Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, challenging conventional notions of Tinseltown as a knee-jerk liberal monolith, snubbed “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s hostile documentary on President Bush, in this year’s Oscar nominations, which were announced yesterday in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Mel Gibson’s visceral re-enactment of the Crucifixion, “The Passion of the Christ,” earned just three nominations in minor categories, including best cinematography. The independently released feature had stunned the film world with its breakout worldwide box office success.

In the major Oscar categories, there were fewer surprises.

Three biographical features — “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland” and “Ray” — were nominated for best picture, along with director Alexander Payne’s unsentimental buddy movie “Sideways” and the boxing tear-jerker “Million Dollar Baby.”

“The Aviator,” which recalls the youthful Howard Hughes, led all contenders with 11 nominations, including director Martin Scorsese and cast members Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Alan Alda.

“Finding Neverland,” starring Johnny Depp as author James M. Barrie at the time he wrote “Peter Pan,” and “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by and co-starring Clint Eastwood, shared the runner-up spot with seven nominations each.

A finalist for best direction, a category he won in 1992 for “Unforgiven,” Mr. Eastwood also placed himself and two other cast members, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, in the acting races.

Perhaps overreaching in the wake of a Cannes Film Festival grand prize and the phenomenal summertime success of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Mr. Moore declined to submit the paperwork that would have made the film eligible as best documentary feature.

He had won the category two years ago for “Bowling for Columbine” and used his acceptance speech to berate the president soon after American troops invaded Iraq.

While spurning a likely nomination for best documentary, Mr. Moore waged a fruitless campaign to land “Fahrenheit” a best picture nod.

Frank Pierson, Academy president, declined to comment on what Mr. Moore’s reaction would be, telling reporters: “I’ll have to call him and ask.”

Although Mr. Gibson’s equally contentious “The Passion of the Christ” failed to secure nominations in major categories, it made the finals for best makeup and original score, in addition to cinematography. In contrast to Mr. Moore, Mr. Gibson declined to make a major lobbying effort for Oscar recognition.

“Hollywood has had three months to weigh its role in the election,” reflected Andrew Breitbart, a frequent contributor of movie commentary to the Drudge Report. “They went out on a limb for the Democrats and became more partisan than ever before. Arguably, Moore lost the election for them. They don’t want to see it sawed off again. They would gain nothing by reaffirming him. This is a billion-dollar industry dominated by liberals who would now prefer to play it conservative and forget about the messy politics of 2004. By ignoring both Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, they can neutralize controversy and get away from the red state/blue state memories.”

When finalists in the major categories were announced by Mr. Pierson and actor Adrien Brody, some radio and TV commentators were quick to jump to the conclusion that “The Passion of the Christ” had been snubbed. A prodigious international success, “The Passion” was financed and made entirely outside the Hollywood orbit. Both the content and the marketing of the film defied conventional approval within the film industry.

These maverick features about the film prompted Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of the Act One training program for writers and executives in Hollywood, to say that Mr. Gibson was locked out of the major categories such as best film and best director for religious reasons.

“Everybody loves to say they hate what studios are doing to the artist. Gibson just said ‘I’ll make the movie my way,’ ” she said, pointing out that the film was the fifth-biggest hit of the year and the most successful independent film to date.

“It’s just because the subject matter of the movie was devout Christian that the movie was not considered a courageous act, but instead considered anti-heroic,” she said. “Instead of saying, ‘How daring,’ they said, ‘How dare he.’ ”

“I don’t know any other way to explain it but religious bigotry,” said Miss Nicolosi, whose program focuses on training religious people for Hollywood careers.

Nevertheless, “The Passion” did as well in the nominations as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Polar Express” and “Spider-Man 2.”

Jamie Foxx, who portrayed singer Ray Charles in “Ray,” joined a rare company of actors nominated in two categories the same year. He looms as the favorite for best actor, in a group that includes Mr. Eastwood, Mr. DiCaprio, Mr. Depp and Don Cheadle, nominated for “Hotel Rwanda.”

Cited as best supporting actor for his performance in the suspense thriller “Collateral,” Mr. Foxx would need to outpoll Mr. Alda, Mr. Freeman, Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways” and Clive Owen in “Closer” to record an unprecedented double victory.

The major stumbling block could be Mr. Freeman, who has yet to win an Oscar despite being widely regarded as one of the most accomplished film actors for decades.

Miss Swank, who won as best actress early in her career for “Boys Don’t Cry,” contends with Annette Bening in “Being Julia,” English actress Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake,” Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and Colombian newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace.”

Miss Sandino’s nomination ensured that all four of the acting categories have at least one ethnic minority among the nominees. In addition to Miss Sandino, five of this year’s acting nominations are for blacks, besting the previous mark of three in one year.

If one of the sub-themes of the balloting is “Better Late Than Never,” the inside track may belong to Miss Bening, who has been nominated in acting categories twice before and already lost one Best Actress race, for her performance in 1999’s “American Beauty,” to Miss Swank.

This tendency could also favor Mr. Scorsese.

Though a finalist for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull,” “GoodFellas” and “Gangs of New York” in previous years, Mr. Scorsese has never won the Academy Award. In addition to being a prominent director for more than 30 years, he has been one of the industry’s most active crusaders for film preservation and scholarship.

Miss Blanchett may emerge as the favorite as best supporting actress for her portrayal of screen legend Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” Two other finalists portrayed dramatized versions of real women: Laura Linney in “Kinsey” (the film’s only nomination) and the Nigerian-English actress Sophie Okonedo in “Hotel Rwanda.” Virginia Madsen as a waitress and wine connoisseur in “Sideways” and Natalie Portman as a neurotic stripper in “Closer” round out the category.

Perhaps the most glaring omission among the performers is Miss Madsen’s romantic opposite in “Sideways,” the glamour-proof character actor Paul Giamatti, who also was denied a nomination last year for “American Splendor.”

“Sideways” director Mr. Payne did make the Oscar finals, where he will be considered a long shot against Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Eastwood but probably a better bet than Taylor Hackford for “Ray” and English filmmaker Mike Leigh for “Vera Drake.”

Mr. Payne also was nominated with his writing partner Jim Taylor for best adapted screenplay. The duo are pitted against “Finding Neverland,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Before Sunset.”

The nominees for best original screenplay are “The Aviator,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Vera Drake” and “The Incredibles,” which is no doubt the prohibitive favorite for best animated feature, where it contends with “Shrek 2” and “Shark Tale.”

Award winners will be revealed at the 77th annual Oscar ceremony on Feb. 27, at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, Calif. ABC will telecast the event, starting at 8 p.m.

• Victor Morton contributed to this report.

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