washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Movies > Features

'The Aviator' Soars to the Top of Oscar's List

Smaller Films, Minority Actors Also Take Wing in Academy Award Nominations

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page A01

A sweeping big-budget epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio picked up 11 Academy Award nominations yesterday, but more revealing than "The Aviator's" feat is that Oscar nods were spread among a dozen intimate, mature, slightly offbeat films. The awards also recognized diversity, with five of the 20 acting nominations going to black performers and another to a Colombian newcomer.

Last year, blockbuster hobbits and Master Commanders and foppy pirates took the top nominations. This year, the 5,800 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose differently for Best Picture, Best Directing and the acting categories. They downsized.

Kate Winslet, with Jim Carrey in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," is among the nominees for Best Actress. (David Lee -- AP)

"I think they picked movies that were made on a more human scale," said Mike Leigh, director of "Vera Drake." Leigh was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, and a Best Actress nomination went to Imelda Staunton, the seasoned British thespian who plays a well-meaning housewife performing illegal abortions in 1950s England.

"You know, the Academy is filled with actors, cinematographers, makeup people, directors, costumers, and they know quality," said Taylor Hackford, nominated for Best Director for "Ray." "But they're stuck with the films made that year. If the big studio blockbusters are quality, they go with them. When they aren't there, they look at the smaller, handmade films."

"Ray" star Jamie Foxx became the 10th actor -- and only the third man -- to be nominated in both acting categories in the same year: Best Actor for the Ray Charles biopic, and Best Supporting Actor for "Collateral."

"Jamie totally deserves this and I am not surprised," Hackford said. "He's serving notice. He's done good work before but nothing of this size and scope."

Foxx will compete against Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda") for Best Actor and Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby") for Best Supporting Actor at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 27. Cheadle's "Hotel Rwanda" co-star, Sophie Okonedo, also received a supporting actress nod. All are black.

The most black actors previously nominated in a single year by the academy was three -- that includes the 2001 Oscars, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won.

Longtime Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy said the issue behind their selection was talent, not race. "With 'Ray' you couldn't make it with a white guy as Ray Charles, and the same with 'Hotel Rwanda,' but these were terrific performances," he said.

Stephanie Allain, a former studio executive at Columbia Pictures known for bringing in minority talent, said, "It's a reflection of the diversity of films being made. And it shows that black actors are just as good as anybody else -- when we're not marginalized."

Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays a young woman trafficking cocaine in "Maria Full of Grace," was nominated for Best Actress.

Along with "The Aviator," the Best Picture contenders are the gritty "Ray," with its scenes of the beloved Charles shooting up heroin; "Finding Neverland," the gentle story of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan; "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood's surrogate father-daughter boxing film; and "Sideways," about an odd couple of middle-age losers looking for love and a toothsome pinot noir in the vineyards of Santa Barbara County.

"Paul called me this morning and said, 'Can you believe that a couple of knuckleheads like us, driving around the wineries, that it would ever result in something like this?' " said Thomas Haden Church, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the has-been actor Jack in "Sideways," though his pal Paul Giamatti missed out on a Best Actor perch.

"But I did think we were doing something special," said Church, speaking from his ranch in Central Texas. "I knew we were connecting in a very life-reflected way. It was a small film, subtle, but unique."

"Sideways" also won nominations for its director, Alexander Payne, supporting actress Virginia Madsen and for its screenplay, by Payne and Jim Taylor.

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" garnered zilch, as the filmmaker had taken his movie out of the documentary competition and wanted to see it among the Best Picture contenders. That didn't happen.

The other cultural flashpoint of 2004, Mel Gibson's blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," was given three down-ticket nominations -- for cinematography, makeup (really realistic blood) and original score for composer John Debney.

"I'm on cloud nine. I'm really humbled," said Debney, whose score used the erhu, an ancient two-string Chinese violin, during Jesus's temptation by Satan. "The subject matter was so powerful. You had these wonderfully uplifting moments, you marvel at them, and at other points, you're just in tears."

There were no real shockers among the Academy Award nominations (which generally tracked the critics' lists), but there were still a few wee little surprises.

Clint Eastwood was not only nominated for Best Director for "Million Dollar Baby" (as expected), but for Best Actor for his role as the grizzled boxing coach (not as expected). Eastwood may have nudged Giamatti, a favorite among the Oscar handicappers, off the list.

Alan Alda slipped in for Best Supporting Actor for his sleazy senator in "The Aviator." The Academy loves second acts.

Among the leading ladies, the 77th Academy Awards will see a rematch -- if that's the right word for competitors in couture -- between Annette Bening and Hilary Swank. In 1999, the two actresses faced off and Swank (a real surprise) won for "Boys Don't Cry" against Bening in "American Beauty."

This year, Bening is nominated for her 1930s-era diva in "Being Julia" and Swank for her country boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." Both actresses won Golden Globes for the roles last month, Swank for best dramatic actress, Bening for actress in a musical or comedy.

Darrell James Roodt's "Yesterday" was nominated for Best Foreign Film. Reached on his cell phone in Johannesburg, Roodt said, "It's just a rush," and explained that films about South Africa and AIDS -- "that's a tough sell." The movie follows the struggles of an ordinary woman with the disease -- "really, a woman in a hut and her really, really difficult and inspired story," Roodt said. The film was funded in part by the Nelson Mandela Foundation (Mandela's son recently died of AIDS), and the group has been screening it in rural villages, urban slums and mining towns in an attempt to stem the deadly toll of the disease in South Africa, where one in three adults is infected with HIV.

Another movie import, "House of Flying Daggers," which was on many critics' shortlist for Best Picture, received only a nomination for cinematography.

With Michael Moore out of the way, the documentary nominees included Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me," about his 30 days of surviving (barely) on nothing but McDonald's sugar, fat and starch; "Born Into Brothels"; "The Story of the Weeping Camel"; "Tupac: Resurrection" and "Twist of Faith."

In the category of Best Animated Film, it was "The Incredibles," "Shrek 2" and "Shark Tale." Notable by its absence: "The Polar Express."

At the end of the day, though, "The Aviator" will be the film to beat. It is a movie about the movies, as it takes place in Howard Hughes's Hollywood days. DiCaprio plays a grown-up. Cate Blanchett shows her chops playing Katharine Hepburn. And its fabled director, Martin Scorsese, has never won an Academy Award.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company