By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 22 -- It would be a pity if the Academy Awards show were spiked because of the writers' strike, because this might be the most wide-open contest in years.
With no big Hollywood blockbuster to squash the competition, the Oscar nominations went Tuesday to dark, unsentimental and often violent films and performances -- with the story of a drug deal gone horribly wrong ("No Country for Old Men") and the tale of a ruthless oilman ("There Will Be Blood") leading the field with eight Academy Award nods each, including Best Picture for each and acting bids for Javier Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis.
The other nominees for Best Picture are the legal thriller "Michael Clayton," the British love and war epic "Atonement" and the quirky comedy "Juno." With acting and directing nominations included, Oscar night might be a cliffhanger.
Now the question is whether the annual televised awards will be staged Feb. 24 as planned while Hollywood writers continue their months-long strike against the movie studios and TV networks.
While the five Best Picture contenders have performed respectably at the box office, none would be considered a big movie. The sweet, off-center comedy about a high school pregnancy, "Juno," which opened in early December, takes the top spot with $87 million. "There Will Be Blood," which opened over the winter holidays, has earned $8 million.
The Best Actor contenders are George Clooney for "Michael Clayton"; Daniel Day-Lewis for "There Will Be Blood"; Johnny Depp in the razor-sharp musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"; Viggo Mortensen as the chauffeur you don't want to mess with in "Eastern Promises"; and Tommy Lee Jones as a man searching for the truth about his soldier son for "In the Valley of Elah."
Best Actress nominees are Cate Blanchett, in a reprise of her regal roles in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; Julie Christie for "Away From Her"; Marion Cotillard as French singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose"; Laura Linney as a late-blooming sibling in "The Savages"; and Ellen Page as the tart-tongued scamp in "Juno."
Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, was counting himself a happy mogul for snapping up the rights to "La Vie en Rose" at last year's Cannes Film Festival, based on a 10-minute rough clip of Cotillard. "At the time I had no idea who she was, but she was amazing," Berney said of her portrayal of Piaf. "She reminds me of the physical transformation of Charlize Theron in "Monster," which won the South African an Oscar in 2004.
And as quickly as the contenders were announced Tuesday morning, there was the time-honored grousing about snubs, and the what were they thinking?!? Among the mostly unheralded: "The Great Debaters," "The Kite Runner," "American Gangster" and "Zodiac."
Oscar prognosticators appeared flummoxed by the nomination of Tommy Lee Jones for "In the Valley of Elah." Another surprise: just how strong "Juno" was, with a coveted directing nomination going to young Jason Reitman, whose first feature film was the 2005 "Thank You for Smoking." "Juno" also took a Best Original Screenplay chit for Diablo Cody, a former stripper.
Many handicappers expected "Atonement" to lose altitude, despite its Golden Globe win, because it has not been among the top picks of the screen actors, directors, writers and producers guilds. But there it was.
The nominees for Best Director are Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"; Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, "No Country for Old Men"; Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"; Reitman, "Juno"; and Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," about the editor of French Elle who suffers a stroke that leaves him with "locked-in syndrome," and no way to communicate (or write a book, as he did) except by blinking one eyelid.
Schnabel, an artist, said yesterday, "The response to the movie has been great, and having it nominated for four Oscars -- it's not a bad thing, either." Schnabel said the film has been showing at special screenings at hospitals and stroke centers, "and I think for the doctors and nurses, and for the patients, like it gives some hope."
Gilroy, director of "Michael Clayton," credited Clooney's support for making the film a reality. "Oh, man, so few things work out this way. It's a little overwhelming," he said. "I'm just trying to get my head back. I'm feeling completely inarticulate." Gilroy noted that all five films nominated for Best Picture are "very unsentimental, very sober" and made by directors who could control the final cut, as opposed to studio executives. "The film only exists because of George coming in and working for free" -- Clooney participates in profits after the film's release rather than taking a salary upfront. "He is the sun and soil for this film," Gilroy said.
Seamus McGarvey, nominated for cinematography for "Atonement," said he was pleased to be awoken by his wife with the good news, but was sad that his director, Joe Wright, wasn't included among Best Director nominees. "I share this with him," said McGarvey, who guessed that Oscar voters were impressed with his sweeping scenes of the British troops stranded at Dunkirk.
In the Best Animated Film category, there's a curious contest among "Ratatouille," about the rodent with culinary chops; "Surf's Up," a more traditional cartoon about a penguin surfing championship; and "Persepolis," based on the graphic novels of Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi about growing up during the Islamic revolution in Tehran.
Michael Giacchino, nominated for his "Ratatouille" score, said: "I remember when I finished this movie, I thought, when I'm hopefully a very old man, I will recall how much I loved this story. It was just a unique movie." Giacchino said he has creator Brad Bird to thank for letting him meld the soundscape that combines Latin, French and American jazz to accompany the rat's tale.
The nominees for Best Supporting Actress are Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"; Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"; Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"; Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"; and Blanchett, "I'm Not There." For those keeping score, Blanchett's double-barreled noms for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress are notable because she plays, respectively, a queen and Bob Dylan.
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor were Casey Affleck, who played the coward in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (and also stars in his brother Ben's movie "Gone, Baby, Gone"); Bardem, as the psycho killer with the pageboy hairdo in "No Country for Old Men"; Philip Seymour Hoffman as the maverick CIA operative in "Charlie Wilson's War"; Hal Holbrook, who at 82 is this year's most seasoned veteran, for "Into the Wild"; and Tom Wilkinson as the heavy in "Michael Clayton."
"Brilliant, isn't it?" said Wilkinson, reached by telephone in England shortly after learning of his nomination. We warned the English actor that all excerpts of his performance as the corporate murderer Arthur Edens in "Michael Clayton" will inevitably conclude with the line he delivers as part of a rant while in police custody. "I am Shiva, the god of death," Edens declares without a trace of irony or, apparently, sanity.
Where did that great line come from?
"If you remember, the line comes at the end of a very long monologue," he said. "The director, Tony Gilroy, said he wanted to shoot all of that speech, so I had to learn it all. . . . And by the end of the scene you just want to get it over with. You just think, 'It's the end of the scene, thank God.' There was a sense of relief."
Wilkinson recalled the character's state of mind: "For him, he's in a slightly euphoric mode. Somehow his mind has become detached from the conventional certainty of his life. He's undergone this kind of epiphany, where he sees the world in a different light, and instead of seeing himself as the hero of his own life, he suddenly sees himself as this death-dealing, diabolical agent, with such breathtaking clarity."
He hopes the Oscars will not be derailed by the writers' strike. "I would have thought they could all get their heads together and sort it out. The issues don't seem complicated. They just come to an agreement for everybody's sake, not just the Oscars but the fact that everybody wants to get to work, and do what they like doing."
Among the documentaries, Michael Moore's "Sicko," about the failures of the American health care system, grabbed a nomination, as did "War/Dance" from Washington filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, about three children in a displacement camp in war-torn Uganda who compete in the country's national music and dance festival.
"It's been a really long journey for us," Fine said. "We don't make films to win awards, but the recognition will help people to see it. With documentaries, it is a huge help to be nominated." Nix said they will phone the three Ugandan teens in the film, but they first have to call their translator in Africa and make sure they are all in a place with cellphone reception. Fine said they are especially proud to be Washington filmmakers, who are often overshadowed by documentarians working in New York and Los Angeles. "We have some really talented people working here," Fine said.
The other three documentaries tackle American warfare, including "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," about soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as told through their writing; "No End in Sight," about the Bush administration at war in Iraq; and and "Taxi to the Dark Side," about interrogation and torture at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
"I feel vindicated," said Alex Gibney, director of "Taxi to the Dark Side." "The subject matter is tough, but it's about the corruption of our American values." Gibney, whose father was an interrogator with the U.S. Navy during World War II, says his film investigation was fueled by a sense of outrage at what is being done in the fight against terrorists.
Staff writer Desson Thomson contributed to this report.