This year Oscar embraced diversity.
The big surprise in Tuesday’s roundup of nominees for the 79th Academy Awards was the exclusion of “Dreamgirls” from the best picture competition, despite leading the field with eight nominations. It’s the first time in Oscar history that the movie with the most nominations wasn’t a best picture contender.
But the big trends were globalization and diversity. Of the 20 acting nominees, five are black, two are Latina and one is Japanese. Among best-picture nominees, much of “Babel” is in Arabic, Berber, Spanish and Japanese, while “Letters from Iwo Jima” is almost entirely in Japanese.
Ageism and its partner, sexism, suffered a big blow: British Dames Judi Dench, 72 (“Notes on a Scandal”), and Helen Mirren, 61 (“The Queen”), were both cited in the best actress race – along with that Yankee grand dame Meryl Streep, 57, (“The Devil Wears Prada”) – thereby significantly exceeding the official career cutoff for Hollywood actresses. (What is it, 23?)
Four of the five best pictures nominees were expected. “Babel,” “The Departed,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Queen” all followed on the heels of the Golden Globes, and Producers or Directors Guild nominations.
The fifth? Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” a clear-eyed examination of World War II’s pivotal Pacific theater battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese defenders. It is director Eastwood’s fourth best picture nomination, and the first ever for a film by an American director that’s almost entirely in a foreign tongue. (Its English-language companion, “Flags of Our Fathers,” also directed by Eastwood, received two nominations in technical categories.)
It is most likely the grave and bloody “Iwo Jima” that bumped the ebullient, Motown-inspired musical “Dreamgirls” off the card. But “Dreamgirls” did well enough otherwise, leading all comers with nominations, and scoring two in the supporting actor ranks: for Jennifer Hudson, the “American Idol runner-up who pretty much steals the show, and Eddie Murphy, who brings pathos and serious vocalizing to the role of a soul-revue veteran.
In fact, this year’s Oscars represent something of a watershed moment for people of color, a veritable field day for diversity and internationalism. Along with Hudson and Murphy, best-actor nods went to Will Smith, for his turn as a struggling single dad in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and Forest Whitaker, for his portrait of the deranged Ugandan despot Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” It is the second time in Oscar history that two blacks are among the five best-actor nominees. Smith and Denzel Washington were nominees in 2002, for “Ali” and “Training Day,” respectively.
And Djimon Hounsou (pronounced JIE-mon AHN-sue), the Benin-born, one-time model, joined the supporting-actor crowd for his work as a displaced African searching for his wife and children in “Blood Diamond.” The film, a geopolitical thriller, has made a disappointing $51 million at the U.S. box office, but it fared terrifically Tuesday, nabbing five nominations, including one for Leonardo DiCaprio as best actor.
Along with a record-tying showing for black actors (five in 2004), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledged the increasing prominence of Spanish-speaking films and filmmakers. The Madrid-born Penelope Cruz took a best actress nomination for her performance as the widowed mother in Pedro Almodovar’s femme-centric “Volver,” while Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” – a globe-hopping saga of disconnection and xenophobia tinged with hope – collected seven nominations, including the coveted (and potentially lucrative) best picture. Adriana Barraza, who plays a Mexican nanny in the film, was recognized in the supporting actress ranks. (However, Brad Pitt, predicted by many to win a supporting nom for “Babel,” did not.)
Inarritu’s fellow Mexican directors and close pals, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, also had much to celebrate. Cuaron’s brilliant near-future allegory, “Children of Men,” collected three nominations, including best adapted screenplay, from a novel by P.D. James. And del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, picked up six nominations, including one for best foreign-language film. The other foreign-language nominees: “After the Wedding” (from Denmark), “Days of Glory” (in French, from Algeria), “The Lives of Others” (Germany) and “Water” (in Hindi, from Canada).
Japanese pop star Rinko Kikuchi was also among the supporting actress candidates, for her work as a deaf, distressed Tokyo teen in “Babel.”
The animated hits “Cars” (talking automobiles), “Happy Feet” (talking penguins) and “Monster House” (talking domiciles) will vie for animated feature.
The 79th annual Academy Awards ceremony, hosted this year by Ellen DeGeneres, is set to take place Feb. 25, in Hollywood, and will be televised live on ABC.
And now, some predictions:
Esteemed Brit Peter O’Toole received his eighth career nomination – for best actor for the bittersweet “Venus.” Although the 74-year-old star was bestowed an honorary Oscar in 2003, he has never won a real, voted-by-his-peers one, and his poignant turn as an septagenarian thespian in “Venus” makes him the sentimental fave.
Also well overdue for a little gold man is Martin Scorsese, whose “The Departed” nabbed five nominations, among them best picture and best supporting actor for Mark Wahlberg. Scorsese, one of the most revered and influential filmmakers alive, has been nominated five times previously for best director, but has always come away empty handed. Can that happen again?
And yo, Oscar: Whatever happened to Rocky Balboa? You liked him in 1976, but not so much now?
Steven Rea: sreaphillynews.com
(c) 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
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This year Oscar embraced diversity.