Hunt and the self-titled Lloyd Bridges Show in his early adolescent years, but it wasn’t long before Bridges established himself as a credible actor, nepotism aside. His first major role in The Last Picture Show earned Bridges a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 1971 and the accolades continued to flow. His latest nod for True Grit marks Bridges’ sixth Academy Award nomination and potential second win after taking home the Best Actor gold for Crazy Heart last year. It takes someone particularly impressive not only to earn such praise and maintain a career for four decades, but to manage to get the Academy to overlook something like Tron… twice… and appeal to the masses with films like The Big Lebowski. Bridges “is enough to make a picture worth seeing,” The New York Times once wrote of the actor. “Jeff Bridges just moves into a role and lives in it— so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character’s soul.”

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James Franco, Best Actor Nominee

Now: Aron Ralson, 127 Hours
Then: Daniel Desario, Freaks and Geeks
As we speak, James Franco has a Three’s Company-based art exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival, is studying for his Ph.D. in English at Yale University, stars in The Green Hornet, and is preparing to direct a film version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. At 32, James Franco has thrown his California-born-and-raised body into nearly every medium—and it seems to be paying off. Not only did Franco earn a Best Actor nomination from the Academy for his performance as a self-amputated mountaineer in 127 Hours, but he also agreed to co-host the ceremony… since apparently, he has so much free time. And though we can now applaud Franco’s audacious career choices, it’s hard to say many saw this professional path coming for the star of the short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks in 1999. But after impressing audiences as the ultimate rebel in the 2001 TV biopic James Dean, which earned him Golden Globe, Emmy, and SAG nominations, Franco’s career took off. From Spider-Man to Milk, he’s played it smart, despite his characters’ common quality. “I think I was just, I don't know, drawing on my inner dumb guy,” Franco once told NPR. “It's weird. I play a lot of dumb guys.”

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Javier Bardem, Best Actor Nominee

Now: Uxbal, Biutiful
Then: Raul, Jamon, Jamon
Though director Alejandro Iñárritu recently praised Bardem as "one of the best actors in the world," the seductive Spanish star remained relatively under the radar throughout most of his career, before exploding in films such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, No Country for Old Men (for which he won an Oscar), and last year's Eat Pray Love.  He got his start in Pedro Almodovar's High Heels before landing the lead alongside Penelope Cruz in 1992's Jamon, Jamon.  One need only look at him to see how playing sexy, hypermasculine characters might come easily for Bardem, but he proved his versatility and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000), when he soared to new heights as a homosexual poet dying of AIDS and fighting persecution in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

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Jesse Eisenberg, Best Actor Nominee

Now: Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network
Then: Hallie Kate Eisenberg’s older brother
Jesse Eisenberg hasn’t always been the most famous actor in his family. His little sister, Hallie Kate, was one of the most recognizable faces of the late 1990s as “the Pepsi Girl,” and adorable child star in Paulie, Beautiful, and Bicentennial Man. But while his sister was showing off her dimples to the world, the elder Eisenberg was shooting the short-lived Fox dramedy, Get Real, which also starred this year’s Oscar co-host Anne Hathaway. A decade later, Hallie Kate was focusing on graduating from her New Jersey high school, giving Jesse the opportunity to stock his résumé with a slew of indie roles, including Zombieland, Adventureland, and the land-less Squid and the Whale. Eisenberg’s performances led him to star as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners, The Social Network. Despite his recent praise, the curly haired actor claims he’s quite average. “I'm not famous,” he told People magazine. “Not like Tom Cruise.”

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Helena Bonham Carter, Best Supporting Actress Nominee

Now: Queen Elizabeth, The King’s Speech
Then: Lucy Honeychurch, A Room With a View
From the fantastical to the historical, Helena Bonham Carter has played almost every role imaginable: from Lucy Honeychurch in an adaptation of E.M. Forster's romantic tragedy A Room With a View to the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland to Marla in Fight Club. She was nominated for an Oscar in 1997 for her leading role in The Wings of the Dove, and again this year, for her turn as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech.

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Melissa Leo, Best Supporting Actress Nominee

Now: Alice Ward, The Fighter
Then: Linda Warner, All My Children
Melissa Leo has been nominated for her second Oscar. But she got her start playing Linda Warner on the daytime soap All My Children, a land of no escape for some actors. Leo’s talent as a character actress quickly established her as one of the country’s best. After her gripping lead performance in Frozen River in 2008, she’s back with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Fighter, in which one critic said Leo “goes beyond acting to a total transformation.”

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Amy Adams

Now: Best Supporting Actress Nominee, The Fighter
Then: Exotic Dancer, Drop Dead Gorgeous
At her Colorado high school, Amy Adams could not stay away from the stage. From choir to ballerina aspirations, the now-36-year-old actress thought she wanted to be a professional dancer. But after graduating, Adams found herself working as a greeter at the Gap and a hostess at Hooters to finance her dream of being en pointe. She traded in her short orange shorts for dinner theater and was spotted by a director from Minnesota who lured her to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres for the next three years. The move to the Midwest worked out for Adams—she auditioned for a minor role in the 1999 satire Drop Dead Gorgeous and got the part as a sultry teen pageant contestant who becomes an exotic dancer. Not exactly the trajectory Adams saw for herself, but her big-screen debut inspired her to move to L.A. in early 1999. After some minor TV roles, Steven Spielberg cast her opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can and soon thereafter, she earned the title role in the indie movie Junebug, which earned her an Oscar nomination. But this year, she won the nomination for her performance as Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend in The Fighter. “Amy was extremely motivated to play a sexy bitch,” director David O. Russell told Film Journal International.

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Christian Bale, Best Supporting Actor Nominee

Now: Dicky Eklund, The Fighter
Then: Jack “Cowboy” Kelly, Newsies
Five years after appearing in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun at 13, Christian Bale starred in the Disney musical Newsies about the New York City “paper" delivery boys’ strike in 1899. Comfortable in the song-and-dance genre, Bale went on to appear in Swing Kids the following year, a Footloose-esque tale about teens forbidden to listen to jazz as the Nazis came to power in Germany. With his flippable head of hair, Bale soon found himself as Winona Ryder’s love interest in Little Women and continued to earn roles until reappearing at the top of his game in the 1999 thriller American Psycho. Between bulking up for the Batman franchise and losing it on the set of Terminator Salvation, this year, Bale became drug-addicted and bony-bodied in The Fighter. And though Bale probably never wants to hear “King of New York” again, Newsies earned him a cult following that has stuck with him a few decades later.

John Hawkes, Best Supporting Actor Nominee

Now: Teardrop, Winter’s Bone
Then: Stucky, Rush Hour
Before his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes was a staple in late-'90s popcorn flicks like Rush Hour and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. He even played a minor role in the abysmal 1998 comedy Home Fries. But Hawkes more than overcame that with his portrayal of Teardrop, the crusty uncle of a fearless girl confronting the methamphetamine trade and patriarchal culture of a remote community in the Ozarks.