Dave Karger
January 27, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

Sometimes it’s helpful when your last name begins with one of the first letters of the alphabet. You get your high school diploma before the rest of the class, for instance. And if you’re an actor up for an Academy Award nomination, you find out pretty darn quickly if you’re going to have a nice day or not. So the first Oscar contender to celebrate this year was Best Supporting Actress nominee Bérénice Bejo, who had the good fortune of being at the top of the list for the first category read on Jan. 24. ”It’s so silly — I mean, it doesn’t matter, but I’m so glad I was the first name,” says the Artist star, who was watching the announcement in a Paris hotel suite with the rest of the movie’s team. ”I could feel everybody was so happy in the room. The first name! It was so cool.”

And good news for The Artist just kept coming. The silent film picked up a Best Actor nod for Jean Dujardin, followed by Director and Original Screenplay citations for Michel Hazanavicius, who was actually listed first both times since most of the categories are alphabetized by film title (how convenient). And as expected, the film, which had already won top honors at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes, and Producers Guild Awards, scored a Best Picture nomination as well.

But there were certainly surprises. The Artist did not receive the most nominations — that honor went to director Martin Scorsese’s 3-D family film Hugo, which racked up 11 nods compared with 10 for The Artist. Come Feb. 26, the two films — both of which are love letters to a bygone era of cinema — will go head-to-head in seven races: Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, and Original Score. For his part, Hazanavicius doesn’t seem concerned about having one fewer nom, especially since his film had no chance in the sound or visual-effects categories: ”You know what? Ten is the perfect number.”

He may be right. Yes, the film with the most nominations has taken Best Picture 14 times in the last 20 years. But recently there have been several films — The Hurt Locker, Million Dollar Baby, and A Beautiful Mind among them — that either tied or trailed their competition in the total-nominations count yet still took the top prize. Typically, these underdogs triumphed over their competitors (Avatar, The Aviator, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) thanks to clear support from the Academy’s actors branch. While The Artist can boast two acting nods, Hugo has none. ”There’s so much that goes into a film,” says Hugo producer Graham King. ”Being an Academy voter, when I look at a film, I’m looking at all aspects of it. From music to editing to visual effects, right through. It’s such a wacky world out there — one never knows.”

For weeks, the biggest mystery has been how many Best Picture contenders there’d be — the Academy’s new voting guidelines dictated that there would be between five and 10, depending on how many earned at least 5 percent of the overall No. 1 votes. This year, that yielded nine Best Picture nominees, more than many expected. In another surprise, one of them is Stephen Daldry’s last-minute entry, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. ”It is very nice that our colleagues would recognize us like this and say that they found it as moving as I first found it,” says star Max von Sydow.

Not everybody found the day’s surprises so pleasant, of course. Von Sydow’s nomination, for instance, seemed to come at the expense of critics’ darling Albert Brooks (Drive) and comic Patton Oswalt (Young Adult). Both took the snubs in stride. Brooks sent this wry tweet the Academy’s way: ”You don’t like me. You really don’t like me.” Oswalt tweeted Brooks repeatedly, claiming he was at a dive with other snubbed stars. ”Oh s—,” read one, ”we’re DEFINITELY going to run out of booze. Charlize & Tilda just pulled up in a stolen police car.” Among the day’s most unexpected omissions were We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Tilda Swinton, J. Edgar‘s Leonardo DiCaprio, Shame‘s Michael Fassbender, and The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley.

With all those eyebrow-raising snubs, it’s understandable that many acting nominees felt more relief than exuberance when their names were called. ”It’s been such a long journey,” says The Help‘s Best Actress nominee, Viola Davis, who’s competing against The Iron Lady‘s Meryl Streep and My Week With Marilyn‘s Michelle Williams in the year’s tightest acting race. Davis’ awards-season anxiety is probably nothing compared with the pressure of bringing Kathryn Stockett’s novel to the screen. As Davis remembers about the start of production, ”We arrived in Mississippi in July [2010], the weather 108 degrees and humid, and everybody was watching us with bated breath like, You better get this right.” Fellow Best Actress nominee Glenn Close earned her first nod in 23 years for the titular role in Albert Nobbs, which she first played on an Off Broadway stage three decades ago. ”I can’t even describe what it’s like because I’ve never been this invested in a film before,” says Close, who also co-wrote and co-produced Albert. ”I tell you, it feels like it’s never happened to me before. It feels like the first time.”

In the Best Actor category, Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt was nominated for playing data-driven Oakland A’s boss Billy Beane — but doesn’t have the energy to offer any statistics on whether he can beat his buddy George Clooney (The Descendants). ”I’ve just got to get the kids ready for school,” Pitt says. ”I’ll have plenty of time to think about our chances later, but right now I’m just all about making breakfast.” Meanwhile, underdog Demián Bichir, from the little-seen indie A Better Life, fielded calls while under the weather at home in Mexico. ”I was sick last night — I got this flu,” says the former Weeds actor. ”I feel a little better now.” The category’s other surprise nominee, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy‘s Gary Oldman, was more elated at the Adapted Screenplay nod for the film’s co-screenwriter Bridget O’Connor, who died of cancer in 2010 at age 49. ”That was the one that we all were praying for,” Oldman says. ”It’s bittersweet. Bridget passed away about a week or so before we started filming. It’s a lovely nod to her talent.”

The Original Screenplay category provided one of the day’s biggest upsets, as writer-director J.C. Chandor scored a nod for the financial-meltdown drama Margin Call, edging out Young Adult‘s Diablo Cody and The Tree of Life‘s Terrence Malick. ”It was pretty unexpected,” says the rookie filmmaker. ”Our movie isn’t warm and cuddly. But when people actually watch it, they enjoy it.”

Chandor may have been surprised, but Melissa McCarthy, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, was utterly thrown for a loop. The Bridesmaids star says she woke up just as her category was being announced. ”I couldn’t process what it was,” she says. ”They said my name and I kept saying, ‘But what is this for?’ And my husband said, ‘The Academy Awards!’ And I said, ‘No, it’s a different show! It’s a different show!’ It was the weirdest thing. I couldn’t get the concept into my brain.” McCarthy’s stiffest competition? Her good pal Octavia Spencer, who’s won every major pre-Oscar prize so far for her memorable turn in The Help — but refuses to believe her status as the favorite. ”I don’t know how anybody could say anybody is a front-runner,” says Spencer. ”The only way you’re a front-runner is if you win. You know what I’m saying?” All too well.

(Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz, Keith Staskiewicz, and Sara Vilkomerson)

Best Picture Nominees: By the Numbers
The Frontrunner: The Artist — 10 nominations, $12.1 million (box office to date*)
The Descendants — 5 nominations, $51.3 million
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — 2 nominations, $10.7 million
The Help — 4 nominations, $169.6 million
Hugo — 11 nominations, $55.9 million
Midnight in Paris — 4 nominations, $56.4 million
Moneyball — 6 nominations, $75.5 million
The Tree of Life — 3 nominations, $13.3 million
War Horse — 6 nominations, $72.3 million

*Domestic box office figures from Box Office Mojo as of Jan. 22, 2012

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