With the 2011 Academy Awards mere days away, another season of Hollywood back-slapping is nearing a close. Whilse some would argue that there is all still to play for, it seems fairly safe to suggest that Colin Firth and Natalie Portman can perhaps consider clearing a little space on the mantelpiece.

Though it has happened before, it is quite rare for any truly shocking frontrunners to appear at this late stage. However, it can also be argued that perhaps the films and types of performances to be nominated for this year’s Oscars were obvious months before the season even kicked off. The Academy can certainly not be described as ‘bold’ when it comes to nominating particular roles for Oscars, and it certainly does not take an expert to spot what features attract their attention.

Perhaps winning an Oscar really is much more than the performance. Maybe following some key steps is all that is needed to catch the attention of the Academy.

1. Be overdue

The word ‘overdue’ is now one that gets bandied about annually during the awards season. It seems there is a strong trend to ensure that actors who have slogged away for a number of years and proven their worth must be recognised once it is deemed to be their ‘time’. This was certainly the murmur going round in 2010, with many feeling that 5-times Oscar nominated Jeff Bridges finally deserved to win in recognition of his fine career.

Whilst it is nice to see gifted actors getting the accolades, this trend is one that has begun to blight the awards season, with trophies perhaps going to those who should have had them long ago rather than who delivered the best performance. The use of an Oscar as a consolation for previous outrageous losses is most certainly a frustrating trend. Even Judi Dench herself looked slightly embarrassed when she accepted her Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, perhaps well aware that it was a partial apology for being overlooked for her more worthy role in Mrs. Brown.

This trend could maybe this year prove favourable for Annette Bening, up for her fourth nomination after three previous losses, two of which were memorably won by Hilary Swank. There is a good chance that Bening will once again be overlooked this year, but her overdue factor could result in a surprise loss for favourite Natalie Portman.

2. Be a real person

Over the last decade, 5 Best Actor Oscar wins and 6 Best Actress Oscar wins have been for the portrayal of real people. The number of actors nominated for the portrayal of real people is significantly greater; of the 50 performances nominated in the Best Actor category over the last decade, 19 were for playing real people.

From Edith Piaf to Virginia Woolfe to Idi Amin, securing a role in a biopic is a sure-fire way to attract awards. Perhaps it is the feeling that playing a real person is maybe more challenging, with the actor required to make an effort to copy mannerisms, body movements and accents. There is also the feeling that these roles require more work and dedication, owing to the fact that audience members and critics are able to compare the actor to the real person and judge the performance on the basis of the level of accuracy.

Biopics are currently hugely popular and without doubt are judged by the academy as roles that deserve rewarding. This certainly boosts the chances of hot favourite Colin Firth whose portrayal of King George VI has been winning multiple accolades. With the attention given to biopics, it is not surprising to see so many future productions planned, with films about Freddie Mercury, Liberace and Kurt Cobain all waiting in the wings.

3. Transform your body

The Academy love nothing more than seeing an actor prove their dedication to their craft by transforming their appearance. For the beautiful women of Hollywood, this usually comes in the form of making themselves ugly. Nicole Kidman’s false nose, Charlize Theron’s 30lb’s weight gain and Marion Cotillard’s wrinkled face and shaven hairline all resulted in Oscar wins. The Academy like to credit beautiful women whose career often depends on their looks and reward them for being ‘brave’ enough to ugly up their faces and expand out of their size zero dresses.

Male performers are generally credited more for extreme transformations of their body. Robert De Niro famously trained for his Oscar winning performance in Raging Bull before piling on an astonishing 60lb’s for the final part of the film. Adrien Brody lost 31lb’s for his role in The Pianist, resulting in the film’s final scenes being filmed first over fears for Brody’s health and to allow him to begin regaining weight as quickly as possible. Christian Bale, already famous for his weight loss and gaining roles, looks set to scoop this year’s Best Supporting Actor trophy, catching the eye of the Academy by losing a third of his body weight for The Fighter. Transforming the body symbolises dedication and effort and is most certainly a way to win the hearts of the Academy.

4. Learn a new skill

Natalie Portman’s year long slog to learn the art of ballet dancing looks likely to win her the ultimate accolade, with her being the current favourite for Best Actress. Once again, the quality of an actor’s performance is generally boosted when the Academy sees evidence that they have had to learn a new skill. In recent years, Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp and Reese Witherspoon amongst others have learned to sing and scored nominations for appearing in musicals. Holly Hunter learned to play the instrument for her lead role in The Piano and Joaquin Phoenix had to play the guitar convincingly for his portrayal of Johnny Cash. Both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were required to learn how to conduct an orchestra for their roles in the multi-award winning Amadeus. There is a huge amount of critical acclaim to be gained for actors who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and risk ridicule as they showcase their singing, dancing and instrument playing ability. Taking such a risk is a certainly the way to attract Oscar buzz.

5. Play a character with a mental illness or disability.

The Academy just love characters who are blighted by some form of disability. Schizophrenia, blindness, HIV, deafness, cerebral palsy and autism are just some of the conditions that have attracted Oscar nominations and wins over the years. This once again bodes well for the nominees of 2011, with Colin Firth’s stuttering and Natalie Portman’s mental breakdown further reinforcing their chances.

It is often the preparation that goes into these roles that impresses the critics so much. Dustin Hoffman spent a year working with young autistic men and their families in order to prepare for his role in Rain Man. Method actor extraordinaire Daniel Day-Lewis refused to come out of character when playing the autistic Christy Brown in My Left Foot, remaining in his wheelchair between takes and eventually breaking two ribs after assuming a hunched posture for so long. The extra work and preparation required for a character with a disability is very often on the receiving end of accolades.

6. Be from the UK or US

It’s a sad fact that the Academy is notoriously short-sighted when it comes to recognising films from across the world. The vast majority of actors and films nominated are still those that originate from America and the UK, with European and World cinema very much overlooked. In 2006, Penelope Cruz became the first Spanish actress ever to be nominated in the Best Actress category. Also in 2006, Pan’s Labyrinth won the first ever Oscar for Mexico in any category. To date, only eight films not in the English language have been nominated in the Best Film category. The list of countries which have never received any Oscars is simply enormous. This trend is perhaps exacerbated by the existence of the frustratingly limited Best Foreign Language Film category, designed to acknowledge the entire annual output of world cinema in only five nominations. As unfair as it seems, a film or performance not in English has a drastically reduced chance of recognition.

7. Do a drama

The Academy like to reward dramas and the number of films from other genres that get rewarded are shockingly low. Whilst this trend is occasionally broken in the case of Lord of The Rings or Chicago, it is generally fair to say that comedies, musicals, science fiction, fantasy, animation and horror are rarely the recipient of Oscars. To date, no science fiction or animated film has ever won in the Best Picture category. The only horror film to win Best Picture was Silence of the Lambs in 1991, although the extent to which that is horror as opposed to drama is debatable. Comedic performances that receive Oscar recognition are generally confined to the supporting categories, such as Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda or Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. It is extremely rare for leading comedy performances to be nominated. This year’s Oscar nominated films include one animation, one western, one sci-fi adventure and seven dramas. Drama is most certainly the route to take in order to win at the Academy Awards.

8. Deal with ‘real’ issues

The Oscars are often used to acknowledge films that deal with real issues that affect the world and people’s lives. The list of Oscar winning performances and films from over the years tackle such issues as racism, homophobia, sexism, political activism, human rights, injustice and bigotry. It is not difficult to see why so many comedies, animations and musicals fail to get recognised as they are not considered as ‘serious’ enough compared to the more issue-based dramas. The most recent Best Picture winner was The Hurt Locker, looking at the lives of a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. Compared to James Cameron’s CGI world of Avatar, or Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy version of Nazi Germany, it is easy to see why a film of this nature is deemed more worthy of serious consideration.

The Oscars are notoriously predictable in terms of the films and actors they choose to recognise. However, this is arguably a shame as a huge number of worthy performances and films do not stand a chance of receiving the top prizes. When pitched against the many overdue actors and those giving politically charged performances, many extremely memorable roles are completely overlooked. Perhaps the most bizarre new trend was in 2010, when some critics argued that Sandra Bullock deserved her Best Actress Oscar on the strength of the amount of money she had taken for the box office over the course of her career. If this is the new direction the Oscars are taking, Robert Pattinson better start practising his speech.