Hoping to take advantage of the trend this year: "The Reader," about a Nazi war crimes trial, is up for five awards, including best picture and best actress for Kate Winslet.
As noted, Oscar voters veer toward films with historical grounding. Elizabethan England's fared well with the academy -- 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" won seven Oscars, including best picture and best actress (Paltrow); 1998's "Elizabeth" and its 2007 sequel, "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," both scored a slew of major nominations and won awards for makeup and costume design, respectively. Depression-era films like "Cinderella Man," which picked up three nominations in 2006, also stand to do well. This year, Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" could further that legacy.
It worked for "Brokeback Mountain." The 2005 film about gay cowboys, played by straight Hollywood heartthrobs Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, won three Oscars and was widely favored to take home best picture, but lost to "Crash."
"Milk," starring Penn as the nation's first openly homosexual elected official, will attempt to take home the big trophy at this year's awards.
It's the "take me seriously" syndrome: Often, to score an Oscar, the industry's most attractive actresses put their looks on the chopping block in the name of their craft.
Hilary Swank successfully did it with "Boys Don't Cry," when she shed pounds to assume the stature of a homosexual teen boy and won a best actress Oscar for her performance. Charlize Theron shed her image as a Hollywood glamour queen to play a serial killer in 2003's "Monster," winning critical acclaim along with a best actress Oscar.
This year, in "Rachel Getting Married," Anne Hathaway gave up her red carpet glow for a drug addict's pallor -- like her predecessors, she's also up for a best actress award.
By the same token, stripping a Hollywood heartthrob of his hunkiness has a way of wooing the academy. Granted, Javier Bardem can pin last year's Oscar for "No Country for Old Men" primarily on his acting talents, but it didn't hurt his case that he was able to pull off that performance sporting one of the ugliest haircuts known to man.
Brad Pitt let makeup mask his chiseled good looks in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," awing audiences with the transformation. Considering the film's bevy of nominations, including a best actor nod, he amazed the academy as well.
When an actor dies, the academy perks up. Oscar voters have a long tradition of bestowing posthumous nominations. Among the most famous: James Dean scored two nods after his untimely death, for 1955's "East of Eden" and 1956's "Giant." But winning a statue from beyond the grave is not so easy.
The last time the academy awarded a dead actor with an Oscar was when Peter Finch won best actor for 1976's "Network." The late Ledger could advance the trend if he scores the supporting actor Oscar for his much-lauded performance as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."
America loves a comeback story; so too does the academy. After an almost 20-year-long absence from the movie industry, Depression-era star Gloria Swanson burst back onto the scene and scored a best actress nomination with her role in 1950's "Sunset Boulevard." Mickey Rourke did the same with his career-reviving turn in "The Wrestler."