It was no surprise in Hollywood last night when British actor Colin Firth and Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman took home Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress. It was the first win for both actors.
As the stammering King George Vl, Firth towered over the other Oscar-nominated actors. In "The King's Speech," we see the king painstakingly build his self-confidence. Firth's performance is seamless - from his struggle to punctuate his words to his fits of rage and then when he talks up a storm with perfect elocution.
The actor triumphs in unforgiving close ups intended to magnify his labor with words. It's hard to watch, almost embarrassing. We feel his pain.
"Anybody who would have to speak publicly would completely identify with this moment," says Firth. "It would be the anxiety dream they would have the night before. And I think people do have a problem with intimacy. There is a level on which we are all alone no matter how intimate we are with our family."
Firth first gained recognition for his role as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austin's "Pride and Prejudice." Then, in 2003, he appeared in the period drama "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." Firth also landed an out-of-character role in the 2008 musical comedy "Mamma Mia."
Last year, Firth was nominated for an Oscar for his leading role in Tom Ford's drama "A Single Man," about a gay man whose partner dies. But it is his performance as King George that is the apex of his career, so far.
In the Best Actress category, some critics favored Annette Benning for her performance in “The Kid’s are All Right,” in which she plays a lesbian mother who discovers her partner is cheating on her.
But her performance cannot overshadow Portman’s transformation into a dark prima ballerina in “Black Swan.” For more than two hours, Portman’s face reflects the emotional torment of her character, Nina.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has traditionally favored actors who transform themselves into their character - not only emotionally but also physically, as Portman does in this film.
"It's so vicious on the body. And yet you never see it," says Portman. "It's like you see this beautiful image and underneath it is some really, really grotesque detail."
Portman, 29, has had numerous film roles, including a leading part in the "Star Wars" prequels. In 2005, she received an Oscar nomination for her role in the drama “Closer.” She also starred opposite Scarlet Johansson in the 2008 period drama “The Other Boleyn Girl.”
But it is her stunning turn in "Black Swan" that has catapulted her into the elite ranks of Oscar winners - in a film not universally admired but also not easily forgotten.