- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proved it doesn’t have to bow to any pressure - not from the studios that make the films nor the public that watches them - when the king of award ceremonies announced on Thursday its nominees for the 81st annual Oscars.

Popular opinion was brushed off when the academy denied a best picture nomination to the year’s top box office hit (and second highest grossing film of all time), “The Dark Knight,” and passed over Clint Eastwood for a best actor nod for his role - the screen legend’s last, he has announced - in the surprise blockbuster “Gran Torino.”

Studio wishes were similarly discounted when Kate Winslet was nominated for best actress for her role in “The Reader,” even though the Weinstein Co., the studio behind the film, had pushed the actress in the supporting category in its marketing. Miss Winslet won two Golden Globes earlier this month: best actress for “Revolutionary Road” and best supporting actress for “The Reader.”

RELATED STORY: List of Oscar nominations

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a big-budget technological spectacle starring Brad Pitt as a man who ages in reverse, led the Oscar field with 13 nominations, including one for best picture. Mr. Pitt received a nod for best actor, David Fincher for best director, D.C. native Taraji P. Henson for best supporting actress and screenwriter Eric Roth for adapting the screenplay from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story. Mr. Roth previously won for “Forrest Gump,” a film that is thematically and structurally similar to “Button.”

The other best-picture nominees are mostly political pictures released in a historic political season: “Frost/Nixon,” a re-creation of the post-Watergate interviews of disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon by British TV host David Frost; “Milk,” a biopic of assassinated gay-rights politician Harvey Milk; “The Reader,” an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel about post-World War II German guilt; and “Slumdog Millionaire,” the feel-good film about a poor Mumbai orphan suspected of cheating on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”

Close on the heels of “Button” was “Slumdog” with 10 nominations, followed by “Milk” with eight. Next was a film not even in the running for best picture: The Pixar animated movie “WALL•E,” a critical and commercial favorite, has six.

The Oscars will be broadcast on Feb. 22, with actor Hugh Jackman as host. His last film, the epic “Australia,” co-starring Nicole Kidman, got just one nomination, for costume design.

Pundits had predicted that “The Dark Knight,” would get a best-picture nomination. Some critics said it was the only way the Oscars could stave off decreasing viewership and relevance. The film received eight nominations, but only one in a major category. Heath Ledger got an expected nod for best supporting actor on the first anniversary of his untimely death.

Besides Miss Winslet, the other best-actress nominees were Anne Hathaway for “Rachel Getting Married,” Angelina Jolie for “Changeling,” Meryl Streep for “Doubt,” and Melissa Leo for “Frozen River.”

The category might end up being the most controversial. “Changeling” was mostly panned by critics, while the snubbed “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “I’ve Loved You So Long” were almost universally praised, especially for the performances of their leads. “Happy’s” Sally Hawkins won the Golden Globe for best comedic actress and awards for best actress from both the New York and Los Angeles critics groups, while most critics considered “Loved” the best work of Kristin Scott Thomas’s career.

Besides Miss Jolie’s paramour Mr. Pitt, those in the running for best actor are Richard Jenkins for “The Visitor”; Frank Langella, who played the president in “Frost/Nixon”; Sean Penn for “Milk”; and a professionally resurrected Mickey Rourke for “The Wrestler.”

Joining Mr. Ledger in the supporting-actor category are Josh Brolin for “Milk,” Robert Downey Jr. for “Tropic Thunder,” Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Doubt” and Michael Shannon for “Revolutionary Road.”

“Revolutionary Road” did much better at the Globes; besides Miss Winslet’s win, it was nominated for best movie drama, and co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for best actor. Its only other Oscar nods are for art direction and costume design.

Some might say Mr. Hoffman is another case of a lead actor getting a supporting nomination - his film revolves around his priest character’s relationship with a student.

“Doubt” also has two actresses nominated for their supporting work, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Besides Miss Henson for “Button,” Globe winner Penelope Cruz for Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Marisa Tomei for “The Wrestler” were also recognized.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” did garner British director Mike Leigh a best original screenplay nomination, his sixth Oscar nod. Others in contention are Dustin Lance Black for “Milk”; Courtney Hunt for “Frozen River”; Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, already an Oscar winner for live action short, for “In Bruges”; and Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon for “WALL•E,” a film that features almost no dialogue in its first half.

Three playwrights join “Button’s” Mr. Roth in the adapted screenplay category. Peter Morgan and John Patrick Shanley adapted their own successful plays “Frost/Nixon” and “Doubt,” while David Hare adapted the novel “The Reader.” Simon Beaufoy also got a nod for “Slumdog Millionare,” based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup.

Another artist who some might say was robbed of a nomination was Bruce Springsteen. The singer won the Golden Globe for best original song for “The Wrestler,” written for the movie of the same title. He didn’t even get an Oscar nomination. Three best-song nominations, rather than the usual five, were announced: Peter Gabriel’s “Down to Earth” from “WALL•E,” and “Slumdog Millionaire’s” “Jai Ho,” by A.R. Rahman,” and “O … Saya” by M.I.A. and A.R. Rahman.

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