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'The Reader' is no overnight success

The holocaust drama had a turbulent time coming to the screen, but it pays off with five nominations including best picture.

January 23, 2009|Rachel Abramowitz and John Horn

Holocaust movies are not usually associated with happy endings, but for "The Reader," Thursday's Oscar nominations brought an unexpected abundance of glory.

The film -- about a young German who has a passionate affair with an older woman only to witness, years later, that the object of his desire is on trial for war crimes -- emerged as the day's surprise contender, landing four nominations for all of the key people involved (director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter David Hare, cinematographers Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, star Kate Winslet) as well as a best picture nomination.

It was a sweet denouement for a film that has had an unusually turbulent path to the screen. Based on Bernhard Schlink's bestselling novel, "The Reader" has been some 12 years in the making. Not only did the original star, Nicole Kidman, drop out when she became pregnant, but also the producers who nurtured the project through the years -- Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack -- died during production.

Veteran producer Scott Rudin ended up coming on to produce the film but wound up taking his name off it late in the game, after he battled -- unsuccessfully -- with Weinstein Co. honcho Harvey Weinstein over the film's early December release date.

Daldry halted production to allow costar David Kross to turn 18 before doing his sex scenes with Winslet. And while he was editing "The Reader," Daldry was in the middle of mounting Broadway's "Billy Elliot: The Musical."

"There were a number of challenges we faced," Daldry said. "But it was one of the best experiences of my working life."

Weinstein said he was moved to tears when he heard of the film's nominations.

"It feels good," said Weinstein, whose insistence on releasing it in late 2008 to qualify for award season (Rudin pushed for it to come out this year) appears to have proved prescient. "But more important, what I really think is vindicated is Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack's vision."

This batch of Oscar nominations also represents a comeback of sorts for Weinstein, the former Oscar grand pooh-bah who's been largely MIA from the Oscar derby ever since he left his perch at Miramax Films in 2005.

While hundreds of films have been made about the Holocaust, "The Reader" is one of the few that examines the genocide from the point of view of Germany.

"We lost the two producers who were running the show, and suddenly we were having very difficult conflicts between two very large personalities," screenwriter Hare said of the flap between Rudin and Weinstein. "But I have to say that five Oscar nominations, including best picture, is especially sweet for us, because we did go through an awful lot."

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rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com

john.horn@latimes.com

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latimes.com/envelope

Our panel of Oscarologists -- Tom O'Neil, Pete Hammond and Scott Feinberg -- pores over this year's crop of Oscar hopefuls. Plus, read the nominees' reactions in a photo gallery.

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