BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Queen Elizabeth II's dad, Albert — the gentle, stammering Duke of York — never was meant to be king. And from Hollywood's early honors this season, a drama based on his life never seemed destined as heir-apparent at the Academy Awards.
Yet "The King's Speech" took a step closer to the best-picture crown Tuesday, leading the Oscars with 12 nominations and gaining momentum against the online chronicle "The Social Network," directed by Ashland High School 1980 graduate David Fincher, which had previously ruled the awards season.
Hollywood's top prize on Feb. 27 now seems like a two-picture duel between stories about a monarch who lives in terror of a 1930s tool of mass communication — the radio microphone — and a college kid who helped define the Internet era by inventing Facebook.
Also nominated for best picture are the Western "True Grit," second with 10 total nominations; the psychosexual thriller "Black Swan"; the boxing drama "The Fighter"; the sci-fi blockbuster "Inception"; the lesbian-family tale "The Kids Are All Right"; the survival story "127 Hours"; the animated smash "Toy Story 3"; and the Ozarks crime thriller "Winter's Bone."
"The King's Speech" is a pageant in the truest Oscar sense, with pomp, ceremony and history like past best-picture winners "The Last Emperor," "Lawrence of Arabia," "A Man for All Seasons" and "Shakespeare in Love."
It's also an intimate, personal tale of love and kinship as royal Albert (best-actor front-runner Colin Firth) is buoyed by the devotion of his wife (supporting-actress nominee Helena Bonham Carter) and makes an unlikely friend out of a commoner, his wily speech therapist (supporting-actor contender Geoffrey Rush).
"It's a very, very human story. After all, how many of us are so blessed that we go through life without having to overcome some kind of personal obstacle?" said "The King's Speech" writer David Seidler, who grew up with a stammer himself and earned a nomination for original screenplay.
Seidler said young people who were reluctant to see a historical film "end up absolutely loving it and wanting to see it again, because they understand the emotions of being teased, being bullied, being marginalized, and they really understand the power of a supportive friendship."
Meantime, "The Social Network" seems like a film completely in the here and now as Harvard computer genius Mark Zuckerberg (best-actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg) reinvents the art of keeping in touch with the viral growth of Facebook, whose half a billion users stay connected with friends online.
But the motivations at the core of the film are ancient as Zuckerberg battles old friends and associates over the Web site's riches.
"It is a timeless story, one with themes as old as storytelling itself: of friendship and loyalty, of betrayal, power, class, jealousy," said Aaron Sorkin, a nominee for adapted screenplay for "The Social Network." "These are things that Aeschylus would have written about or Shakespeare would have written about. And it's just lucky for me that neither of those guys were available, so I got to write about it."
Along with Firth, other acting favorites claimed Oscar slots, including Christian Bale as a former boxer whose career unravels amid drugs and crime in "The Fighter."
The best-actress field shapes up as a two-woman race between Natalie Portman as a ballerina losing her grip on reality in "Black Swan" and Annette Bening as a lesbian mom in "The Kids Are All Right."
Firth, Bale, Portman and Bening all won Golden Globes for their performances.
The supporting-actress Oscar could prove the most competitive among acting prizes. Melissa Leo won the Globe for "The Fighter" as the domineering matriarch of a boxing family. But she faces strong challenges from that film's co-star Amy Adams as a boxer's tough girlfriend and 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as a girl who rides along with a U.S. marshal to track her father's killer in "True Grit."
"The Social Network" won best drama at the Globes and was named best film by key critics groups, positioning it as the early Oscar favorite. "The King's Speech" pulled an upset last weekend by beating "The Social Network" for top honors at the Producers Guild of America Awards, whose winner often goes on to claim the best-picture Oscar.
Firth's Albert, known as Bertie to his family, inherited the British throne in 1936 after his older brother abdicated. The reluctant new monarch took the name of his father and reigned as King George VI, continuing his struggle to overcome his speech impediment at a crucial time, as his subjects looked to their ruler for inspiration amid the stirrings of World War II.
The film offers up history as rip-roaring entertainment, with surprising laughs and an uplifting message.
"It's incredibly positive, and I think that is why people are responding," said Bonham Carter. "It's also just helpful to see how somebody can be fundamentally helped by another human being. He's pulled out of this deep, dark hole, and how we can all, if we surrender ourselves, can be helped by somebody else.
The best-picture field is a mix of solid commercial successes such as "The King's Speech," "The Social Network" and "Black Swan," huge blockbusters such as "Toy Story 3" and "Inception," and modest earners such as "127 Hours" and "Winter's Bone."
The box-office results range from $400 million domestically for "Toy Story 3," which also is the favorite to win the animated-feature award, to just $6 million for "Winter's Bone," a tiny-budgeted film that won the top prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival and now has earned four Oscar nominations, including acting honors for Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes.
"This feels crazy. I don't mean to sound like disavowing the film in any way, but it's like, are they sure?" said "Winter's Bone" director and co-writer Debra Granik, who earned an adapted-screenplay nomination. "There are still statistically very rare instances of a very small film being able to have a life that could be communal, that could be part of a national discussion."