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Let the Battle Begin

'Gladiator,' 'Tiger' square off with the most nods, joining three other films in the fight for best picture.


Two sweeping epics set in foreign lands and ancient times captured the lion's share of Academy Award nominations Tuesday as the 73rd annual Oscar race officially got underway.

"Gladiator," which re-created the spectacle and opulence of the Roman Empire through cutting-edge computer wizardry but never lost sight of its character-driven plot, scored 12 nominations--including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay--to lead the competition.

But what had Hollywood really buzzing were the 10 nominations for Ang Lee's balletic martial-arts fantasy "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," whose characters soar across roofs and through treetops in astonishing choreography. The Mandarin-language film received the most nominations of any foreign-language film in academy history, picking up nominations in both the best picture and foreign-language categories as well for director. It is only the seventh foreign-language film ever nominated for best picture.

Rounding out the competition were Lasse Hallstrom's "Chocolat," a whimsical tale of a mysterious woman who changes the lives of a conservative French village; Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich," a David-versus-Goliath drama about a single mom who battles a corporate polluter and wins; and Soderbergh's "Traffic," a stylistically ambitious and densely plotted thriller that probes America's frustrating war against drugs.

For the first time in more than six decades, one director received dual nominations. In a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Michael Curtiz was nominated for 1938's "Angels With Dirty Faces" and "Four Daughters," Soderbergh was nominated for directing "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic."

In addition to competing with himself, Soderbergh is also up against British stage director and Oscar dark horse Stephen Daldry for "Billy Elliot," Ridley Scott for "Gladiator" and Ang Lee for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

The Academy Awards will be handed out March 25 in a three-hour-plus ceremony that will be emceed by actor-comedian Steve Martin and televised from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

In the battle for best actor and actress, the 10 performers range from box-office superstars to virtual unknowns.

Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks makes his fifth appearance in this category as a Federal Express efficiency expert stranded on a desert island with only a volleyball named Wilson as his companion in "Cast Away." For the role, Hanks lost more than 50 pounds and grew a Robinson Crusoe-like beard.

Also nominated were Spanish actor Javier Bardem as Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls," Russell Crowe as a courageous Roman general-turned-slave in "Gladiator," Ed Harris as American painter Jackson Pollock in "Pollock" and Geoffrey Rush as tortured writer the Marquis de Sade in "Quills."

Julia Roberts, whose smile has made her arguably the most popular actress in movies today and a box-office tour de force, was nominated for best actress in "Erin Brockovich." With her miniskirts, exaggerated cleavage and tart tongue, Roberts embodied the real-life legal researcher who took on the giant California utility Pacific Gas & Electric, which was accused of polluting the water supply of a small town.

Although Roberts enters the race as the favorite, the best actress category has a formidable lineup that includes Joan Allen as a vice presidential nominee with a secret past in "The Contender," Juliette Binoche as a magical shopkeeper in "Chocolat," former Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn as a diet-pill addict in "Requiem for a Dream" and Laura Linney as a single mom attempting to help her troubled younger brother in "You Can Count on Me."

For most actors, nomination day set off a flurry of phone calls as word quickly flashed around the globe that their performances and pictures were up for Oscars.

Allen, reached in New York, explained that her role in "The Contender" was written for her by director Rod Lurie. "He created a character that had a lot of integrity and a lot of commitment to her beliefs," the actress said. "That really appealed to me a lot."

Also learning of her nomination in New York was Linney, who received a call from her friend, actress Gena Rowlands. "We all sort of screamed together," said Linney, who received her first Oscar nomination.

Binoche, when reached in London, said she was both surprised and relieved.

"I think there was a little expectation around me, and I didn't want to disappoint everyone," said Binoche, whose performance in the 1996 film "The English Patient" won her a supporting actress statuette.

Bardem, a virtual unknown in America although a major star in Spain, said he was watching television in Madrid in the afternoon wondering when the phone calls would start.

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