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Academy confounds conventional wisdom

Everyone knows what those predictable Oscar voters are sure to nominate -- until the ballots are tallied and unpredictability rules the day.

January 24, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

MONTHS before pundits and prognosticators try to predict what Oscar voters will do, the people in the movie business engage in the same game. Studio executives attempt to figure out the value of what they have and how to maximize a given film's Academy Award potential. But the 2007 nominations demonstrate how exceedingly difficult that is to do. Once motion pictures hit the screen and the Hollywood community reacts, all bets are off.

Look at the two films Clint Eastwood directed about the pivotal World War II battle on the island of Iwo Jima. "Flags of Our Fathers" was clearly supposed to be the Oscar contender of the bunch: It had much the bigger budget and stars, it focused on American soldiers and it was, obviously, in English.

But when the academy cast its votes, it was the smaller, Japanese-language "Letters From Iwo Jima," a film that began as something of an afterthought, that got the big nominations for best picture and director.

Similarly, the musical "Dreamgirls" was supposed to be not only a sure nominee but a front-runner for the best picture Oscar. But though it received eight nominations, more than any other film, it did not get one of the five best picture slots.

That absence bespeaks less disrespect for "Dreamgirls" than an academy passion for the other, more unlikely films on the list. Those specific passions were strengthened by the fact that, like "Iwo Jima," almost none of the films (the self-consciously arty "Babel" being the exception) was envisioned as a best picture contender when it entered the marketplace.

Take "The Departed." After years of futilely chasing an Academy Award with unwieldy epics like "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator," director Martin Scorsese was supposed to be taking an Oscar breather. A remake of a terrific Hong Kong genre film, "The Departed" was conceived of as more of a box-office venture than an awards candidate. It turned out to be both.

And though everyone knew as soon as it came out that "The Queen" would earn a best actress nomination for Helen Mirren, no one initially saw it as a best picture nominee. But as the fall awards season lengthened and more ballyhooed films disappointed in one way or another, "The Queen's" quiet but unmistakable virtues looked more and more appealing.

A similar dynamic was in play with "Little Miss Sunshine." Not only did no one so much as dream of it as a best picture nominee when it debuted at Sundance, people even thought Fox Searchlight had overpaid at a festival record $10 million-plus.

But smart comedies are increasingly hard to come by, and even though the academy often shuns this genre in the best picture category, even though Michael Arndt's deft script was so idiosyncratic it had taken years to get to the screen, the film's comic accomplishments looked better and better as the year wore on. At this point in time, $10 million for a film with four major Oscar nominations looks like one of the biggest bargains in recent Hollywood history.

This going against conventional wisdom extended beyond the best picture category. In terms of competing films about the events of Sept. 11, the conventional "World Trade Center," with its recognizable faces and uplifting scenario, seemed to have the academy's name written on it in capital letters. But the Oliver Stone film was shut out, and the British-made "United 93," difficult to sit through and cast entirely with unknown faces, walked off with director and editing nods.

Similarly, when Meryl Streep took the title role in "The Devil Wears Prada," it was considered one of her periodic commercial comedy parts, not her potential 14th acting nomination, which is what it turned out to be. Guillermo del Toro's tour de force "Pan's Labyrinth" would seem on the face of it to be too much for academy tastes, but it got six nominations.

And when Pedro Almodovar's moving "Volver" debuted at Cannes, you would have been institutionalized if you predicted a scenario in which star Penelope Cruz would have been nominated for best actress and the film itself would not be one of the five foreign-language film finalists. But that is what came to pass.

The academy is known to dislike many things, including overly controversial films and excessive campaigning, but being pigeonholed is apparently what it dislikes most of all.

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