Thursday, January 22, 2009

Commentary: Let the grousing begin over Oscar nominations

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

By Hap Erstein

The Academy Awards went largely for dark dramas in its Best Picture nominations, announced this morning, but not dark enough to include 2
008 box office champ The Dark Knight.

Christopher Nolan’s somber, slam-bang latest installment in the Batman series had to settle for a few nods in the technical categories and only one major nomination -- the late Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor, for which he is the odds-on favorite to win posthumously. The Oscars are an industry marketing tool, but if you make too much mone
y, the Academy usually opts for art over commerce.

Four of the other Best Picture candidates --
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk and Slumdog Millionaire -- were highly expected. The suspense was for the fifth slot, which went to The Reader, an intense, downbeat post-Holocaust film, a classy long-shot choice over Doubt, Revolutionary Road and Wall*E, the computer animation movie on whose behalf Disney waged a major campaign.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Benjamin Button
, a triumph of storytelling and digital wizardry, gained 13 nominations, the most of any picture this year. Although Slumdog Millionaire trails it with eight, it comes off an impressive series of wins at the Golden Globes and looks to be the front-runner for the top Oscar, to be announced in an invariably long-winded ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 22 (see the full list of nominees here).

Other nominations totals were
Milk (eight), and Frost/Nixon and The Reader, with five apiece. Although film is a director’s medium, it is rare that the directors of the Best Picture nominees all vie for the Best Director Oscar, but it happened this year.

Kate Winslet in The Reader.

Oscar voters correctly acknowledged that
The Reader’s Kate Winslet gives the central performance as former Nazi concentration camp guard Hannah Schmitz, going against the strategizing of executive producer Harvey Weinstein, who submitted her in the supporting category. She recently won two Golden Globes -- supporting actress for The Reader and lead actress for Revolutionary Road -- and presumably the Academy’s elevation of her superior work in The Reader landed her other performance on the nomination cutting room floor.

She will be up against three shoo-ins -- the perennially nominated Meryl Streep (
Doubt), Angelina Jolie (Changeling) and Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married). Presumably Hathaway’s cringe-inducing work in the recent silly comedy Bride Wars did not rule her out for her surprise dramatic turn as a parolee wedding guest.

The fifth nominee for Best Actress is Melissa Leo, whose performance as a fiercely determined mother in the low-budget, barely distributed
Frozen River was a standout of the year, but independent studio Sony Classics had to work hard to get the film seen by the Academy. My pick for female performance of 2008 is Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long, as a murderess recently released from prison, trying to adjust to the outside world. The movie proved too small, though, and nor was it helped by being entirely in French. Also coming up empty-handed was Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins, the unfounded optimist of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.

Among the Oscar’s favorite sons is Clint Eastwood, but he unexpectedly failed to pull in a nomination for his starring role in
Gran Torino, playing a crotchy old bigot who eventually softens. I have to applaud the Academy for seeing through this two-dimensional jumble of clichés. (Nor was Eastwood tapped for directing the movie or his other 2008 release, Changeling.) Leonardo DiCaprio also need not get up early on Thursday, snubbed for his work as a bitter suburbanite in Revolutionary Road, another wise omission.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon.

Instead, the nominations went to four shoo-ins -- Frank Langella (
Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk), Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). The Academy’s fifth choice in the category is a worthy surprise, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, a subtly underplayed performance as a professor in mid-career crisis that had been largely ignored by previous award groups.

Amy Adams and Viola Davis of
Doubt both got supporting actress nods, Davis for a single short scene as the wily mother of a boy who may have been molested by a priest. Taraji P. Henson gained her first nomination as Benjamin Button’s surrogate mother, an impressive performance that caused voters to overlook the always Oscar-worthy Cate Blanchett.

Marisa Tomei, a head-scratching Oscar winner from 1993 for
My Cousin Vinny, gets another nomination for her overrated performance as a lap-dancing stripper in The Wrestler. The only comic performance in the category comes from Penelope Cruz as hot-tempered Spanish artist in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The Woodman has brought Oscar gold to numerous supporting actresses, but not this year.

Ledger’s psychotic Joker in
The Dark Knight looks worth betting the mortgage on for Best Supporting Actor, over expected nominees Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), Josh Brolin (Milk) and Robert Downey Jr. as -- here’s a stretch -- an self-absorbed movie star in Tropic Thunder. The surprise contender is another savvy choice, Michael Shannon as a mental patient with no verbal filter in Revolutionary Road. The Oscars, like the other awards, overlooked Michael Sheen, who gives a cunning performance as interviewer David Frost in Frost/Nixon.

If you have to bet on another category, wager on
Wall*E to take home the Animated Feature Oscar, just one of six nominations it earned. Its inevitability was assured when the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir -- which opens in South Florida on Friday -- failed to be named in the category, though it did make it into the Best Foreign Language Film race. Very strange. Wall*E will be competing with Bolt and Kung Fu Panda -- not much of a race.

Add to the list of the snubbed Bruce Springsteen, whose title song for
The Wrestler was good enough to win him a Golden Globe, but not enough to put him in the Best Song Oscar category. The Academy instead only nominated three songs, two by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) and one by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman (Wall*E’s Down to Earth). Wonder what Springsteen did to turn off the Oscar voters.

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