With one scandalous exception, the announcement of the Academy Award nominations yesterday morning went down more or less as expected: A 5 a.m. press conference in Beverly Hills, surely more ceremonious than it needed to be, and a crowd of reporters checking off one industry-peddled nominee after another.

Trevor Campbell
Actress Salma Hayek and Academy President Sid Ganis announce the best picture nominations yesterday. What is missing from this picture? (AP PHOTO)

There were, of course, the welcome surprises. Paul Greengrass’s nod for best director is an uncommon show of faith for a film (“United 93”) released too early and shunned by most of the nation. The best actress race, which includes Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz and Judi Dench, is finally the strongest of the acting races (though it was decided about three months ago). Even Mark Wahlberg’s peripheral supporting role in “The Departed” was recognized.

Most of the omissions were either expected (Sacha Baron Cohen is no Johnny Depp, and the Oscars are no Golden Globes) or marginal (the screenplay for “Stranger Than Fiction” never really capitalized on its ideas anyway), but there was one snub that pulverized the others.

Standing before a brightly lit stage and five large monitors, the radiant actress Salma Hayek and Academy President Sid Ganis read off the best picture nominees. When they were finished, they had not read the title “Dreamgirls,” and so no one budged. Clearly there was some mistake.

But there wasn’t. Never mind its eight nominations: “Dreamgirls” is no longer in the running for best picture, a shocking end to a ubiquitous awards campaign that launched way back in May at Cannes. Its eight nominations were the most of any movie this year, giving it the distinction of being the only film in recent history to have earned the most nominations but not one for best picture. (To be sure, its winning tally is partially inflated by its three nods for best song alone; “Babel,” the second most-nominated movie, was close behind with seven.)

Up until yesterday considered the front runner for the top award, the omission of “Dreamgirls” is likely either a manifestation of the worst backlash in years or the belief of many members that the film was a shoo-in no matter their vote. That the Academy’s majority is made up of white males surely didn’t work in its favor, either. The film’s absence is not really a surprise because the movie is so well-regarded – it has been received mildly for a film of such enormous anticipation – but because its snub totally blind-sided expectations. There was talk that “Little Miss Sunshine” may not have had as tight a grasp on its nomination as some had speculated, but no one saw this coming.

Beyond the repercussions the snub may have on how Academy members vote in the future, it also has the more immediate one of leaving the year’s best picture race wide open. “Babel” has its detractors, but its admirers have been much more vocal, and it took the top award for drama at the Golden Globes. Oh, and it co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. But with its likeness to “Crash” in both form and thematic undercurrent, it seems an unlikely choice to follow that film’s surprise award last year.

You also can’t count out “Little Miss Sunshine,” which recently took the Producers Guild of America’s top award, a distinction that has matched up with the Academy’s best picture 11 of the past 17 years. The film is so universally well-liked when even the most ardent supporters of “Babel” will cede its flaws that it has the potential to go under the radar and come out on top.

But assuming “The Departed” and “The Queen” are purely prestige nods – which suddenly doesn’t seem so easy anymore – I would watch “Letters From Iwo Jima,” director Clint Eastwood’s newest masterpiece of mood and restraint (his third in as many years). Yes, it’s almost entirely in Japanese, and two months ago it wasn’t even going to be released this year. But it is in many ways the textbook choice: a famous backdrop, a quintessentially American filmmaker at the top of his game, scenes of stunning emotional power (the suicide sequence alone put the rest of the nominees to shame). This is the makeup of a classic best picture.

Of course, considering that a day ago its nomination was considered a long shot, it’s anyone’s game. (In fact, in its cover of the nominations, The Associated Press mentioned every film but “Iwo Jima” as a possible contender.)

Isn’t this fun? I hope so, because this race is about nothing if not blind speculation, and there’s still a month to go. The 79th Annual Academy Awards, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, is set to air Feb. 25 on ABC.

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